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February 26, 2015

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Jon Ralston: Legislators compromise, but future not bright

Optimism, Gov. Sunny told us on the eve of Session ’11, is the foundation of courage.

I still don’t know what that means, but I know this: The resolution of the 76th Legislature sprung not from bravery but from fear. Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Gang of 63 were afraid of the impact of a stunning state Supreme Court decision, which catalyzed a collegiality and collaboration not seen in this all-too partisan place since the time of legendary leaders Joe Dini and Bill Raggio.

I do not discount that faced with a reality — or at least a perceived reality — imposed by the high court that every leader in this city rose to the occasion. An inflexible governor became malleable. A flame-throwing Senate majority leader turned off the blowtorch. A speaker resolved to go home without additional money engaged in fruitful negotiations. And the two Republican minority leaders released the pressure on their caucuses not to vote for extending taxes and managed to achieve some reforms they sought all session.

But all of this was a result of a startling judicial intervention, and we will never know if such compromise would have been in the air if it were still polluted by the toxic fumes of partisanship that pervaded the Legislative Building most of the session.

When all of the posturing and bragging concludes this weekend and lawmakers go home, we will be left with mind-numbing post-mortems about the Could Have Been Worse budget and the supposed betrayal of principles by Sandoval and Republicans who supported a tax compromise. And a look ahead shows many dark clouds on the horizon that Gov. Sunny cannot obliterate, as the impact of term limits and legislator ambition, along with a repeat of the serial failure to address the tax structure or infuse enough money into the system, give little reason for optimism.

It is facile to conclude that the Democrats won because they secured $620 million in additional taxes and had to give up very little. But there is more to it than that: A Democratically controlled Legislature snubbing the teachers union and other labor groups to pass education and collective bargaining reform? Unprecedented.

But let’s not go too far: The reforms are incremental and not necessarily game changing. They are a start. But lawmakers are still reforming a system that is so poorly funded that Clark County may have to lay off 1,000 teachers and increase class sizes while social service agencies will still have to turn away too many in need.

Democrats only were able to pass half of the additional revenue they wanted. Their plan to broaden the tax base, as thoughtful as it is, was quickly entombed because of their foolish delay in introducing it. And so the problem that has existed for decades remains: A tax structure built on a singularly narrow base, more prone to peaks and valleys and always hit harder during economic downturns.

So now what?

The worst of all possible solutions: An attempt to put the tax plan on the ballot, with major industries who want to broaden the base willing to spend millions to sell it and others surely salivating at funding the other, sound-bite (“no new taxes”) side. And so we will have a 2012 conflagration, with voters buffeted with an expensive, demagogic campaign.

Lawmakers who botched the management of their tax plan now want to abdicate their responsibility and ignore the very underpinnings of a republic — representative government. Why not put every tough issue on the ballot and let the people decide?

This is a collective failure, again because of fear. Fear of the no-new-tax crowd, a vocal minority that all polling indicates does not represent the majority of Nevadans.

Making this situation worse is that the 77th session will convene without seasoned lawmakers, continuing the decimation term limits have wrought. Three leaders of the 2011 session are likely to be gone in 2013 because of term limits (Speaker John Oceguera, Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness) or ambition (Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford). Only Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, the Eurekan who radiates common sense, is likely to remain — and he might face a challenge from the South.

There are some superb legislators who could ascend — Assemblywomen Debbie Smith and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, for instance. But this pattern is growing all too familiar — a fundamentally broken process that does not promote deliberation by an increasingly green crop of lawmakers who have increasingly difficult issues to decide.

I’d like to be optimistic that this will change. But with talk of abdicating responsibility to go directly to the ballot on the most pressing question for this state and with term limits shredding the legislative ranks, I fear the bipartisanship and cooperation were an aberration and, alas, not a harbinger.

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  1. First of all, with a 2 party system, do we REALLY have a "representive government"?

    Sad as it seems about the newly enacted term limits, the whole idea of term limits would never come into play IF those LAWMAKERS who held office for decades were not "kicking the political can down the road," session after session for DECADES!!!

    So now these new, "green behind the ears" newly elected LAWMAKERS had best be QUALIFIED, KNOWLEDGEABLE, and READY to do the job IF and WHEN they are ELECTED! Call this the "learning curve" of the voting public growing up, learning government 101, and becoming real citizens doing their civic duty knowing WHO to vote for and be knowledgeable with the issues themselves. Imagine that! And we'll need people like you, Jon, and Greenspun, Nevada Week in Review, etc. to educate the public further of issues and events.WOW!

    "And so the problem that has existed for decades remains: A tax structure built on a singularly narrow base, more prone to peaks and valleys and always hit harder during economic downturns."(Jon Ralston)
    This session, in part due to an economy in crisis across our nation, state, and county, and due to the MINING INDUSTRY having originally a hand writing in the Nevada State Constitution tax breaks for themselves over 100 years ago, and every NEVADA STATE LEGISLATIVE SESSION SINCE has NOT touched the sacred cow of mining to amend or change laws to reflect modern times and the needs of the People of the State of Nevada, due to LAWMAKERS who were "beholden to MINING" one way or another for support for campaigns, political agendas, etc., MINING continued and continues to pay the same pittance in revenue to the STATE!

    This is CRAZY! Citizens have been asleep and not cared! Now, citizens need to care, for their survival and the State of Nevada's survival! MINING, GAMING/Casino, and the Big Box Stores all need addressing in the ways that they are being TAXED or GIVEN EXEMPTIONS.

    They have hauled out PROFITS and not even paid an average of what they pay in the other 49 states!!!!

    Only the LAWMAKERS and Governor can change the Nevada Constitution and this situation! IF they don't, then the good Citizens of Nevada WILL put it to a VOTE!

  2. The mines, Casinos, Porchers, poachers, T-Party types and No New Taxers have decided there are too many people in this State and have no need for additional residents. The current emphasis is to shrink the State and keep it a tourist center as the number of tourists also shrink. Shrink to fit, drip dry french fries and a slot machine in every counter.