Photo By DENNIS MYERS U.S. Sen. Harry Reid faced the press after speaking to the Nevada Assembly and Senate.

After Harry Reid became the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate, he slowly became aware that while previously his public statements had not been given much import in the nation’s capital, they were now being weighed on a different scale, and this was even before the Democrats won the majority. Some political players were even having his home state interviews taped and shipped to them in D.C.

“Now, people are even wondering what I’m thinking about,” he said in 2005. “And so it’s a lot different than it was before. I mean, who would think that somebody would cover a high school class I was talking to?” (“Learning how to talk,” RN&R, July 14, 2005).

There are occasional demonstrations of what can happen when he speaks. On Feb. 12, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Stocks dipped mid-session, but bounced after Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said that a deal had been reached on a $US789 billion … economic stimulus bill, adding that the Senate could vote on as soon as tomorrow.”

Another incident came last year, as reported by CNN Money: “Several big life insurance stocks fell sharply Thursday, dragged down by jitters about their role in the credit crisis and fears sparked by a comment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Wednesday about a potential bankruptcy in the industry.”

Reid’s caution with his words has grown. Last week he spoke to a joint session of both houses of the Nevada Legislature. Such forums are extended to all members of the Nevada congressional delegation, and their speeches normally take a half hour or more. In a speech of only 2,342 words Reid spoke for 16 minutes and stayed close to prepared remarks off a teleprompter, avoiding ad libs.

Afterward, at a news conference, a Las Vegas reporter tried to get him to elaborate on one of his speech comments. Reid started to reply, “What I said in the speech—.” Then he turned to his press aide Jon Summers and said, “Do you have the exact words of my speech, Jon?”

Summers brought him the text of the speech, and Reid read the section at issue out loud, less—it appeared—for the benefit of the reporters than to remind himself of how far he wanted to go.

His speech to the legislators attracted state and local public officials who are dependent on federal largesse, from Washoe County Manager Katy Simon to Gov. Jim Gibbons. Reid’s value to Nevada government jurisdictions from school districts to mosquito abatement districts was on display in that audience. And not everything he said was good news to them. For one thing, he said federal money was coming to Nevada in the stimulus package but that it would not relieve them of the decision on whether to raise taxes. Describing the stimulus package, he told them: “This legislation invests our tax dollars. But unlike the fiscal policies of the past decade, this plan recognizes that every dollar spent belongs to the American people. That is why it ensures accountability, transparency and oversight. … Here at the state level, it is not meant to plug every budget hole to let leaders at the state and local levels avoid their responsibilities.”

Later he pointed out that in order to gain access to some of the stimulus funds, the lawmakers must provide every student with an education at 2006’s level. The exact language of the law: “The State will, in each of fiscal years 2009 and 2010, maintain State support for elementary and secondary education at least at the level of such support in fiscal year 2006.”

To put it another way, in order for Nevada to receive stimulus funding for schools, the state must spend as much money as it did for K-12 education as it did in 2006. This will all but force Nevada state legislators to raise taxes—or else ravage the rest of state government budgets, such as prisons, which is not going to happen. Asked whether state legislators should raise taxes, Reid said, “That’s their responsibility, not mine.” States can get waivers from the 2006 requirement, but Nevada is an unlikely candidate for such a waiver, according to Speaker Barbara Buckley. Buckley said she believes that Nevada will need to raise about $265 million in order to qualify for $400 million in federal school funds.

The 2006 level requirement of the federal stimulus is likely to help students in other states more than in Nevada, because other states will not have to serve the same amount of population growth that Nevada has experienced. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of new students move to Nevada since 2006,” Reid said. And the senator kept repeating that the federal stimulus is not so big that it will let state or local officials out of having to generate their own revenue. It contains, for instance, money for school construction, but only for existing schools—renovation and repair, for instance. If school districts want to keep up with the need for new schools, they’re on their own.

“So we’re not here to tell the 17 counties that they are home free now, or certainly the state of Nevada,” Reid said. “They’re going to still have to do some very difficult things.”

But he added, “What would it be had we not done this?”

And now, the good news

There was also relatively unalloyed good news. County officials heard Reid say in his speech that federal money has been freed up for the property taxes that don’t get paid on federally managed land—“for the first time Nevada counties will receive full funding for county payments and payments in lieu of taxes, which translates into millions of dollars for our state.”

Washoe County Manager Simon said as she exited the hall, “Absolutely wonderful—short and sweet.” Later, Simon said Reid has been a repeat benefactor of Washoe County.

“The most significant things that Sen. Reid has helped us with in recent years have to do with our flood control project,” she said. “He’s also been of huge assistance to us on things like the protection of Incline Lake and the transfer of that property into public ownership, as has Sen. [John] Ensign. Sen. Reid has helped us with court security funding and secured about $800,000 in funding for our region following Judge [Charles] Weller’s shooting. He has been helpful with transportation funding, water project funding.”

She said the federal government has been chronically in arrears on in-lieu taxes owed to local governments—“We have not had full funding for payment in lieu of taxes, I don’t think, as long as I’ve been county manager, which is 10 years”—so Reid’s announcement that those debts are being brought current is “a huge deal for us” that will bring the county $1.7 million. It’s funding that was not expected, so it’s a little like found money and will help the county with its shortfall.

Photo By dennis myers Gov. Jim Gibbons joked with Nuclear Projects Office director Bruce Breslow just before they entered the Assembly hall to listen to Sen. Reid’s speech.

