That’s what a prominent liberal activist told me with a laugh recently. He fears the oncoming Republican wave will elect Sharron Angle to the Senate and Joe Heck to the House, washing away Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus, while helping Republicans keep control of the governor’s mansion and pick up seats in the statehouse.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that it doesn’t really matter who wins. We’re still doomed.
For roughly two decades, since Nevada’s modern era began with the opening of the Mirage, Nevada was like a rich kid in a shiny new sports car, tipping back a bottle of Jack Daniels. Now the trust fund, also known as the construction boom, has run out. Our response, if this election is any guide, has been to take an Ambien and hope for the best.
Let me explain: Nevada state government, already one of the leanest in the country, will likely face a $3 billion budget shortfall next year, in percentage terms the worst in the country. Even now, before any cuts, Nevada, as the saying goes, is at the top of the bad lists and at the bottom of the good lists, meaning we have substandard schools, health care and social services.
For years, it was easy to dismiss all that negative chatter. Gleaming new resorts opened on the Strip, housing developments sprang up, and tens of thousands moved here every year for good jobs. But that’s all over now. Nevada has become the country’s basket case, its economy too dependent on tourism and construction. Suddenly, it looks as if maybe we should have paid a bit more attention to those lists. In fact, since the recession began, various civic, business and political leaders have wagged their fingers about lessons learned.
Which brings us back to the election. For all the noise and tens of millions of dollars spent on the U.S. Senate race, neither Angle nor Reid can do much to solve our problems.
That will be left to the next governor and Legislature. The election would have been an ideal time to debate how we got into this crisis and how we can get out. And what do our candidates have to say about the budget crisis and crippling cuts to basic services?
Not much. Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval both say they’ll balance the budget without raising taxes. Reid released a plan that relies on phantom money appearing, paired with 10 percent cuts to state agencies.
To give you some idea of the degree of cuts we’re talking about, the Las Vegas Sun’s David McGrath Schwartz recently reported on the Department of Health and Human Services’ preparing a budget with reductions that include laying off 6,500 personal care attendants for the severely disabled, many of whom would then be forced to move into more expensive nursing care. Good times.
As for Sandoval, he had offered no plan at all as of the Weekly’s deadline (which was a week and a half after early voting began). He’s suggested pushing responsibilities on to local governments and allowing them to raise their taxes if they choose, but little else.
As one longtime observer of the state’s politics put it to me: “The astonishing story is that he’s running for governor, and he’s been able to do it without putting out a plan for the biggest budget crisis in history.” The budget crisis is really the only issue that matters, and Sandoval, a former federal judge, state attorney general, assemblyman and gaming regulator, is too busy visiting schools and combing his enviable head of hair to say what exactly he’s going to do once he’s governor.
Not to worry, though! Legislative leaders and lobbyists are well aware of the crisis and conferring privately as we speak. Just about everyone other than the farthest reaches of the Tea Party movement understands the budget crisis can’t be solved with cuts alone without shutting down Nevada as a going concern. They’re already readying some mixture of cuts and new taxes.
The problem, however, is that this is the worst possible legislative session to try for some grand bargain to fix the problem.
“Between all the new blood, the budget crisis and redistricting, my God,” David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, said with a rueful laugh.
New blood refers to all the new legislators who owe their new careers to term limits, which forced out 17 of the 63 lawmakers last session, though a few will switch houses. “Amateur hour” is how one observer put it. Their campaigns, like most campaigns for the Legislature, have been almost perfectly free of substance.
Democratic Speaker Barbara Buckley, who ran the Assembly like a military academy, is gone, to be replaced by John Oceguera. “Oceguera’s no Buckley,” Damore noted.
Even if he were, he’ll have fewer Democratic seats and several insubordinate lieutenants, made all the more so because they know Oceguera will be gone after just one session, forced out by term limits. There’s also been significant staff turnover, with decades of experience and expertise gone with a poof.
Redistricting, meanwhile, is the thorny process by which the Legislature uses the latest census data to re-draw both legislative and Congressional districts every 10 years. Or to put it another way, this is when elected officials pick their voters.
And it is expected to be a complete melee. Nevada will likely be granted a new Congressional district, which means anyone with Washington ambitions will want to draw the district to his liking. Enter both Oceguera and Steven Horsford, the Senate Democratic leader. Each could hold any budget solution hostage to his own ambitions if they can’t agree on a map for the new district. Current members of Congress will also stick their noses in, demanding their districts be drawn with more members of their own party. Then there’s North vs. South. As Southern Nevada has grown faster than Northern Nevada, we’ve won more seats, as we should. But the northern and the rural counties will fight, once again using the budget as a bargaining tool.
Finally, the Republican caucuses of both houses of the Legislature will be far more conservative than in the past. Getting any of them to approve a tax increase, especially after Sandoval promised he’d fix the crisis without one, is going to be next to impossible.
So you see? We’re doomed.