Ready for Nevada budget wrangling

On Jan. 24, Gov. Brian Sandoval will introduce a two-year budget plan for Nevada. Sandoval has argued the state does not need to find new dough to address a $3 billion budget deficit. On Feb. 7, Nevada lawmakers gather in Carson City for 120 days of law-making and budget finagling.

“Sandoval’s been rigid, saying, ‘No taxes, the revenue is fine, we just need to tighten our belts,’” says Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Reno Democrat. “It’s the same rhetoric as Gibbons. I’m anxious to see Sandoval’s budget proposal.”

Public reaction to Sandoval’s budget will guide legislators’ session prep. Leslie considers herself a team player, a consensus builder. She served six terms in the Nevada Assembly. Term limits kicked in. She ran for Senate and won.

I talked to Leslie to find out how a lawmaker prepares for 120 days of intense political wrangling that is the Nevada Legislature.

For starters, Leslie is working to lessen the impact of leaving her job as specialty courts coordinator for Washoe County.

“Every legislator has to deal with that, with getting ready to leave a job for four months,” she says. “Who’s going to do the things that have to get done? It’s harder this year. The county’s been hit hard. Fewer people doing more work. Me being gone is a burden on my co-workers, which is bad.”

Moving from Assembly to Senate means more committee work, because the Senate has fewer members but just as many committees.

The legislative gig is not well-paying and doesn’t include health insurance. So while she’s absent without pay or benefits from her job, Leslie will purchase her own insurance. In 2011, lawmaker salaries will inch ahead from about $8,200 for two years of service to about $8,800. Since state workers have endured salary reductions, Leslie will donate her raise back to the state coffers.

Why would anyone want this job?

“You ask yourself that,” Leslie says. “Somebody has to do it. It has to get done. You feel the responsibility and the pressure, but it has to be done.”

The 2011 session will be packed with new faces. Leslie might advise freshmen lawmakers to keep an open mind and be willing to compromise, rather that be inflexibly married to a preconceived solution.

“It’s foolishness to go in with your mind made up,” she says. “You can’t go in there thinking your idea is the only idea. You are one of 63 people. … Things change down there every day, sometimes every hour. You have to be willing to work hard and spend a lot of time there. The onus comes right back on you. If your idea is so great, you should be able to persuade your colleagues.”

Pressure from lobbyists and the public can be intense. Lawmakers develop thick skins.

“It’s made me tougher,” Leslie says. “You have to build up a tolerance to having people mad at you. … The new people haven’t felt that kind of pressure yet. But they will soon.”

Leslie keeps her ear to the ground. Constituents approach her when she’s shopping and working out.

“What I hear mostly from people, they’re concerned about education, their children’s schools, the state of higher education and how we’re going to attract businesses to the state,” Leslie says.

If offering low or no taxes worked, businesses would be flocking to Nevada. But it doesn’t, and they’re not.

“If it were all about low taxes, we would be thriving,” Leslie says. “It’s one of those myths that gets repeated all the time.”

Unlike the U.S. Congress, Nevada legislators must, by law, produce a budget in 120 days.

“Here we have to end up with a solution,” Leslie says. “I’m an eternal optimist. I think the governor will work with us.”