Tax questions loom as lawmakers, Sisolak continue staring down massive budget cuts

Uncertainty about whether legislators would try to raise taxes to stave off $1.2 billion in painful cuts from the Nevada budget prompted sharp words from advocates, lawmakers and the governor on Thursday.

During public comment on the K-12 education budget in the Senate, two leaders in the Clark County Education Association opposing cuts to the state’s public schools took aim at a lack of a plan from the governor to raise taxes.

“When Gov. Sisolak said he will not lead on revenue, he means he will not lead period,” said Jim Frazee, a board member of the teacher’s union.

Sisolak answered their statements later at a press conference, signaling that he would leave the tax discussion up to the Legislature and that the ball was in the court of Republicans, who can block any tax increase vote with the one-vote advantage they have in the Senate. He said he was disappointed that no state Senate Republicans had approached him about potential ways to increase revenue to lessen the cuts.

“I have to be realistic,” Sisolak said during the press conference. “We couldn't raise revenue in the last session. Raising it a special session is not going to be any easier. If anybody on the Republican Senate side wants to raise their hand and say, ‘Here I am, governor, I'm supporting revenue increases, let's talk,’ we could have a much broader discussion. I haven't seen that hand come up.”

The remark rankled some members of the Senate Republican caucus, including Reno’s Ben Kieckhefer, who in an interview earlier this week did not dismiss supporting a revenue increase if he felt it was warranted after listening to the budget presentations.

“When did leadership become a process of waiting for people to come to you?” he said in a text message after the press conference.

Democrats say they’re considering ways to raise revenue, although they haven’t publicly backed any specific proposals and remained vague about their progress in winning any Republicans to the cause.

At a press conference late Thursday, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said they were beginning initial, unspecified discussions with their Republican counterparts regarding a possible tax or revenue increase to offset the cuts.

Both Democrats remained vague on potential plans, beyond Frierson confirming that any planned tax increase would likely not change the state’s sales tax, which is already relatively high. 

“We haven't talked with the minority caucus about any specifics,” he said. “We are open, and we think everything needs to be on the table with the caveat that we are not interested in putting the burden of this on working families.”

Friday will likely bring hearings in the Senate on smaller bills, including one allowing changes in eligibility for the Millennium Scholarship and another enacting changes in the state’s bonding process. Frierson said leadership has not written off holding hearings on other agency budgets beyond the major education and health and human services cuts both houses have reviewed, but that lawmakers needed to use their time wisely and could not hold hearings on every agency’s budget.

Neither caucus leader indicated what changes, if any, they may make to Sisolak’s proposed budget cuts, saying they needed to keep working with their caucus members to identify potential areas for changes. Cannizzaro said the questions that have already come up from members during the hearings are an indication of what may be of greatest concern to legislators.

“I don’t think anybody is happy to have these conversations, or that it’s sitting well with anybody,” Cannizzaro said. “I don’t know a single member of my caucus, or a single Senate Republican, and certainly not anybody in the Assembly on the Democrat or Republican caucus who goes home at night and says, ‘You know, what we did today was great.’”