Nevadans watch the 2011 Nevada Assembly from the balcony.
Nevadans watch the 2011 Nevada Assembly from the balcony.

Ballot Question 1, an amendment to the Nevada Constitution, is the only statewide measure on Nevada’s ballot this year. If passed, it will allow two-thirds of the Legislature to call itself into special session for extraordinary purposes.

“Extraordinary occasions” is defined as “unexpected conditions or emergency situations, to conduct impeachment, removal or expulsion proceedings for misconduct in office, or to reconsider bills vetoed by the Governor after the adjournment of a regular session.”

It’s an idea that has been kicking around for years. In the 1980s, Sen. Jean Ford of Clark County introduced it but was unable to get it through the difficult process required to amend the state constitution. Her intent was shown in 1985 when an Alaska grand jury recommended removal of that state’s governor and the legislature was able to call itself into session.

In Nevada, the governor has the sole power to call the lawmakers into special session—and he controls their agenda.

Sponsored by Assemblymember Harry Mortenson of Clark County as Assembly Joint Resolution 5, Question 1 was approved by the 2009 and 2011 legislative sessions, which is required before it can go on the ballot.

Mortenson said requiring the Legislature obtain the governor’s permission to convene a special session is counterintuitive to the proper functioning of state government. With only the governor able to call special sessions, the ability of all three houses of government to function independently and equally is diminished, he said.

“In Illinois, the governor was discovered trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat,” Mortenson said. “The Illinois legislature convened itself to proceed with impeachment of their governor. This could not happen in Nevada.”

In addition to requiring two thirds of each house sign a petition calling a special session, Question 1 requires that the petition must clearly state the business to be discussed. The session’s agenda would then be limited to that list.

It would allow the same Legislature that first processed vetoed bills to vote on the override. Currently, bills vetoed after the Legislature adjourns are voted on by the next Legislature two years later.

The Legislature would be allowed to stay in special session for a maximum of 20 days, except in cases of impeachment or expulsion from office. However, the Legislature could call for additional special sessions, potentially allowing the legislature to convene for an indefinite period of time.

AJR 5 passed the Assembly in 2009 by 28-13 and in 2011 by 28-13. It passed the Senate in 2009 by 17-4 (a bipartisan vote) that became 11-10 (a straight party-line vote) in 2011, with every Republican voting no.

Sen. Moises Denis, a Clark County Democrat, said he supports Question 1 because on occasion, there is a need for the Legislature to convene itself without the express approval of the governor.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to do things that we didn’t do at the legislature that are important,” Denis says. “The governor shouldn’t be the only one able to determine that.”

Question 1 has met with a fair amount of opposition. Republican legislators have been particularly outspoken. Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, fears that the passage of Question 1 will change the very character of the Nevada Legislature. He says Question 1 is the first step in the direction of a year-round legislature.

“The Republicans generally do not want a year-round legislature like California has,” Gustavson says. “This is one step more in that direction.”

Legislators like Gustavson believe allowing the Legislature to call a special session is contrary to a part-time “citizen legislature.”

“It’s a dangerous precedent to set, to have the Legislature meet whenever they want to,” Gustavson says.

But supporters say the idea that legislators who have to interrupt their work and home lives would casually sign onto a special session is nonsense.

Nevada is one of 18 states whose legislatures cannot call themselves into session and one of 11 that cannot decide its own special session agenda.

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