Nevada Legislature convenes as budget battle looms

By Sandra Chereb

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 5 2011 4:30 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2011 file photo, Nevada Speaker-elect John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, left, shakes hands with Gov. Brian Sandoval after Sandoval delivered his first State of the State address before a joint session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev. As the 2011 Legislature prepares to convene, even getting starting is a matter of contention.

Rich Pedroncelli, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CARSON CITY, Nev. — Where to begin? As the 2011 Legislature prepares to convene, even getting out of the starting block is a matter of contention.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval says his two-year $5.8 billion general fund spending plan is only a 6 percent reduction from current funding levels. Democratic lawmakers put the gap closer to 30 percent when compared with the 2009 budget approved by lawmakers and spending requests submitted by agencies to meet caseload demands and higher costs.

It all depends on how you spin the numbers — and your vantage point before swinging the ax.

"It's shaping up to be as ugly as predicted," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "The governor in his State of the State set some lines in the sand on funding of key programs that Democrats are going to have a hard time accepting, and even some Republicans will look at with some trepidation."

The budget battles will be front and center when the opening gavel falls Monday, and the 120-day clock begins ticking. But spending scuffles won't be the only dogfight in the coming four months, making meeting the state constitution's deadline an iffy bet.

Law makers in the Assembly and Senate must also deal with the sticky business of reapportionment and consider more than 950 different pieces of legislation that have been tentatively proposed. Bill drafts deal with everything from a series of hot button immigration issues to an item designating an official day for Kiwanis.

"They should not be criticized for not making it in 120 days," said Billy Vassiliadis, chief principal at R&R Partners, a statewide advertising, government affairs and public relations firm. Vassiliadis is also a lobbyist for the powerful Nevada Resort Association, representing the state's largest casino companies.

Nevada, he said, is facing the "most difficult time in the state's history," punctuated by record joblessness, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Complicating the legislative task is a big class of freshman lawmakers — a third of the 63 legislators — caused by term limits.

Trying to solve the myriad problems by June 6, he said, is an "unfair expectation."

After the pomp and ceremony of opening day, one of the first orders of business will be action on SB1 — a $15 million appropriation to fund the session. It's one of 231 pre-filed bills already drafted and ready for introduction.

More than 950 bill drafts have so far been requested, some addressing recurring subjects: texting and talking on cell phones while driving; implementing a state lottery; DNA testing for criminals; motorcycle helmet laws.

Illegal immigrants or residents whose primary language is something other than English are targeted in several bill drafts — requiring employers to e-verify worker status; mandating English-only driver's license exams; and making English Nevada's official language.

There are proposed measures recognizing Kiwanis Day, Children's Day; bills to authorize tickets for speeding drivers nabbed by remote photos; establishment of a statewide animal abuse registry. There's a proposed "citizens traffic cone bill of rights," and another bill that would require a hunting license — or $10 fee — to pick up antlers shed by animals.

Other bills would outlaw synthetic marijuana substances, and require common cold medicines that contain ingredients used to make methamphetamine available by prescription only.

The big battles, however, will be waged in the money, government affairs and revenue committees, and will be monitored closely by county governments, state employees, labor groups, industries and educators.

Sandoval's budget proposal calls for consolidating some state agencies, shifting the cost of some services now performed by the state to local entities, and taking some property tax money for Clark and Washoe counties — the two largest — for higher education.

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