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State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro during a joint press conference with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson at the Legislature on the twelfth day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City on Sunday, July 19, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Days before the 2021 legislative session begins, top-ranking lawmakers say they don’t plan to support a pair of tax initiatives backed by the Clark County teacher’s union.

That opinion was shared by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D), Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D), Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R) and Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R) during a virtual panel hosted by The Nevada Independent ahead of the Legislature's kick-off on Feb. 1.

The lawmakers touched on a wide range of topics, including the recent news that the Legislature will be largely closed to the public at the start of session, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed $8.68 billion budget, major planned changes to K-12 education funding, the redistricting process and taxes — including the proposed initiatives backed by the Clark County Education Association.

The twin proposals would raise the sales tax and gaming tax rates, and are required to go to the Legislature after the union successfully turned in enough signatures to qualify the petitions late last year. If they’re not approved by the Legislature within 40 days, they’ll head to the 2022 ballot.

That fate appears likely after top Democrats said they were ambivalent about the proposals; Frierson said he had spoken with union leadership and believed they weren’t appropriate given the state’s still-recovering economy.

“I don't believe that those measures are the best way to go forward,” Frierson said during the panel. “I think you're talking about sales tax in a state that already has one of the highest sales tax (rates) in the country, and you're talking about room tax when our rooms are empty.”

But legislators on the panel broadly agreed that the state needed to find a way to more adequately fund needed services for a rapidly growing state without over burdening one specific industry. Kieckhefer said that debate over taxes would likely happen regardless of individual legislator wishes, as the body is required to consider the teacher union tax increases and likely a trio of mining tax constitutional amendments passed during the summer special session.

“So conversations are inevitable, they'll be had. What we should be thinking about is whether any of them, all of them, are the appropriate way to spread out the burden of funding government in a way that we think is appropriate,” he said. 

The lawmakers also agreed that bipartisanship was possible in the coming session.

“If we all walk in with a spirit of bipartisanship, we can make great strides for this state,” Kieckhefer said. “But if it starts off with a tone of division and animosity, that's probably something that's going to carry you throughout."

Taxes and Revenue

Faced with a tighter state budget than projected in May 2019, state agencies are cutting spending and legislators are looking for sources of revenue in a state dependent on gaming and tourism, two industries hit hard by the pandemic.

Kieckhefer did not rule out voting for changes to Nevada’s mining tax structure. A  trio of constitutional amendments that would potentially increase taxes on the mining industry are expected to return to lawmakers for a second round of consideration this session (Tolles and Kieckhefer said they were still opposed to all three proposals).

During a special session over the summer, Nevada lawmakers laid the groundwork for changes to the state’s mining tax structure, but they only proceeded partway through a multi-year process. Though Republicans generally oppose raising mining taxes, Kieckhefer said he would support efforts to make the procedure for adjusting the tax easier.

“We have constitutional provisions over our tax policy that make it incredibly difficult to make adjustments, and that's bad tax policy,” Kieckhefer said, “I fully would support a measure to take mining tax policy out of the Constitution and give the Legislature the deference to make those decisions.”

Other potential tax changes include changing the property tax formula. Kieckhefer, the lone Republican to support an unsuccessful proposed constitutional amendment in 2017 to change the constitutional language on property tax (the amendment failed in 2019 and never took effect), said he would support changes to the structure and the constitutionally protected status of the tax as long as it did not “tax people out of their homes.” 

Tolles also gestured to the difficulty of having a tax discussion at a time of such economic pain.

"It is a robust conversation that needs to be had, but right now in the middle of a pandemic when so many families and so many businesses are hurting ... there's going to be a really difficult time finding an appetite to dive into that discussion in this session," Tolles said.

As Democrats signaled their willingness to discuss new revenue, Kieckhefer faulted Sisolak for not proposing a major tax increase during legislative sessions, unlike previous governors.

“Neither (former Republican governors) Kenny Guinn or Brian Sandoval had two-thirds when they walked into the Legislature proposing a new tax, and a little bit of leadership went a long way in persuading people to get there,” he said. “We historically amend budgets that the government proposes by a couple percentage points, and if the governor doesn't choose to use sort of his bully pulpit and his authority, then we just haven't historically seen the Legislature go a different direction.”

Frierson shot back.

