The year in News & Review
A year on the RN&R’s news desk
We called it the Great Legislative Trainwreck of 2003 for a good reason. When the Nevada Legislature wasted oodles of public money refusing to compromise on a budget and funding plan, the mechanism of state threatened to come to a screeching, grinding standstill. Delays and disagreements continued into late summer. Public education creaked and groaned as administrators wondered how to prepare for a new school year without the slightest idea about how much dough would be available for such luxuries as teachers, textbooks and school buses.
The final showdown between a handful of stubborn Republicans and the sane Legislative majority was the biggest, most important story of the year for Nevadans. The events that transpired during the 120 days of regular legislative session and the two special sessions affected every single person in the state—from uninsured infant children to prison inmates to high school students, from multi-millionaire hotel moguls to casino employees.
Let’s start on a high note—Gov. Kenny Guinn’s historic State of the State address. The Republican governor, buoyed by the courage of a popular incumbent not facing reelection, outlined the state’s financial crisis. For the past several years, tourism downturns had led to less money than expected to fund the budget. To address shortfalls, the state had cut spending to the tune of $120 million in 2001. State government, across the board, reduced spending by 3 percent, Guinn said, and a hiring freeze left 1,500 state positions unfilled.
Bottom line? With the budget carved to the marrow and the unlikelihood of a huge gambling revival, a paradigm shift in state funding sources seemed in order, according to a legislative task force set up to study the issue. The governor urged state legislators to get to work as soon as possible to address the creation of a broad-based business tax.
“A more prosperous Nevada and a better education system requires an investment by all Nevadans and all Nevada businesses,” Guinn said.
When he requested $980 million in new revenue to fund education and maintain such programs as health insurance for at-risk kids and prescription drugs for seniors on fixed incomes, a chill descended over those assembled for the address. Had the governor just uttered the ugly “t” word? Heresy!
A few supporters clapped.
The RN&R predicted that $980 million wouldn’t be nearly enough. After all, the state’s educators were requesting about $1 billion merely to bring Nevada schools up to “adequate.” That’s what it would have taken, agreed superintendents from all Nevada counties, to restore the funds cut from education, to meet the demands of an exploding student population and to comply with the unfunded federal mandates of such legislation as Leave No Child Behind.
Let the slobbering nonsensical anti-taxation lobbying begin.
While the state legislature began debating dozens of new pieces of legislation—everything, it seemed, but a new tax plan—the RN&R’s Carli Cutchen reported on the impact that the Bush Administration’s budget proposal that included $135 million for sex education—but only for abstinence based programs. Reno sex educators feared that such a mandate wouldn’t allow them to teach kids the principles of safe sex, how to protect themselves from fatal diseases and unintended pregnancies.
On the Reno redevelopment front, a downtown gallery owner considered suing the city of Reno for its failures to drum up business downtown. Before long, Amaranth Gallery had left downtown. It wasn’t the only business to die downtown in 2003.
Hostile verbal debates about taxes and public services took a back seat to talk of war. Nevadans, along with military from across the nation, were shipped to the Middle East to fight a war on terror centered in Baghdad. Wrote RN&R Senior Editor Bob Speer: “We’re worried and we’re confused about this looming war. We know Saddam Hussein is a vile man, a ‘baby-torturer,’ as President Bush likes to call him, and a brutal tyrant who probably has an arsenal of nasty chemical and biological weapons. But we don’t know what should be done about him. Should we invade Iraq and take him out, as the president wants? Or should we let the United Nations weapons inspectors continue to do their jobs, as they and several of our European allies desire?”
To let northern Nevadans know where it stood on the issue, the Reno Anti-War Coalition stoked up its protest machine.
Among the many issues facing Nevada legislative subcommittees was the concept of prison reform. Prison administrators called for programs to address an epidemic of recidivism in Nevada, where 4,000 inmates are released annually from prison, dropped at bus stops and given $21.94 to start a new life. Other legislation called for the restoration of some civil rights to felons who’d done their time and started new productive lives on the outside.
In honor of Earth Day, RN&R Editor D. Brian Burghart wrote about “toxic avengers"—local environmentalists, entrepreneurs and even Boy Scouts who work overtime to combat northern Nevada’s “e-waste,” from computer monitors to used print cartridges.
