Timing of court ruling breaking budget stalemate no coincidence

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Justin M. Bowen

Gov. Brian Sandoval addresses the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at a luncheon held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas.

Published Thu, May 26, 2011 (7:59 p.m.)

Updated Thu, May 26, 2011 (8:49 p.m.)

Sun Coverage

The timing of a Nevada Supreme Court decision that broke a budget stalemate and pushed Gov. Brian Sandoval to switch positions on extending taxes seemed providential.

But it was no coincidence.

Lawyers for the Nevada Legislature asked the Supreme Court in February to expedite a ruling on whether the state could take $62 million from a Clark County agency, so lawmakers would know whether to include the money in the budget.

Additionally, Chief Justice Michael L. Douglas said that Democratic leadership made inquiries with the court.

“We got some requests, not directly to me, like, ‘Are you guys going to have

a decision?’ We had no answer,” Douglas said.

But, he said, there was no conversation about the case. “Any conversation would be inappropriate. We do realize that,” he said.

Douglas declined to say who contacted the Nevada Supreme Court about the decision.

The unanimous court decision on the 2010 Legislature’s grab of $62 million from the Clark County Clean Water Coalition for a now-canceled water project came as budget negotiations had reached an impasse. Republican senators were sticking with Sandoval and his pledge not to raise taxes.

Democrats promised to force a government shutdown rather than passing Sandoval’s cuts.

Bill Gang, spokesman for the court, indicated it was not unusual to request an expedited hearing.

Oral arguments for the case were heard about a month ago, and justices seemed skeptical of the state’s arguments that it had the authority to take the Clean Water Coalition money.

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera would not answer questions about the topic on Thursday, saying only that the court could not be influenced. Later, his staff said the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the lawyers for lawmakers, requested the expedited hearing.

Conservatives on Thursday furiously took to twitter to express their displeasure with the decision and with Sandoval’s turnabout.

The precedent of the decision could increase the budget hole by $500 million, forcing Sandoval to reconsider his budget, according to sources close to the governor.

Friday has been viewed as a key deadline for the 2011 Nevada Legislature, which ends on June 6 per the state Constitution. The Legislature would have to pass an alternative to Sandoval’s budget then to have time to override a veto.

During a brutal tax fight in 2003, the Nevada Supreme Court was accused of activism by telling the Legislature that it could pass a budget without a two-thirds majority for a tax increase, as required by the state Constitution. The court later invalidated that ruling, which was widely panned.

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