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Special Session Stalls As COVID-19 Cases Mount

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(Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent via AP, Pool)

Assistant Majority Leader Julia Ratti gestures during the Special Session in Carson City, Nev., Monday, July 13, 2020.

Lawmakers met in Carson City again Monday for the fifth day of a special session. Normally, a special session would be a couple of days at most.

But on Monday, the Assembly gaveled in for about ten minutes and then went into a recess that lasted for hours.

Legislators are trying to grapple with a $1.2 billion budget hole caused by the pandemic.

And at the same time, new COVID-19 cases are surging and hospitalization rates are going up, too.

Political science Professor Fred Lokken from Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno said he has never seen a special session take this long. He said usually lawmakers take a "quick and dirty" approach to special sessions over fears of how much it costs.

But he thinks this special session could last 20 days, plus, he said the governor has committed to another special session to address a myriad of issues including police and election reform.

Lokken said one of the problems holding up work in the session is an amendment passed a few years ago.

“The Gibbons Amendment, that requires a two-thirds vote for any budget, has really wrapped this around the axle over the last several decades," he said, "The reality is is that they’re one vote short in the State Senate of a two-thirds majority.”

He said under the two-thirds majority model the minority party - in this case Republicans - have tremendous power over the budget process. But that amendment is only one of the problems.

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“The other reality is, in the state of Nevada, we don’t have a lot of buckets of money sitting around," he said, "In the absence of considering new revenue sources, it’s really considering some severe cuts to social services and education to be able to make this budget balance.”

Lokken noted that over the last few sessions lawmakers have worked to put more money into education and now they're having to reverse course.

"We've seen some progress as a result of spending more money and now we're looking at taking back almost everything we've given in the last few sessions," he said, "That's a hard pill to swallow."

However, he said the state's budget is very lean so cuts are going to be difficult. Plus, the state already used its rainy day fund to cover budget shortfalls for this year. 

Fundamentally, Lokken said, the state's budget structure needs to be revised. He said it is based on a structure developed in the 60's when there were only 300,000 people in the state. 

"We need more revenue sources to deal with the greater complexity of state government," he said. 

One new revenue source that has been discussed is removing the tax incentives enjoyed by Nevada mining companies. The amount the mining industry pays in taxes is capped and that cap is enshrined in the state Constitution. 

"I think the mining industry could frankly do the right thing and actually step up and give money to the state," he said, "I mean it's unprecedented but this has been the special deal since the 1930s. They don't get this special deal in any other state."

Lokken said the companies are sometimes making record profits off the state's finite resources and the state has "never ever benefitted financially from it."

There is no doubt that lawmakers are going to have to make tough choices but Lokken believes they're not going to have to fill the entire $1.2 billion hole. 

"There's also the hope that the federal government might provide all the states some relief in the next stimulus package that will be looked at at the end of July," he said, "I think it would be worth the calculated risk that the state of Nevada could see some relief from the national government that would make some of these hard decisions go away."

Guests

Fred Lokken, Chair of Political Science Department, Truckee Meadows Community College

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