Sunday, May 22, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
When I checked in with a key legislative player Friday, the message was simple: “Hope is still alive in Carson City.”
Considering the capital this time of year is a place where hope goes to die, I was surprised and encouraged. But not yet hopeful.
It is difficult to gauge just how awful the biennial train wreck will be because it is also a given that nothing anyone says publicly should be taken at face value. Two weeks before adjournment, lawmakers will say one thing to us media jackals and another thing in the backroom. I don’t believe anything anyone says until the gavel comes down.
But here’s what I know:
If there is going to be a deal on taxes to restore essential services, it has to be consummated by the end of the week to give lawmakers enough time before June 6 to pass it, have it vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval and then override him. Is that deal still possible? Yes, but only for the $600 million that could restore funding if sunsets affixed to sales and business taxes are lifted.
Despite some public pronouncements, negotiations are continuing, including this weekend among Assembly leaders.
Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea is one of those rock-solid rural guys (Eureka) who understands that the screechers on the right and left are to be ignored and that in the Legislative Building, where deceit and truth-shading are too often the currency, a man’s word still has lasting value.
Goicoechea committed to Speaker John Oceguera and others that if certain reforms were passed, he would bring a majority of his 16-member caucus to bear to vote for lifting the sunsets. I believe he meant it, and I think Oceguera believed he meant it.
Democrats have had to ratchet back their goals because of the lateness of the session — not even the most optimistic of them think there are enough votes to pass newly proposed margin and transaction taxes. Those were, as gubernatorial aide Dale Erquiaga succinctly put it, “dead on arrival.”
But lifting the sunsets would be in play if the Democrats would give a little. Publicly, they seem unwilling — witness their stubborn adherence again last week in a teacher tenure bill to language negating the legislation if it is “superseded by a collective-bargaining agreement.”
Message: “We will write bills that our union friends don’t like, but we will make sure they have veto power through the collective-bargaining process.”
This is not reform Republicans can believe in. Or maybe it’s simply a bargaining chip.
Sources also confirm that the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has been having parallel talks with labor folks and local government representatives to try to move the ball on public benefit reforms. “I understand discussions have gone well and just getting all those folks together to understand the substance of all sides helps,” one insider told me.
Even if the Assembly leaders can check all the reform boxes — I put the odds at 40-60 at best — that still leaves the Senate, where the bargaining is more problematic. When I heard Friday that state Sen. Joe Hardy said his bill-to-die-for — involving a toll road bypass for Boulder City — was dead, I wondered if Oceguera and Goicoechea were wasting their time
Hardy, no matter what he has said publicly, surely would vote for lifting the sunsets if the Democrats threw him a bone — or a toll road. (Late Friday, the bill was resurrected, keeping hope alive.)
So, too, despite their public declarations of Sandovallove, would Ben Kieckhefer and Dean Rhoads vote for lifting the sunsets if, as the former put it, the price were right. But tempus fugit.
Not surprisingly, Goicoechea, as he put it, is fearful the Senate will “back up over us.” That is, he will make a hard deal, make a harder vote for taxes and then hang his caucus out to dry if three Senate Republicans don’t come along.
I still think Oceguera will push as far as he can, but would go home June 6 without a deal — if most of his caucus agrees — and hope Sandoval wears the backlash.
Not sure that is so in the Senate, where a more fiery and confrontational Majority Leader Steven Horsford has indicated he would stay all summer. That may play to the base, but the governor won’t let that happen, putting in stopgap funding mechanisms.
The plain fact is Sandoval has much — or nearly all — of the power. So if there is no deal at the end of this week, there won’t be one by June 6, or July 6, or Aug. 6.
It will be time to go home, waving a white flag and hoping Sandoval has the black cloud. And hope will, officially, be dead.