“They knew the math,” he said of Guinn and Sandoval. “So if any of your colleagues are willing to vote for revenue, give the governor a call.”

Along with taxes, state and local lawmakers are expecting aid from the federal government that Frierson said should go toward addressing cuts and prioritizing education.

“Our priority is making sure that we replenish those cuts. We have one of the leanest if not the leanest state budgets in the country,” Frierson said. “We have to look at access to health care and public education as priorities beyond that, but I don't anticipate necessarily having that much.”

The budget

Legislative leaders took a cautious, if optimistic approach to Sisolak’s proposed $8.68 billion budget, while echoing the governor’s warning that the projected tax revenue streams and proposed budget should be viewed as “fluid” and subject to change amid the still raging COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget proposal is only about 2 percent less than the previous two-year budget proposed by Sisolak in 2019 — a result of what Kieckhefer attributed to the expected tax revenue decline having “just never quite fully materialized.” But he said the reduced budget was still an issue, given a combined increase in the need for resources and a lesser ability to provide them in the existing budget proposal.

“When you're taking out inflation, population growth, caseload growth and all those sorts of things, there's a lot of narrative that it's not as bad as you thought,” Kieckhefer said. “But as we start working through this budget, there's still plenty of stuff that should make everybody uncomfortable.” 

While the Legislature will have months to start digging through the budget proposal, Kieckhefer said he had already identified several troubling areas, including reduced spending for Class Size Reduction block grants (rolled into per-pupil funding), staffing reductions for mental health hospitals and outpatient clinics and additional cuts to higher education.

Several of those budget areas could be addressed through enhanced federal aid, either through the stimulus package signed into law in late December, or another package with dollars specifically targeted toward state and local governments as proposed by President Joe Biden.

But lawmakers said they wanted to be careful in not tying themselves to federal funding with an uncertain delivery date, and they committed to making adjustments on the fly if needed.

“That could happen in the middle of session, it could happen towards the end, it might not happen until we're out of session,” Cannizzaro said.

Vaccine 

The forum took place about an hour after the Legislative Counsel Bureau announced the logistics of the coming session, which will begin closed to the general public with livestreaming and videoconferencing to allow virtual access. The plan specifies that once lawmakers and staff are vaccinated, the building would open for in-person attendance on a restricted and reservation-only basis.

In Southern Nevada, people can be vaccinated if they are considered a priority for the “continuance of governance.” The two Las Vegas-area lawmakers indicated that they were in a priority category but avoided saying directly if they received it.

“I know that Southern Nevada legislators were given an opportunity to be put on a list and you know some got vaccinated, some didn't,” said Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson. “Some had underlying conditions, some didn't, and it was an individual thing that I think is fair for folks’ privacy for them to be able to exercise that ability.”

Frierson indicated that there was more flexibility to the proposal than a hard and fast rule that all lawmakers needed to be inoculated before the session opened up. He also did not commit to a specific timeline or a “concrete checklist” on when the public would be allowed back in the building.

“If not everybody gets vaccinated but the numbers in the state go down significantly as far as infections and deaths,” he said, “these are all things that we'll consider when we're talking about how to create a safe environment.”

As to why the details of the logistics were released so late, Cannizzaro said all four leaders have been meeting, looking at processes in other states and making decisions in coordination with health districts, the CDC guidelines and LCB.

Tolles and Kieckhefer said they had not received the vaccine yet but would as soon as they are allowed.

“I look at as a part of what I believe we need to do to promote increased vaccine acceptance in this state,” Kieckhefer said. 

Education funding

The pandemic hit in the middle of a major transition Nevada is making to move from an education funding formula that is more than 50 years old to a weighted, Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Advocates had already headed into the endeavor worried that it would not accomplish its goals without significant new funding; Nevada is now working from a budget where education funding is down $50 million from the current cycle.

“It definitely throws a wrench into our best laid plans,” Cannizzaro said. 

But she said her takeaway from the legislation — the finer points of which have been hashed out in the past two years in interim committee meetings — is that the Legislature recognized it needed to adjust the way it funds education. 

“If we have to take a little bit of a different road in the end to make sure that the outcome is what we need it to be for our students then that's what we'll do,” she said.

Death penalty

Cannizzaro was noncommittal when asked whether a proposal to abolish the death penalty will become law this session. As a prosecutor, she is viewed as more conservative than her Assembly counterparts on issues of criminal justice reform.