On the anti-tax front, rhetorical fodder came along with the news that the number of Nevada government workers earning six-figure incomes quadrupled over five years.
Another Starbucks Coffee joint opened in Sparks. The RN&R recorded the struggle of independent coffee kiosk owner Kathleen Campbell in hopes of raising java alternative awareness. Campbell hung in, but sold her business before the end of the year to the indie mocha makers at the Purple Bean.
The Washoe County School District lobbed a scary grenade at its intensely passionate music-program-loving parental contingent. Letters were sent to 30 teachers, giving notice that their contracts might not be renewed given the inability of the Nevada Legislature to come up with a funded budget plan. The idea of band directors getting the axe got everyone’s attention and created effective lobbyists out of many a drum line mom.
The legislature’s regular session wrapped up, as lawmakers put the final touches on such critical pieces of legislation as a law that creates a rental car fee to fund a new baseball stadium. But what’s this? The proceedings ended with one tiny little thing left undone—the budget and funding package. The term “gross receipts tax” had become an ugly moniker for gross government waste rather than a reasonable solution for ailing education. On the last day of the session, votes were traded like furs and glass beads—often in caucus meetings behind closed doors.
The legislature headed into special sessions—two of them—costing taxpayers about $40,000 to $50,000 per day. While a minority of nay-saying anti-taxers whined, public schools made plans—not to restore the millions in lost funds, but to make more cuts. If things were to go well, the Washoe County School District would need to cut only $6 million in spending. If things were to go poorly, the cuts would run around $26 million.
We forced air to remain in our collective lungs.
The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival began, and the state legislature finally—given the last-minute compromise of Assemblyman John Marvel—figured out a cryptic budget and funding plan. Schools would be funded, with only $6 million in cuts needed for Washoe County. Lawsuits ensued.
Alternative families spoke of the struggles facing same-gender couples in northern Nevada. Democrats in northern Nevada considered the Silver Swing State’s role in the 2004 presidential election.
Mother of two, Jennifer McElroy, 27, was sentenced to 90 months in prison for helping her boyfriend Milton “David” Plummer escape from the Washoe County Jail. Gas prices went up. The housing market lit up like fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Two former employees of Newmont Mining Corp. sued the company, alleging that Newmont fired them for calling attention to the company’s lax attitude toward environmental compliance.
Attendance at the annual freaky desert-fest known as Burning Man grew yet again. The city of Reno continued to renegotiate a franchise agreement with Charter Communications, the area cable television provider.
Citizen activists began a campaign to recall Gov. Guinn—that pro-tax pinko socialist! To further remove every last evil Democrat (or other sympathizer of public services) from office, activists also began talk of legislation or legal precedent to keep public employees from serving as elected officials.
Northern Nevada’s Consolidated Narcotics Unit—comprised of officers from the county and city governments—was doomed, said drug enforcement officials.
Studies showed that Fox News viewers were misinformed about such things as, say, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. At Reno and Reed high schools, students were suspending for short skirts and spaghetti straps. RN&R contributor Dennis Myers delved into casino- industry welfare. Art students complained of harassment by security personnel at the Thompson Federal Building in Reno, where they were assigned to sketch the “Perforated Object.”
All was eclipsed by the state-next-door’s campaign to recall its governor and install a new figurehead—Gary Coleman! Larry Flynt! Media ingesters were treated to a play-by-play of every dirty detail of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bad boy lifestyle.
Arnold was in. Michael Jackson was out, on bail that is. Soldiers were still dying in Iraq.
Mad cow disease. Earthquakes.
Nevadans flocking downtown for Wine Walks.
Plans to install electronic touch-screen voting machines state-wide met with resistance from fearmongers who truly worried that such security lapses as, um, getting voting machine source codes from a public Internet site could mess with, if nothing else, voter confidence.
Secretary of State Dean Heller asked Nevada’s finest hackers to put two systems to the test. Heller selected Sequoia voting machines to be installed statewide, each with a voter-verifiable receipt printing system. This made Nevada the first state to mandate such an innovation.
The year in review
A look back at the stories in local media that defined the year 2003