Friday, June 13, 2003

Nothin' doin'

Kenny Guinn gave lawmakers the equivalent of a time out Thursday, adjourning the special session of the Legislature until June 25. No tax plan came close to getting a 2/3 majority, and the Democratic leader in the Senate, UNLV professor Dina Titus, left town on Wednesday to take a scheduled vacation in Spain.

The session cost taxpayers at least $135,000. Now if lawmakers had used that time to, say, trim several million dollars in spending, it would have been money well spent. (As the Fram oil filter commercials used to say, you can pay me now or pay me later.) But they didn't. So here's my recommendation: Send the bill to Kenny. Assembly Republicans said at the end of the regular session if Guinn didn't re-open the budget and allow programs to be trimmed, no tax plan would get a 2/3 vote. They lived up to their word. So the entire 10-day exercise was a waste. Guinn didn't believe them. So now, let's ask him to pay.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Special Session update

I've posted nothing about the 19th Special Session of the Nevada Legislature because not much has happened. So here's a weekend wrap: The session was slated to adjourn at 5 p.m. Friday, but it didn't, because lawmakers have failed to agree on a bill to finance K-12 schools and a tax plan to pay for that and everything else. On Friday afternoon, Kenny Guinn extended the session 48 hours, but when neither legislative house could get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the tax bill on Saturday, Guinn told everyone to go home and try again starting Tuesday.

Long-term, this Legislature could redefine Nevada politics for decades. The arrogance, tone-deafness and high-handedness of Guinn and his cabal of gaming executives, public employee union bosses and legislative insiders dreamed up a plan to increase state spending by roughly 40 percent, refused to negotiate with anyone outside their inner circle, and said, Take it or leave it. A sufficient number said, Leave it, to bring us to the present.

Such tactics may be SOP in banana republics (something Nevada has occasionally resembled), but in a state with a representative form of government and separation of powers, it don't have to be that way. And for now it least, it ain't.

The Guinnites have now steeled backbench Republicans into a solid opposition bloc that's growing in numbers. At the end of the regular session, Assembly Democrats had convinced four GOP members to accept the $1.3 billion spending increase and $1 billion tax hike, giving them 27 votes, one shy of the 2/3 majority needed to pass a tax increase. On Saturday, every GOP Assembly lawmaker present (18 of the 19 members) voted against the tax bill. And now, one of the GOPers thought to be on the fence last week, freshman Pete Goicoechea of rural Northern Nevada, said Saturday he won't vote for any tax increase that increases spending by more than the $704 million Guinn said in January was necessary to keep state programs on automatic pilot. (Such a move would require perhaps one-third of the added tax revenues the Guinn forces seek.) "Let's see who blinks first," Goicoechea told the Review-Journal. It's going to be fun.

Clearly, attempts to steamroll the Legislature into accepting the plan concocted by Guinn's gaming-dominated Task Force on Tax Policy have failed miserably. The scheme, to enable the largest expansion of government in state history, while exempting the casinos from the obligation to pay the new taxes required, didn't pass ... and the drafters of the proposal had no Plan B.

If you doubt my assessment of the gamers' strategy, consider this 2001 quote from Nevada Resort Association Bill Bible to Gambling Today magazine, when asked about a teacher union proposal to impose a 4 percent corporate income tax.

Bible said the state's surplus and the tax revenues are coming in higher than expected. "But there are a lot of needs in education and Medicaid. If additional revenues are needed, we argue they should not be increased on single source such as gaming or mining, but instead should be broad-based tax spread through business.
A number of business activities do not contribute significant revenue" to the state's treasury, said Bible, a former state budget director. Asked to name them, he said the banking industry, department stores and fast-food restaurants are examples.

There it is. Spend like drunken sailors, but send somebody else the bill. Despite resolute opposition to the insiders' dealings, longtime Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio was seen huddling in private with casino hotshots, trying to come up with another tax bill Gaming Inc. could accept. That plan, to impose a 3 percent net profits tax on businesses, went nowhere as well. Guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

This editorial spells out more details about the budget impasse ... and this one gives a pat on the back to U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, who championed the 2/3 majority requirement for tax increases when he was a state lawmaker in the early '90s. Of course, Gibbons isn't universally admired, as this hissy fit, aka column, by Las Vegas Sun Editor Brian Greenspun shows.

Greenspun -- who's part owner of a spiffy new casino in Henderson and served on Guinn's tax panel -- is a wannabe political player who's a source of ridicule as much as anything these days. For instance, there are times Greenspun's arguments resemble those from a bad parody of an Ayn Rand villain. Witness this gripe about the supermajority requirement:

The tax debate in Nevada was not about Republicans and Democrats. We all gain or lose when the Legislature fails to do the right thing. It was about a majority deciding what the needs of the people of this state are and what must be met, and a minority of the same people deciding to stop democracy from happening.

It's called the state Constitution, Brian. You might want to read it sometime. And then there are his countless family business holdings, few of which he discloses when he (or his paper's editorial page) opines on issues that would affect those business interests in print. If you can bear to read it, here's his Memorial Day column, in which he (after 400 words of throat-clearing; doesn't he have an editor? Oh yeah ... ) says he adores the First Amendment and then castigates the then-proposed changes in FCC policies on media cross-ownership and the damage they would do to freedom of speech and the benefits they would rain down upon the evil Rupert Murdoch. Of course, not once does Greenspun disclose that his family business owns a piece of the local cable monopoly, and that its bottom line might certainly be affected by the changes. But I've shot enough fish in this barrel.

There's no telling how this Legislature will play out. I'm resigned to the near-certainty that we'll have a record tax and spending increase. But who will pay? Can't say. Guinn has threatened the dread government shutdown if his deal isn't passed by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, but no one knows what that would mean, either. People won't be awaiting Social Security checks, as they were during the Clinton/Gingrich standoff of eight years ago. School districts are county agencies, and though they get a good deal of money from state coffers, many are on summer holiday. Many functions that are performed outside Nevada by state governments are in the jurisdiction of county and municipal agencies here. Even the lion's share of the parks are either federal or local. So you can't wait in line at the DMV for a couple of weeks. Who cares?