Bill targeting traffic delays draws wide range of foes

Sun, Mar 8, 2009 (3 a.m.)

Clark County officials want to penalize companies whose construction disrupts traffic for long periods, causing motorists frustration and adding to air pollution.

Sabra Smith-Newby, director of the Clark County Administrative Services Department, says a bill would permit counties to charge fees if traffic is disrupted longer than originally planned. Cities have this authority, she said.

The fees would be based on the volume of traffic disrupted. For example, she said, a higher fee would be charged for the closure of a lane of Las Vegas Boulevard South as opposed to one in a residential neighborhood.

But Assembly Bill 51 ran into stiff opposition from civil rights activists, utility companies and construction interests. Even the chairwoman of the committee that heard testimony on the measure, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said she didn’t like the bill.

Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, noted that it would permit the county to charge for parades and protests. Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada, said First Amendment activities should be exempted.

The bill is aimed at construction or repairs that disrupt traffic, Smith-Newby said, not at parades or protests.

The bill also brought protests by AT&T, the Nevada State Cable Association, Southwest Gas, Embarq, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and organized labor, which said companies already pay fees to do work in the street.

Although counties can impose penalties for delayed public works projects, there isn’t a penalty for private companies, said Denis Cederburg of the Clark County Public Works Department.

For example, Cederburg said, the expansion of the convention center in Las Vegas is tying up traffic and causing delays on Desert Inn and Paradise roads.

The fee for this work was $350, Cederburg said. “So for $350 the contractor can go into the Desert Inn Super Arterial roadway, take out a lane for as long as they want.”

Smith-Newby said she would work with the opponents to come up with an acceptable bill.

•••

Smokers in Nevada would pay an additional $1 a pack in taxes under a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.

Nevadans now pay an 80-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes with 70 cents kept by the state and 10 cents going to local government.

The added $1 cigarette tax would bring in more than $100 million a year, which would be divided between health programs for pregnant women and low-income children.

Leslie said pregnant women can’t get any help with health care until they are accepted into the state’s Medicaid program. The added money would permit them to get care while they are waiting for Medicaid acceptance and pay doctors for treating them.

It would also allow more children to participate in the Nevada Check Up medical care program, she said.

The federal government recently imposed a 60-cent-a-pack tax increase, Leslie said. Gov. Jim Gibbons has said he will veto any new taxes.

Assembly Bill 255 was referred to the Assembly Taxation Committee for study.

•••

Organized labor and gaming agree on one thing — Nevada needs annual budget sessions of the Legislature.

“It’s insanity,” says Danny Thompson, executive director of the Nevada AFL-CIO, referring to the present system. “There should be annual sessions to balance the budget.”

William Bible, president of the Nevada Resort Association, also endorsed annual budget sessions.

Thompson is a former assemblyman, and Bible served as state budget director.

The Legislature meets every two years for 120 days in the odd-numbered year and crafts a biennial budget.

A constitutional amendment for annual sessions has to pass two sessions of the Legislature and then be approved by the voters. If that process were started now, the first annual budget session would be in 2014. Until then, Thompson said, the governor could call special budget sessions in the even-numbered years.

Nevada had one annual session in 1960. But voters repealed them later that year and rejected the issue in 1970. Since then, the amendment has been introduced several times but died in the Legislature, the last time in 2001.

Cy Ryan is the Sun’s capital bureau chief.

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