Lawmaker rides into Nevada sunset

Assembly Democrats … made one last pathetic attempt to prevent brutal spending cuts, with a parade of business lobbyists strangely begging legislators not to give them a tax cut, which is the practical effect of allowing taxes passed in 2009 to expire, as the law requires.

— J. Patrick Coolican, Las Vegas Sun

Republican Assemblymember Ira Hansen watched the budget committee meeting described above from a TV in his legislative office. On the table were short-term taxes—including a payroll tax and a business license fee increase of $100—set to expire or “sunset.” Many Nevadans, from businessmen to city leaders and educators, favor keeping the taxes in place to raise $712 million over two years. This wouldn’t solve Nevada’s budget gap but it would allow cuts of a slightly less draconian nature for education and public services.

“The sunsetting taxes?” he said. “Most people don’t realize they’re paying ’em. … I’m hoping when the smoke clears that the Democrats give us reforms so we can extend that sunset. My Senate colleagues don’t feel the same way. But we, in the Assembly, have tried to work a deal on that.”

For Republicans, the taxes are a bargaining chip they’ll trade for, say, stiffer teacher tenure requirements. Requirements that can’t be nixed by collective bargaining, a.k.a. unions. Hansen fears that unions call the shots in Carson. I appreciate what unions do for teachers and laborers.

But like most Nevadans, I would be grateful, at this point, to only lose my arms up to the elbow, given the perceived risk to my legs and internal organs.

Hansen gets this. He’s a proponent of “lean, mean government.” But he fears for Washoe County and the school district. Plenty of cuts have already been made. “The government has become very lean,” Hansen said. “At some point, you start cutting meat and bone rather than fat and waste.”

Hansen’s my neighbor in Sparks. He’s new to the Nevada Assembly. I recall when he was fired from a radio station for expressing interest in the plight of Palestinians. He said, “I’m just as harsh with Republicans as I am with Democrats. If somebody does something right, I’ll praise him. If he’s doing something bad, I’ll blast him with both barrels regardless of ideological orientation.”

New to lawmaking, Hansen doesn’t pretend to have political clout during the backroom wheelin’ and dealin’ that characterize the last days of a Nevada legislative session.

“I’m so far down on the food chain,” he said. “I’m like a private in the army wondering what the generals are up to.”

Hansen has questioned parts of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget, from borrowing $192 million from future insurance revenue to sweeping millions into the budget from bond accounts that taxpayers approved to fund schools.

At the same time, Hansen supports Sandoval’s desire to get Nevada’s economic “ball rolling” again. “If you have more money coming into the private sector, you’ll have more for the public sector,” he said.

Hansen, talk radio host and columnist, has gleaned much from 120 days in Carson.

“It’s a lot easier being a critic on the outside,” he said. “It’s easier to demonize opponents when you’re not with them face-to-face, every day.”

Most legislation, he said, passes out of committee with a unanimous vote. One dissenting vote is often reason enough to take another look at a piece of legislation. This consensus-building impressed Hansen.

“Everybody’s human, and they have reasons for voting the way they do,” he said.

Now the session’s careening to an uncertain close, with a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that nixes nabbing local money for the state budget. Sandoval may now approve not letting taxes expire, after all.

“I’m trying to be as open-minded as I can, reach consensus, use common sense to come up with solutions,” he said.