As Democrats prepare tax plan, the natives are getting restless


Ruben Murillo did not hesitate.

“If we leave this legislative session without any commitment to stable funding, there’s going to be a lot of people demanding answers,” the incoming head of the state teachers union said. “We will hold them accountable.”

Even Democrats?

Again, he did not pause.

“Everyone,” he said, emphasizing the word, “will be held accountable.”

Murillo’s comments came shortly after a 90-minute town hall meeting at Western High School on Saturday, a gathering attended by a third of the Southern Nevada delegation and a quarter of all lawmakers (but almost no media). Of the 16 who attended the event sponsored by the Clark County union Murillo now helms, half were Republicans and half were Democrats.

As they were buffeted by questions and criticisms from teachers and students for an hour and a half, the lawmakers soothed and pandered and patronized. But there they were, on Murillo’s stage, heads counted, names taken.

And several times, the leader of the Republican senators, sitting in the front row on stage, close to Murillo, so he could grab the mike as often as possible, told the plaintive audience: “Some of us have a plan.”

Yes, the Dirty Half-Dozen does. And I sensed in Murillo’s tone after the event that he and others are just as weary as many of those hundreds at Western High with the litany of promises made by….their friends.

With two-thirds of Session ’13 evaporated, and the Democrats raising the white flag on that stable funding source Murillo demanded, I sense the potential for a phenomenon we have not seen in 20 years: The Nevada State Education Association looking beyond a party that seems to represent the get-along-to-go-along status quo and one that has decided, led by the mercurial Roberson, to boldly go where no Republicans have gone before. Or, perhaps, once before, under a man named Sir Bill.

I get the sense that some members of the Democratic base are wondering why they are the foundation for a party that has let the tail (Roberson) wag the dog this session. “If there’s not a deal, there will be some consequences,” said another Democratic insider, echoing Murillo. “People are not going to accept it anymore.”

The question is whether this means inserting primary candidates into races against Democratic incumbents or endorsing Republicans in competitive districts. I sense more the former than the latter, but the teachers union, if it can return to its old glory, can affect races in June and November.

The Democrats in Carson City may have awakened to what’s happening, deciding this week to announce a plan to go after mining, which is what Roberson proposed weeks ago. They surely will not give him credit, and insist this was their plan all along. But their plan will not provide the dedicated funding source that Roberson has proffered, nor will it expand the base as the teachers’ own margins tax, flawed and perhaps stillborn though it may be, would do. (One of the yet-to-be-told stories is how the gaming industry, uncharacteristically mute, would have to rise up to try to smite the margins tax next year because of how it would affect many properties who make more money now in non-gaming revenue.)

Here’s what is really astonishing about the developing dynamic: Roberson isn’t hiding the ball on anything. He wants to kill the margins tax. He wants to take the majority. He wants to expand the GOP base. He wants to make a deal.

What he doesn’t have is trust from the other side to go with a winning political issue (taxing mining). But the Democrats, in a rerun of 2011, have hidden the ball for too long on their plan while Roberson has been transparent.

State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis disagreed when I asked him about that after the town hall, saying, “Last session, they (I think he means "we") waited until the last two weeks of the session.”


It will be almost two years to the day when the Democrats unveil their plan this week from when their counterparts presented theirs in 2011. It is late in the session, maybe, again, too late.

So who makes the deal? Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, as one observer smartly put it, is the kind of person “who thinks policy should drive politics when it’s the other way around.”

Indeed, Kirkpatrick has been consumed with her soon-to-be-introduced admissions tax, leaving behind the early-session talk of a grand bargain with the Republicans and sweeping tax reform along with it. The only question left is the one we are usually left with: Can the Democrats get enough Republican votes to pass a tax increase over Gov. Brian Sandoval’s inevitable veto?

I get the sense that under the right circumstances, Roberson makes that deal, perhaps with the Democrats giving only a little on construction defect legislation. The minority leader and the governor are not especially close, and I sense Roberson is more concerned with expanding the GOP’s appeal than following the titular head of the party.

Roberson’s style is much different from Raggio’s. Sir Bill never revealed his hole card until the endgame. But Roberson and Raggio share the same foresight, which is to hew to your principles but always be willing to see the other side’s point of view.

Roberson, not unlike Raggio, thinks in three dimensions, which is three times the dimensions the knee-jerk, no-tax crowd thinks in. And like Raggio, Roberson is only too willing to fill a vacuum if the Democrats won’t do so, offering to do more for teachers in one fell swoop (his mining tax) than the Democrats have done or will do.

Don't misunderstand: Mike Roberson is not Bill Raggio. One is a rookie, the other a legend. But so far, he's the one playing chess up there, folks.

Murillo told me the teachers want to see a commitment to fund class-size reduction to the tune of $130 million for the biennium. With the Economic Forum’s tweaks and some gimmickry, lawmakers can probably squeeze that into the budget, maybe in a way that Sandoval could accept.

But Roberson is thinking bigger. He happens to agree with many education advocates that setting a policy to end social promotion at the third grade while not properly funding the early grades and ELL programs is not just an unfunded mandate but a guarantee that many kids will be held back. Excuse me for allowing common-sense policy to interfere for a moment. Mea culpa.

It comes down to this: Unless the Democrats learn to play his game, they may find some core constituencies wondering what they worked so hard for in 2012 to maintain majorities. I still wonder if the teachers are willing to do what it takes – to push the margins tax, to (if necessary) make a deal to doom the margins tax, to primary Democrats, to support Republicans.

If they are, and if there is not a deal, there will be consequences.