This kind of recital of Reid’s value to Washoe County could have been echoed by local and state officials all over Nevada, and is one of the reasons that—even though he is in the trough in Nevada opinion surveys—his reelection is hardly being written off.

The heaviest applause for Reid—and the only time the dour senator showed more than the barest smile—was when he all but declared victory in the fight to stop the proposed dump for other states’ nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain.

“The winds have definitely shifted in one area for Nevada with this new administration, and that is the fight on Yucca Mountain,” he said. “Now, instead of fighting against the storm, Nevada has the wind at its back. In partnership with the other delegation members and state constitutional officers, we should finally see the Yucca project come to a close. I am doing everything that I can to stop the dump, but I am not the only one involved in this fight. This is not the time for the state to back off by cutting funding for the legal battles that are still being fought. We are in the last lap of the race, and Nevada needs every weapon to finally win this 20-year-plus battle.”

Those last two sentences were aimed at legislators who are considering Gov. Gibbons’ proposal to scale back the funding and staff of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Office, which leads the fight against the waste dump. Former Sparks mayor Bruce Breslow, recently appointed by Gibbons, now heads that office. Breslow is a harsh critic of controlled growth whose appointment has made Yucca critics nervous. He, too, was in Reid’s audience.

But at least three times during his visit to the legislature, Reid passed up the chance to criticize Gibbons directly, saying he has little reason to get involved in the disputes that swirl around the controversial governor. “I’ve been very careful in not criticizing Gov. Gibbons. … I’m not going to get into that. It’s just—there’s no reason for me to do it. Just not going to do it. What good would it do for me to criticize him?”

But if he didn’t criticize the governor by name, he sent Gibbons a couple of messages—first in making the Yucca Mountain comments and, later with reporters, by offering praise for Nevada higher education chancellor Jim Rogers. Rogers is one of Gibbons’ fiercest critics and is opposing the governor’s plan to reduce the higher education system by more than a third. When a student journalist asked Reid how campus students should channel their anger over cuts, the senator first used the question to endorse Rogers in extravagant fashion.

“First of all, this gives me an opportunity to tell everyone within the sound of my voice how much I admire and respect Jim Rogers. Jim Rogers has done a lot of things for education. … I’ve watched his presentations, and he’s striving to make Nevada education a better place to go to school, not only for college students—he’s talking about making K through 12 also a better deal.”

Closer to home

Applause was almost as heavy when Reid talked about what’s in the stimulus package for Nevadans:

“We address the housing crisis by providing an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers and a program to help state and local governments, in partnership with community-based organizations, to purchase, build and rehabilitate affordable housing. And nearly all Nevadans will receive tax relief, with almost one million of our state’s workers and their families receiving a $400 tax cut for individuals and $800 for married couples, and a $2,500 tax credit to help 32,000 Nevada families afford the cost of a college education.”

Reid looked for chances to explain the value of these measures to individual Nevadans. When he did an interview with Brandon Rittiman of KTVN, he walked through the procedure for using the $8,000 tax credit for homebuyers.

A group of protesters in front of the building where Reid spoke objected to the whole notion of the stimulus package, calling it redistribution of income and saying Congress should have stayed out of the economy.

Some Republican state legislators, including Assembly GOP leader Heidi Gansert, were critical of Reid because they said Nevada received too little money from the stimulus package compared to other states of similar size. There is an array of factors for assigning funds and while Nevada may do poorly in some areas, it does better in others.

For instance, Nevada did very poorly in jobless assistance compared to other states, but better than others in Medicaid. “States experiencing poor economic conditions as indicated by a significant rise in unemployment—as most states are—would receive additional assistance,” reported the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Depending on the extent of the state’s rise in unemployment, a state could receive a 5.5 percent, 8.5 percent, or 11.5 percent reduction in the share of Medicaid costs the state pays. This reduction would apply to the state’s share of Medicaid costs after taking into account the hold harmless provision and half of the 6.2 percentage point base increase.”

But even given those factors, Nevada received the lowest amount in the nation per unemployed worker. Reid, naturally, preferred to focus on the state’s high funds for Medicaid, which he described as the “number one task for the governors.” It appeared likely he would address the jobless aid when he returned to D.C.

Though he was circumspect in his comments on some topics, he was quick to respond to such attacks, saying that the GOP legislators “obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.” Political combat clearly falls outside his cautiousness with his words. He made heavy use in press interviews of a provocative characterization of Republicans in Congress who opposed the stimulus package—“I think the Republicans are making a mistake betting on the country failing economically.”

Just as he found himself surrounded by GOP admirers among local officials dependent on his good will at home in Nevada, Reid was able to describe the stimulus fight in Congress as bipartisan not because of Republican congressional support but because state officials from around the nation—including Republican governors, mayors and state legislators—got involved in backing the stimulus package.

“I’ll always remember the support we got from the Republican governors,” he said.

As Reid was making what KRNV called his “triumphant appearance” in Nevada, he was under harsh criticism over his handling of the job of senate leader in Washington, with many commentators calling him weak. A North Carolina columnist, for instance, wrote, “Harry Reid’s lack of confidence and consequent weak, frowning uncharismatic personality makes it impossible for him to lead and opens windows of opportunity for the out-of-touch, out-voted Republican Party.”

Republican strategists outside Congress said that in 2010 they intend to make an issue of the vote on the stimulus package, but that plan was being undercut within Congress. The Hill, a newspaper that reports on congressional affairs, said GOP congressmembers who voted against the stimulus were busily putting out news releases touting what it does for their states and districts.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...