By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau
CARSON CITY — Senate Republicans gave new meaning to the legislative jargon “floor debate” today.
Several lawmakers sat on the floor outside their offices today as they talked to activists who have been camping on the Capitol lawn since yesterday night in support of new revenue.
The impromptu, hour-long debate featured a variety of popular budget topics including teacher pay, textbooks in schools, higher education tuition and taxes.
It all started when about two dozen campers requested an audience with Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who did not have room for them in her office. So she stepped outside, and they sat on the floor together.
Several other Republican senators joined her soon after, and Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, offered shortbread Girl Scout cookies all around.
“I’ve never seen this before,” said Warren Hardy, a former legislator and current lobbyist who watched the debate. “It’s a great dialog. If I were still a senator, I would be right in the middle of it because I think that’s the respect these people deserve.”
Republicans fielded a variety of questions from tough critics, some of whom are from organizations like Progress NOW Nevada and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Those groups have supported Democratic plans for new taxes and have opposed Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget.
One girl asked about a shortage of textbooks in her Clark County School District high school.
Responding, Roberson said that many Clark County School District employees earn six-figure salaries and he wants more money going into the classroom.
Bob Fulkerson of PLAN called the response a “good sound byte,” but not a solution for poor rural school districts.
Roberson, in a familiar line, said that collective bargaining is “bankrupting the state,” after which several people shouted: “no.”
“If every teacher makes concessions, you will not have one teacher laid off,” Roberson said.
Republicans touted reforms to collective bargaining and advocated for the governor’s recommendation to cut teacher and state employee salaries by 5 percent, saying that it is the same suffering that private sector employees have had to bear during this recession.
The conversation was mostly an exercise in disagreement: over taxes, over the influence of public sector unions, over teacher pay, over tuition.
“If you want taxes to happen immediately, why can’t reforms happen immediately?” asked Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas, as Roberson, Cegavske, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, and Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, looked on.
McGinness had met with the group of campers earlier.
“They talked to me about taxes and I talked to them about the governor’s budget,” he said. “We agreed to disagree.”
Similar disagreements are happening behind closed doors as McGinness and other legislative leaders from both parties are talking about taxes and the governor’s budget. McGinness said he thinks it is likely legislators will meet almost every night to reach a budget compromise.
Seated on the floor, no Republican had a sudden revelation that taxes will save Nevada and none of the campers disavowed taxes, but both groups seemed pleased with the debate.
“I’m so proud of you for sitting on the floor with us,” Cegavske said. “This is awesome.”
Michael Flores, a Progress NOW organizer, said it was “amazing” to talk to legislators for that long in an open-forum debate.
“This is what Democracy looks like,” he said.