Sen. Dean Heller says there is a list of things that keep him awake at night: global issues such as the economy, debt and the nation’s lack of a growth strategy, and specifics such as the potential listing of the sage grouse and the spread of Internet gaming.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Nevada Appeal, Heller said the two major parties have differences on issues including unemployment insurance benefits extensions and restoration of cost-of-living raises for veterans, but “not differences big enough we can’t get this thing done.”
He’s less confident about big issues such as tax reform and the economy.
“There are 10 million jobs that don’t exist today that existed 10 years ago,” he said. “And we’re going to add another trillion to our deficit this year.”
He criticized the program of so-called quantitative easing in which the government is “buying back our own bonds and basically propping up the stock market.”
But Heller said the core problem is America’s lack of a real growth strategy.
“The reason we don’t have one is because America is not competitive today,” he said. “The reason we’re not competitive is because we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world.”
Until those issues are dealt with, he said, there’s little chance of bringing businesses back from overseas.
Heller said that if little long-term reform can be managed, Congress must at least renew the tax extenders that allow Nevadans, like those in other states without income taxes, to deduct sales taxes on their IRS returns.
“Tax extenders has to happen,” the Carson City resident said.
The potential listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species is another worry, he said.
“Harry (Reid) and I are trying to stop that listing,” Heller said.
He said the federal Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision by September and has been told by a federal judge it has to put aside 20 million acres of habitat for the bird in Nevada.
“The question is this: Who do we want to determine that? Someone in the federal government, or should the state of Nevada decide where that habitat is going to be?”
He said Nevadans should make that decision.
Where his friend and House colleague Mark Amodei said he was frustrated and doubtful that a deal can be reached on extending unemployment insurance benefits again, Heller said he was more optimistic.
“I’m working with Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island),” he said. “Philosophically we’re far apart, but we both understand the need for that safety net.”
He said he also is pushing hard to restore the Paul Ryan/Patty Murray compromise that reduced cost-of-living adjustments for veterans. The problem is how Democrats wanted to pay the tab, Heller said, basically pushing the cost down the road 10 years. He said Reid, the Senate majority leader, was an honest broker who wanted to get the problem fixed, but that the block was his own party members.
Comprehensive tax reform is a no-go this year, and the Ryan/Murray plan took any substantive changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security off the table, Heller said.
Internet gambling, he said, “has the potential to really wreak havoc with the economy in the state of Nevada.”
“We have 16 states now considering Internet gambling,” he said.
Heller said his biggest fear is that California gets into the market.
When Europe authorized online gaming, he said, there was a 20 percent drop in revenue at bricks-and-mortar casinos, and half of them have since closed.
Another issue, he said, is the elimination of the Payments In Lieu Of Taxes program that compensates counties where the vast majority of lands are federally owned and non-taxable. That program primarily benefits Western states such as Nevada, which receives about $22 million a year that makes up a significant portion of budgets in counties as much as 98 percent federally owned.
The economic impact on those counties is huge because they simply have nowhere to grow, he said.
“I just signed on with Sen. (Mark) Udall (D-Colo.) to fully fund PILT in the future so it doesn’t become a pawn in this game,” Heller said. “I want a permanent fix. Let’s get this thing off the table.”
A better solution, he said, would be for the federal government to release a large portion of the 87 percent of Nevada it owns.
“We ought to be like states east of the Mississippi, where most of the land is owned by the state.”
Heller expressed some frustration that the Yerington lands bill that would allow development of a major copper mine is stalled in the House.
“The Senate is not the problem,” he said. House leadership wants it to be part of an omnibus lands bill wrapping several land deals together, Heller said.
If approved, the bill will enable a project that could provide several hundred high-paying mining jobs in economically depressed Lyon County.
“It should have been done a year ago,” he said.
Over his years in the House and now Senate, Heller has made several immigration-reform proposals that include a structured path for people here illegally to become citizens. He was rebuffed, primarily by his own party. He said he thinks the bill that came out of the Senate last year contains “an earned citizenship.”
“I think it came close,” he said.
Heller said that while he would encourage House leadership to act, “it’s going to be tough to do this year because it’s an election year, and election year changes everything.”