The Session That Might Have Been

It has to be about more than caring.

As state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis emoted and state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson fulminated, and a chorus of colleagues chimed in with discordant, self-serving notes, the sound I heard was the music of “Taps.”

They will find a way to go to midnight (or later) on June 3. But the inevitable, official Democratic surrender on a tax plan that was really no plan at all because it was so inchoate, so incomplete, signaled all that’s left in Session ’13 is for special interests, large and small, to assure their gifts from the Gang of 63.

This is not news. This is how they all end, with slight variations and occasional false endings (2003), climaxing in collapses from exhaustion. Everyone claims to care – so, so deeply – about the kids, about the schools, about the teachers, and they show how much they care by doing nothing.

This time was supposed to be different, and it could have been. And at the risk of altering the space-time continuum in ways J. J. Abrams could not have imagined, let’s take a trek backwards and show what would have made John Greenleaf Whittier’s timeless lament unnecessary:

Dec. 17, Applebee’s (where they knew no one would see them):

Before the session started, during the holiday season, Denis and Kirkpatrick invited Roberson and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey to dinner. Here’s how the conversation went:

Denis: "We want more money for education and a fix to the tax system. How about you?”

Roberson: “I want to tax mining. They have gotten off paying too little for too long.”

Hickey: “I’m not sure of that. But we want construction defect reform, a look at prevailing wage and something on public benefits.”

Kirkpatrick: “Well, I’m going to fix the Live Entertainment Tax. But beyond that, we need to do something right away for education and stop just talking about fixing the tax structure. It's about the policy.”

Roberson: “I agree. I think we have the contours of a deal here. I want more money for education, too. But I also don’t want that margins tax on the ballot.”

Denis: “Listen, the truth is, we don’t like that margins tax much, either. And all of us look terrible letting tax policy be made at the ballot. If we are going to say publicly this session will be different, then let’s make that happen. But we need trust. And how do I know you aren’t going to just try to bash us to take the majority, Michael?”

Roberson: “I want to be majority leader, Mo. Just as you would in my shoes. But I’ll take my chances knocking off Justin (Jones). We can still make a deal. What about mining?”

Kirkpatrick: “Well, this is what I’ll tell you: We all got a lot of campaign money from mining. But everyone knows they have gotten away with murder. And so long as my legal counsel says we won’t blow a hole in the budget by passing SJR 15, we’re on board. What about you, Pat?”

Hickey: “Let’s be realistic. My rural guys can’t go against mining. But we won’t make a lot of noise about it. How’s that? But you and Mo have to give me something on our issues. I’d like to remain leader, you know. And these guys will kill me.”

Kirkpatrick: “Labor will kill us. You know that. But here’s what I’ll tell you: We will get hearings on all of your issues, and let the issues be fully debated. I can’t deliver votes on this, but I can promise you that. You can make a lot of noise on constriction defects and the rest. And who knows? If we can find a middle ground, maybe there’s a deal to be had on construction defects that doesn’t forever kills us with the trial lawyers.”

Roberson: “There is. We can make that happen.”

Denis: “Aren’t we forgetting someone?”

Kirkpatrick: Who?”

Denis: “The governor.”

Roberson: “He is never going to go for a tax package. He’s already getting pummeled from the right on the sunsets. We can promise him we won’t make him look too bad. But we will have to override him to get this done. Even if we just pass the NPRI revenue-neutral sales tax on services, he will veto it.”

Kirkpatrick: “Please don’t mention those a—holes.”

Denis: “What she said. But nicer.”

Hickey: “Fine. But can you get the votes in the Senate to override him, Mike? All we need is one or two of mine. That I can do.”

Roberson: “I can get two more besides myself. Hardy is possible. So is Ben. Maybe even Hutch. He’s a smart, ambitious guy.”

Kirkpatrick: Ok. So we have the outline of a plan. We just have to keep talking, ok? No surprises.”

Roberson: “Deal.”

Feb. 4, Day One, on the steps of the Legislative Building, the leaders address reporters:

Kirkpatrick: “We are here to announce The Four-Point Plan for the session. It has four points and it has four big supporters in each of the Legislature’s leaders.”

Roberson (smiling): “Four points of light.”

Hickey (chuckling): “Some flickering a bit after all of these years.”

Denis: “Let’s get started. Point No. 1 is simple: Pass SJR 15 through both houses, and the Democrats have agreed to support Senator Roberson’s plan to put a tax on mining on the ballot.”

Kirkpatrick: “Point No. 2. We all support a streamlined admission tax, with rare exemptions for movies and gyms, to bring more gaming industry payers and others as well."

