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House race focuses on Nevada’s poor economy
by Cristina Silva - Associated Press
Aug 22, 2011 | 752 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada has struggled financially for four years because of backsliding home values and thrifty tourists reluctant to spend big in a down economy.

But to hear the candidates in the U.S. House election tell it, the true villain behind the Silver State's enduring financial crisis is either a soft-spoken single mother with no legislative power or a folksy former lawmaker whose stance on tax increases is a moving target.

Democrat Kate Marshall and Republican Mark Amodei are both pointing fingers in Nevada's Sept. 13 special election. The blame game reflects Nevada's dire economy, as well as a desire shared by Republicans and Democrats alike to reassure voters that they can somehow make it better.

Nevada has had the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation for months. The state's jobless rate was 12.4 percent in June. The unemployment rate was 13 percent that month in Reno, the largest city in the northern Nevada district Amodei and Marshall both want to represent. Meanwhile, Standards & Poor's recently downgraded Nevada to an AA credit rating, one of the worst standings among the states.

Amodei, a former state senator, has consistently painted Marshall as a walking financial jinx and his latest TV spot calls her "just another politician reckless with your money."

Marshall, the state treasurer, has hammered Amodei for joining every member of the Legislature to pass the state's largest tax increase in 2003. It was bad for businesses, she said.

"Your tax policy should motivate economic behavior," she said.

In truth, neither Amodei nor Marshall has ever had enough power to do much damage to Nevada's economy. But, like many veteran politicians, their records do include nuggets of controversy that sound particularly bad alongside the scary music and graphics featured in attack ads.

"The charges going back and forth are inflated," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Amodei and Marshall are competing to replace Republican Dean Heller, who moved from the House to the Senate after Republican Sen. John Ensign resigned in May amid a sex scandal.

Marshall was elected treasurer in 2006 after she bested her Republican rival by a 5 percent spread. She was re-elected last year by a margin of 4 percent, a slight decrease.

The recession began early in her first term. The state's investment portfolio shrunk during her tenure from $2.1 billion in December 2006 to $1.6 billion in March of this year, a $500 million difference.

"The portfolio is smaller because revenue is down and we spent the money," Marshall said. "I have never lost a nickel for this state."

But the state did lose money with Marshall at the helm; most notably it invested $50 million into Lehman Brothers, a sum Nevada taxpayers will likely never see again following the company's liquidation in September 2008.

Marshall insisted the state will recover the loss in an ongoing legal battle against Lehman.

"I don't know if we are going to lose any money at all," she said of the investment.

Amodei argued that Marshall should acknowledge her office's failures as she does its successes.

"I don't know what the number is, but it's not a small number," he said of the Lehman loss. "If I had been the state treasurer when that happened it would have been my responsibility."

Overall, state finance records show the state's portfolio has performed better than the average yields on U.S. Treasury securities since Marshall took office. That's the benchmark the states uses to rate its investment performance.

In comparison, the state's portfolio underperformed for most of 2004 under Marshall's Republican predecessor, now Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki. During Krolicki's final term in office from 2002 to 2006, the state portfolio grew by roughly $1 billion.

Marshall also oversaw the state's first credit rating downgrade by Standard & Poor's since at least 1986. The rating was downgraded in March from AA+ to the slightly less desirable AA rating.

The Silver State was one of only three states whose standing with S&P was downgraded this year. In contrast, the rating agency has upgraded the standings of 13 states since January, including economically ravaged Florida and California.

Nevada's new S&P rating is among the worst in the nation, according to a history of state ratings published by the company in July. There were 27 states with higher ratings than Nevada then, and only six states with worse ratings. Nevada shared the AA rating with 16 other states.

S&P didn't blame Marshall when it downgraded the state's finances. It instead pointed to the state's limited tax structure, which relies heavily on tourism dollars.

The Legislature, not Marshall, is to blame for the state's homogenous economy. Nevada's tourism focus also hurt the state when the economy collapsed and people began traveling less because the state had few other industries to lean on.

Calls to diversify Nevada's business landscape have largely been ignored for years by state lawmakers, including Amodei.

"The rating agency speaks for itself," Marshall said. "This Legislature can't diversify its economy and broaden its base and figure its way out of this mess."

Amodei defended his legislative record, including his vote to raise taxes. He described it as the least evil solution to a budget that demanded revenue increases. He has since signed an anti-tax pledge, but he claimed the pledge isn't permanently binding, especially if he wins the special election and is elected for a regular two-year term in November 2012.

"For the next 16 months, I don't see the economy turning around," Amodei said. "So to say no new tax increases for the next 16 months that doesn't sound radical to me in this context of where we are fiscally in the federal government right now."
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