“I think we are always going to be ... vetting legislation that comes before us and I couldn't speak to whether or not that will pass,” she said.

Asked if she would allow a bill abolishing the death penalty to get a hearing if it passes the Assembly and comes to the Senate, where she holds major sway over the fate of bills, she said “we’ll see when it comes over” and pointed to other types of criminal justice legislation that lawmakers have tackled.

“I'm very proud of the work that we have done over the last two sessions to make significant reforms to everything from post conviction to how we handle parole and probation to lowering some of the penalties for our low risk nonviolent offenders,” she said. “I know that I can say with confidence that we'll continue to have this conversation and hopefully move forward.”

Election reform

Asked about what election process changes are most urgent, Tolles said she thinks the expansion of mail-in balloting combined with potential weaknesses in voter roll maintenance “opened doors to a lot of questions.” She said she and other members of her caucus are bringing bills to address the concerns.

“One of the ones is, how do we make sure that the county health department and the funeral services automatically send notification to the secretary of state's office when somebody is deceased to help speed up that process to help clean up those rolls,” she said. “There's a lot of systemic things that we can do to really help increase faith in the election process.”

She is also bringing a bill that would help define the role of a poll watcher and clarify rules of conduct.

Frierson said AB4, the bill passed in the special session over the summer that expanded mail-in voting and made other major election changes kick in during states of emergency, was passed in a spirit of nonpartisanship.

“We lost three seats this last election cycle, and guess what? It doesn't make me regret passing AB4,” Frierson said about three Assembly seats that Republicans flipped. “AB4 was about democracy.” 

Some have called for making the provisions of AB4 permanent, rather than just a method used during emergencies. Cannizzaro said she supported the continuation of widespread mail-in balloting, citing no “actual sustained allegations of voter fraud.”

“To have a conversation about whether mail-in ballots should even exist at all, when we know that they expand access to the ballot, when we know that people are going to be able to exercise that right to vote, is premised only upon misinformation and lies ... That's just an effort to take away people's right to vote,” she said.

Kieckhefer said a frequent concern he hears from constituents is separate from the issue of whether tens of thousands of ballots were questionable. It’s about the decision made on party lines just a few months before the election to pass a bill that the Republican secretary of state had qualms about, “to deliver a victory for the majority party, primarily at the presidential level.”

But he said he thinks Republicans should embrace a wider voter base, especially after strong performances in the recent high turnout election.

“The narrative of Republicans not wanting as many people to vote is something we should reject because I don't think it's true,” he said. “I think we can win on our arguments, on the merits of our case when more people turn out.”

Redistricting

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused multiple delays in the operations of the 2020 U.S. Census — a major logistical hurdle as Nevada and other state legislatures prepare for the decennial task of redistricting, drawing new lines for legislative, congressional and district boundaries based on the most recent Census data.

Additional information on when Census data will be transmitted will be known later this month, but for now, Frierson says that it “does not appear that the census numbers will be final in time for us to do it during the regular session.”

That means the redistricting process could take place during a special legislative session — potentially removing a major political bargaining chip from the equation during the normal 120-day session.

But that isn’t the only redistricting measure on the table in the 2021 Legislature. Kieckhefer is sponsoring a bill that would move redistricting responsibilities to an independent redistricting commission, a move that some advocates say reduces the practice of partisan gerrymandering (drawing districts that heavily favor one political party over the other).

The proposal largely tracks the outline of a failed 2020 ballot initiative from the Nevada League of Women Voters, but that would require the redistricting panel to begin operations after the 2030 Census as a way to lessen immediate political opposition to the concept.

“My hope is that taking the sort of immediate politics out of it might alleviate some of the tension in the discussion, and allow us to have a debate over whether it's an appropriate way to draw our political boundaries,” he said.

Tolles said she agreed with her Republican colleague, but Democratic lawmakers, including Cannizzaro, said they weren’t convinced that an independent panel would be truly free from political pressures.

“Whether or not a commission with appointed seats by various entities or individuals is more or less political, when you're involved in what is ultimately a very political conversation ... that, I think, is hard to take out of that process,” she said.

Updated on Jan. 22, 2021 at 10:04 a.m. to clarify that Assemblywoman Tolles does not support any of the three mining tax proposals passed during the 2020 special session.

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