(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – As a deal to close an $805 million budget gap was announced today, bringing a close to a sometimes rancorous six-day special session, Republican lawmakers say they helped shape the debate that led to a minimal use of taxes and fees to balance the spending plan.
And in another more modest victory, Republicans in the Legislature won bipartisan support for a resolution asking the 2011 Legislature to consider opening up to public view the collective bargaining process used by local governments and employee unions to negotiate salaries and benefits.
Gov. Jim Gibbons asked for consideration of the collective bargaining proposal in his proclamation adding issues to the special session, and Assembly Republicans had made it a key point in their acceptance of any budget-balancing plan.
The proposal, along with a collection of education reform measures sought by Gibbons, including a voucher school proposal, did not get hearings, however.
Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, called it a win for her 14-member caucus, which is in a difficult bargaining position because of its minority status. Democrats in the Assembly outnumber Republicans 28 to 14, enough votes to approve new fees without support from the GOP members.
“Our caucus is very concerned about transparency,” she said. “We recognize that billions of taxpayer dollars are spent through collective bargaining process and we believe the taxpayers deserve to know where that money is spent.”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, also welcomed the decision to seek transparency in the labor negotiation process.
Legislative leaders of both parties also praised Gibbons, who is facing a tough primary election battle against former federal judge Brian Sandoval, for working with them to craft an acceptable plan.
Gibbons spent long hours with lawmakers in closed-door meetings with legislative leadership over the past few days to come to an agreement.
The praise from Raggio was particularly noteworthy, given that he and Gibbons had exchanged some pointed criticisms in the days leading up to the session and during the session itself. Raggio has said in public comments he believes Sandoval is the only Republican candidate with a chance of defeating Democrat Rory Reid in the governor’s race.
Gansert has endorsed Sandoval in the primary race.
In announcing the agreement, Gibbons said everyone had to give something up to get bipartisan support and he credited Democrats and Republicans for working together.
“It took a lot of give and a lot of take and a lot of debate, some of it heated at times,” he said.
Raggio said the cuts to be implemented by the Legislature will be severe.
“There is going to be some pain out there,” he said. “Hopefully some of this will be an impetus for us to take a long hard look at how we fund state government, not to mention what goes on in local governments,” he said.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said she was pleased to be able to reduce the cuts to public and higher education. The agreement reduces public education cuts to $117 million instead of $211 million. Higher education is cut b y $46 million instead of $76 million.
Some of the “worst of the worst” cuts to Health and Human Resources programs were also restored, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, also highlighted the ability to reduce the cuts first proposed by Gibbons.
“There are certain parts of the plan that each one of us don’t like,” he said.
But reducing the education cuts from 10 percent to 6.9 percent was a big victory, Horsford said.
Gansert said the language encouraging the 2011 Legislature to subject the collective bargaining process to the state open meeting law was added to Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, which passed the Senate earlier this week urging local governments and employee groups to mutually address the budget shortfall. Gansert said the language is as strong as allowed, since current lawmakers cannot bind future Legislatures to a particular course of action.
The vote on the budget bill in the Assembly was 34-8, with all eight “no” votes coming from the GOP caucus. The vote in the Senate was 20-1. Only Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, voted no.
While voting against the budget plan because of the mining and banking fee increases it contains, Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, said Republicans clearly influenced the dialogue over how to balance the budget.
When Assembly Republicans proposed their own plan that balanced the budget without new taxes or fees not contributed directly by users, it pushed Democrats to move away from those revenue sources, he said.
“Us showing a united front, with a solution, absolutely drove the Democrats to a resolution that is less reliant on more spending, more taxes and more fees, and back to being more fiscally responsible,” he said.
Gansert, who voted for the bill, said the Republican influence can be seen in that only about $52 million of the total shortfall is being addressed with new fees. Most is coming from $26 million in a mining claim fee increase that was modified to exempt small operators and $13.8 million from an increased fee on banks when filing notices of default.
That is just a fraction of the overall shortfall, she said.
The caucus did also agree to restore some cuts Gibbons had proposed in public and higher education, Gansert said.
“We absolutely don’t like all of it,” she said. “It was a struggle to add anything back to tell you the truth.”
Gansert predicted that some, but not all, of her caucus would vote for the plan and her prediction held true.
Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, opposed the budget bill because of the banking and mining fees.
“There are some difficult pills in there to swallow,” he said.
Settelmeyer said he would have liked to see progress in the special session on the collective bargaining proposal as well.
“Our caucus stood up as a group and said it was important to us,” he said.
Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, voted for the agreement once he received assurances that the mining claim fee will not affect the small operators.
He praised Gibbons and the leadership for working out an agreement.
As to the failure of the Legislature to consider Gibbons’ other issues, Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the proper focus of the special session was balancing the budget.
“These other policy concerns are best brought up in a regular session when the public can have full access and deliberations can be held. I don’t think it is appropriate to take up major policy reforms in a special session,” she said.