Conservative caucus, GOP minority fight to get their views heard in special session

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By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau

CARSON CITY–Assembly Republicans, who haven’t had a majority presence in the Legislature in 25 years, are working with their Senate colleagues in the special session in an effort to get their views heard on how to solve a $900 million budget shortfall.

Senate Republicans, who are in the minority themselves in the upper house for the first time since 1991, nevertheless have some leverage in the budget debate.

The GOP caucus in the Assembly stands at 14 members, one shy of the number needed to block a two-thirds vote on fee or tax increases. Fee increases are very much a part of the discussion of how to balance the budget.

Senate Democrats, however, have only 12 of the 14 votes they need to approve such measures. So Republican support is essential if a tax or fee increase is to be part of the budget solution.

A two-thirds vote is also required to override a veto. Gov. Jim Gibbons has threatened to use his veto authority if a measure comes to him that does not fit in with his views on such revenue enhancements. Gibbons had indicated he will only support such increases if the affected industries agree to the levy.

A new wrinkle for the 23 GOP lawmakers in the two houses, however, as the special session moves through its second day, is a subset of Republicans who want to bring their own plan forward on how to balance the budget, a plan that would not rely on fees or taxes but cuts.

The effort is a work in progress.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said her caucus recognizes the number disadvantage and the need to work with Senate Republicans to gain leverage.

“Pete Goichoechea (R-Eureka) and I attend quite a few leadership meetings to make sure our voices are heard,” she said. “We’re very focused on cuts right now. There are a lot of pieces that seem to be coming together. We’re really trying to figure out what the whole package is.

“We have not come to any consensus, particularly on the new fee and revenue items in the budget,” Gansert said.

Gansert said the caucus is interested in taking a look at Nevada’s collective bargaining law to see if it can at least be altered to require public employee contract negotiations to be subjected to the state Open Meeting Law. The process involves taxpayer money and the public should be involved in the process, she said.

Gibbons, who saw a couple of his budget-balancing proposals fall by the wayside today, amended the proclamation calling the Legislature into special session to consider Nevada’s collective bargaining law, among several other items.

Gibbons’ proposal to raise $50 million by revising the mining tax deduction, and a plan to use traffic cameras to catch uninsured motorists that reportedly would have raised $30 million, were both rejected by lawmakers.

Both these issues were problematic for some in the GOP caucus, so seeing them taken off the table simplifies the ideological concerns, at least for the time being. Their elimination also creates an $80 million gap in the budget plan, however.

Gansert said she retains strong support in the caucus for her service as minority leader, despite a comment by Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, that Gansert is too willing to compromise with Democrats. Hambrick’s comment was reported in the Reno Gazette-Journal on Tuesday.

Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said his caucus is benefiting from a national shift to the right in the political climate.

“So the pendulum swings, and just because you are low today doesn’t mean you won’t be high tomorrow,” he said.

The last time Republicans had a strong presence in the lower house was in 1995, when there was a 21-21 split requiring a power-sharing arrangement. Lynn Hettrick, now a deputy chief of staff to Gibbons, was GOP co-speaker in that session.

In a twist of political irony, Hettrick’s present-day successor, Gansert, has contributed to a rift in GOP leadership by joining Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio in endorsing Brian Sandoval over Gibbons in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

A source on the Gibbons’ campaign team acknowledged that Gansert and Raggio’s support of the governor’s opponent along with Raggio’s recent support of Sandoval’s proposal to sell and lease back state buildings in order to generate revenue–a plan the Governor strongly opposes–has infuriated Gibbons and contributed to the recent war of words between the governor’s office and Raggio as budget talks have progressed.

Despite the contentious tone between the governor’s office and Republican legislative leadership and the numbers disadvantage, Assembly Republicans are trying to remain involved, Hardy said. “We still get to ask questions. We still have a voice.”

Hardy said the Senate GOP caucus has been willing to listen to Assembly Republicans, but he acknowledges there are no easy answers to the current fiscal crisis.

“It’s not so much good ideas right now (but) which is the least of the worst ideas,” he said.

Hardy praised Gansert’s leadership, calling her performance “excellent.”

While there is a view by many Republicans that the current budget problems should not be solved through the imposition of new fees and taxes, Hardy said his own position is to accept such solutions if they are acceptable to the affected industries or interest groups.

Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said the Assembly caucus has been encouraged to participate in the leadership discussions on how to solve the budget gap.

Senate Republicans, because of the two-thirds vote requirement for tax and fee measures, retains some level of power in the discussion, he said. The Assembly has not had that luxury.

“I told them just because you don’t have the numbers doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution,” Townsend said. “But just saying ‘no’ is not being part of the solution. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is not being part of the process either. Jump in and explain the things that are important to you. You may win a few.”

Assemblyman Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, a fiscal conservative who would like to see Nevada adhere to a state spending cap, said balancing the budget with new taxes and fees is not the answer.

The state should use 2001 as the base year and then allow for growth based only on inflation and population growth, he said.

“We’re not going to do that in the special session, but that is what my goal will be,” Gustavson said.

“We are working with Senate Republicans on the budget,” he said. “We met with them last night and had a long discussion. They have a little more pull than we do, obviously.”

Every agency, including public education, will have to take a cut to get the state out of the current crisis, Gustavson said.

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