CARSON CITY, Nev. — Democrats may hold slim margins in the Nevada Senate and Assembly, but halfway through the 2011 session it's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the GOP minority who are holding the trump cards. Elected on a no tax platform, the first term governor has pledged to balance the state budget with existing revenue — and deep cuts to education and social programs that Democrats find onerous.
Democrats, while conceding painful cuts are inevitable, have been trying to rally public outcry — holding town hall meetings, pumping up student protests — to try to force their counterparts to consider taxes. But they lack a two-thirds voting bloc necessary to pass tax or fee hikes or override a governor veto.
The political jockeying could set up a repeat of the nightmarish 2003 session, when then Attorney General Sandoval petitioned the state Supreme Court on behalf of moderate Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, who faced a mutiny from legislators in his own party over tax increases. The standoff dragged on for a month, spurred two special sessions and resulted in a court ruling justices would come to regret. The court ruled the Legislature's constitutional responsibility to fund education took precedence over the supermajority needed to raise taxes. The ruling was overturned by the court three years later.
This time, GOP lawmakers are standing firm behind Sandoval, who recently ramped up his tax and fee opposition, telling a conservative gathering in Las Vegas he will not "trade" taxes for anything.
Does the stare-down forebode a 2003-like confrontation?
"Could be," said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon.
"The governor sent us a balanced budget and we support it," he said of the Senate Republican caucus.
Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, said while lawmakers can't pass tax hikes without Republican support, neither can the governor's budget pass without Democrats signing off.
"I want to hold the governor to his words that there should be shared sacrifice," Horsford said, adding that he continues to meet with Sandoval and hopes to forge a path to resolution. He has said he will not pass the governor's budget as proposed.
Toeing the line for Sandoval could come at a risk to rural Republican lawmakers, said Eric Herzik, a Republican and political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
"How loyal do they want to be to the governor who really does nothing for them?" Herzik said. "If I'm a rural legislator, and I'm not getting roads, property taxes are going up, schools are being closed, do I really want to make sure Brian Sandoval looks good on national lists to be vice president?"
Rural lawmakers dismiss that argument.
"There's no doubt the cuts will hurt," said Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. But he said Republicans are focused on government reforms that in the long run will amount to "millions and millions in savings to taxpayers."
Sandoval's $5.8 billion two-year spending plan cuts $200 million in state support for K-12 education; $162 million from the higher education system; takes money from local school district bond reserve accounts; and seeks to shift the costs for some services like juvenile justice facilities and mental health courts to cash-strapped counties.
Sandoval also is calling for 5 percent salary cuts for state workers. He wants teachers — whose salaries are negotiated with local school districts — to take a similar pay cut, contribute more to their own retirement and give up incentive pay for earning advanced degrees. Teacher union representatives say the combined hit would amount to 10 percent to 20 percent salary reductions.
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, chairwoman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers — now midway through the 120 session — are "getting to that critical juncture."
Smith was zapped by the governor's ire when he vetoed AB183, the so-called "School Works" bill she sponsored that would have let school districts keep lower balances in bond reserve accounts and use the money for school upgrades and renovations. The bill passed along party lines and Democrats said it preserved the intent of voters who approved the bond debt.
Sandoval wants the same pot of money, about $300 million, to plug a hole in school operational budgets.
In his veto message, he said Democrats "have misleadingly cited those who voted for the issuance of school bonds in the past as supporting their cause today, unfairly attributing to them their narrow view."
Smith said she still believes a budget accord can be reached.
"I'm a big believer in compromise," she said. "I think that's the responsible way to do business. Not 'my way or the highway.'"
Unlike Senate Republicans, the Assembly GOP caucus, while in step with the governor, has said it would consider lifting the sunset on temporary taxes passed in 2009 and set to expire June 30, in return for Democratic support of sweeping reforms to collective bargaining, education and construction defect lawsuits; privatizing public employee benefit programs; and eliminating prevailing wages on public works projects.
"We've made our position clear," Goicoechea said, adding that if bills addressing the GOP demands aren't processed or die in committee, the budget situation "is going to get sticky."
Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said Democrats agree big cuts are needed and support reforms, but if it's an all or nothing proposition, "that's a non-starter."
"We will close a majority of the budgets at the governor's recommended level," he said, but added the deep divide comes over education.
He also said Sandoval's role in the budget outcome is irrelevant because any spending bill sent to his desk will pass by the required, veto-proof two-thirds.
For now, all are awaiting May 2, when the Economic Forum will present final updated revenue projections upon which the budget must be based.
The session ends June 6. If no budget is passed by then, Sandoval assumes the driver's seat because under the Nevada Constitution only the governor can call a special session and set the agenda for what lawmakers can consider.
But that would likely spark debate over how narrow an agenda the governor can set and raise questions over separation of powers — legal arguments that could end up in the lap of the Nevada Supreme Court.