Hickey: “Point No. 3. We will have open hearings on bills proposed by the Assembly Republican Caucus, reforms we have sought for many years. We have no expectation of passage, only that there will be a thorough vetting. And we expect to be able to get a deal on at least construction defects.”

Roberson: "Point No. 4. And this one will surprise you cynical reporters. We have agreed to support a sales tax on services that also lower the overall sales tax rate from 8 percent to 3 percent. It may be revenue-neutral the first biennium, but with the economy growing, it will grow, too.”

Questions and barbs ensue from cynical reporters. The Four Horsemen of Legislative Peace do not waver.

Later that day, Gov. Brian Sandoval releases a statement: “I look forward to working with lawmakers of both parties. But now is not the time to raise taxes.”

Feb. 5, Day Two, the steps of the Legislative Building, state Sens. Barbara Cegavske and Don Gustavson along with Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.

Citizen Outreach activists Dan Burdish and Chuck Muth hand them their scripts.

Cegavske: “We are very disappointed in our colleagues. We will fight against any tax increases.”

Gustavson: “I am a no. Thank you.”

Fiore: “No guns on campus, no tax votes.”

The reporters already have left.


During the session, the four leaders regularly have late-night meetings, rotating the offices every time. Media accounts talk about the collegiality and openness. One pundit pens a piece headlined, “Maybe this session will be different, after all.”

Denis gets a lot of pressure from people telling him Roberson is just a front man for Monte Miller to tax mining and kill the margins tax. Hickey is pelted by those who think Kirkpatrick will never allow votes on his bills. Roberson is hounded by conservatives who claim he is selling out. Kirkpatrick, consumed by the Brooks affair, grows paranoid about the fragile alliance, but hews to the agreement.

April 23, Day 79, First House Passage:

The admissions tax flies out of the Assembly on a vote of 29-13. The measure to lower the sales tax and broaden the base passes the state Senate on a 14-7 vote – exactly the two-thirds needed. The fiscal note is $10 million, close to revenue-neutral. Joe Hardy and Mark Hutchison are the only Republicans to vote with Roberson. SJR 15 passes the state Senate on a 17-4 vote. The mining tax ballot proposal to raise $600 million passes 17-4, too.

During the next week, various Assembly committees hold lengthy hearings on GOP bills to reform PERS, fix Chapter 40 and fix prevailing wage laws. All get votes. All are entombed. Hickey declares his disappointment, but privately maintains hope a deal can be reached on construction defects.

May 1, Day 87, Economic Forum/Wynn

The forum finds an extra $50 million. Steve Wynn meets with the leadership quartet, praises what they are doing and declares, “They get it!”

Various business groups try to derail the sales tax on services, but the power of the NPRI lobby proves too strong. I kid. Hickey and Lynn Stewart do not buckle. Sandoval informs the leaders he will veto the tax bills, but assures them he will not be at any Muth-Burdish press conferences. In news releases, Sandoval praises the recovering economy, emphasizes that tax increases are not needed and says he will continue to work with legislative leaders.

May 24, Day 110, Second House Passage

The admission tax passes in the state Senate, 14-7. The new sales tax on services passes the Assembly by 29-13. Hickey and Stewart vote yes. The new mining tax passes by the same margin.

May 31, Day 117

Sandoval vetoes the admissions tax and the mining tax. His veto messages have one sentence: “Now is a terrible time to raise taxes.” They are stamped with a sunny face.

June 1, Day 118

Both houses override Sandoval’s veto by the same votes as occurred during passage. Media reports indicate Sandoval made no effort to twist GOP arms to uphold his veto.

Later that day, under a banner that reads, ‘”Promises Made, Promises Kept,” the four leaders declare victory.

Denis: “This was for the kids. We did our job.”

Roberson: “It’s not easy to do what we did. But we did it.”

Hickey: “I wish we could have done more on our issues. But the Democrats were fair.”

Kirkpatrick: “What I will tell you: It’s time to go home!”


This fantasy is predicated on a few assumptions or leaps of faith that may be…fantastic:

----That Roberson cares about funding education, not just killing the margins tax.

----That the Democrats would be satisfied with what the governor put into the education budget in exchange for a gamble on the admissions tax and the promise of future money as soon as 2015 with mining and a growing sales tax on services.

----That egos and personalities would not get in the way. That the furious lobbying to kill the bills that would occur would fail. That re-election, majority-taking or majority-keeping would not short-circuit good intentions.

I know what you are thinking: This is just a story; it’s not real.

I know.