Before the 2013 Nevada Legislature went into session, Assembly Republican floor leader Pat Hickey was talking cooperation, with a caveat.
“In the upcoming session, legislative leaders from both political parties have promised to set a new tone of bipartisan respect and cooperation,” he wrote in a Las Vegas Sun essay in February. “If Democrats, who [have majorities] in both houses, decide they want to revamp … Nevada’s tax structure from ’Day 2,’ Republicans will come to the table with ears and minds open. However, if this session is truly to be marked by a new commitment to across-the-table problem-solving, Republicans must feel welcome to bring their recipes for policy and funding levels to this new ’bipartisan buffet.’ In other words, if new revenues (taxes) are to be seriously considered for the public to spend, so too should public spending (reforms) be considered, for the public to save.”
Three months later, with the end of session impending, Hickey was asked if Democratic and Republican legislators worked together as well as he had hoped.
“I actually think we’ve seen a vast improvement over last session,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
He said it may not have been the kind of cooperation that observers watched for, but it was there.
“The template that I think is frequently [used], I think it’s looked at as bipartisanship means, ’Did you make some big deals and especially on taxes?’ That we didn’t do. … But I think, for example, the level of discourse and cooperation on things that did pass this session was unprecedented in terms of ways Republicans were allowed to help amend, change the bills that we probably would have otherwise voted against.” (Italics indicate emphasis Hickey gave to words.)
That kind of cooperation was not enough to overcome partisan division on hot button issues, which as Hickey notes are the ones that normally are watched closely.
There were party line or near-party line votes in the houses or committees on things like Burning Man, annual sessions of the legislature, marriage equality, Lake Tahoe development regulation, the death penalty, guns, mining taxes, voter registration, sex education—and a few odd issues, like a homeowners association bill.
He mentioned one of those hot button issues in his Sun essay. As an example of how he wanted cooperation to work, he said Republicans would listen to arguments on the need for a repair and maintenance tax for Washoe schools, but expected their own argument that those repairs and maintenance be exempted from prevailing wage laws to be heard respectfully.
Prevailing wages is an article of faith in both parties and does not lend itself easily to compromise, so it’s not surprising that the GOP made no progress on it.
“That proposal was rejected out of hand,” Hickey said. “The fact that it wasn’t considered, certainly makes my point [about big issues].”
But even there, a hearing was held where both sides could make their cases.
Hickey said those kinds of attention-getting issues can obscure the daily routine of hundreds of less prominent issues where Republicans were able to make their mark.
“There was a lot of cooperation and discussion going on, not necessarily on the big issues, but things we could find enough common ground on,” he said.
As an example, he points to Assembly Bill 288. With that bill, sponsored by Democratic Lucy Flores, Republican Randy Kirner was able to play an important role in shaping a significant bill that got rid of high school proficiency tests in favor of a new system praised by educators. It wasn’t a highly publicized bill, but it will touch on most Nevada families.
In the course of those cooperative dialogues, relationships were formed, Hickey said. He believes these relationships bode well for the 2015 session. (The Nevada Legislature is in session only every other year.)
Policy moves up
Legislatures in the best of times are partisan, and it sometimes costs the public and lawmakers themselves. Republican Assm. Merle Berman once introduced two bills to require health insurance coverage of mammograms and osteoporosis and then watched as majority Democrats killed them because they didn’t want such popular measures to have Republican sponsorship. Democratic Assm. Vivian Freeman got a mining reclamation bill through the Assembly only to be forced by majority Republicans in the Senate to surrender her sponsorship to a Republican in order to get the bill passed.
But those kinds of things have happened for decades and cooperation still survived. Not until polarization developed in the last 30 years have so many issues where virtual stalemate exists developed.
If his hope that new cooperative relationships can be built on in 2015 is to be realized, it will have to survive 2014. Election campaigns in recent years have become so scorched earth that they frequently poison subsequent relations in legislative settings. Many Republican candidates today regard cooperative relationships as part of the problem with the political system, an argument that has appeal in GOP primaries. (On the day of our interview with Hickey, the news was full of state and national disputes between Republican regulars and tea partiers.)
But if those relationships do survive, Hickey said one of the best things both Republicans and Democrats in the Nevada Legislature have going for them is the current speaker, Democrat Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
“She personally was involved in helping a number of Republican members of the Assembly in getting their bills passed, and that was certainly appreciated by us, because she’s more policy-driven than necessarily partisan-oriented.”
Policy is a level on which Hickey thinks Republicans can succeed.
He also praised Sen. Debbie Smith of Washoe County, a Democrat who chairs the Senate budget committee and treated Republicans fairly.
The one area where Hickey feels most strongly that his party did not get enough of a hearing was on the Public Employees Retirement System. So his caucus held their own Republicans-only hearing to draw attention to the topic.
Hickey also thinks that the quality of the dialogue between the parties improved in this session.
When asked if he expects to be speaker in the next session, which would require an unlikely Republican triumph in numerous Assembly districts, he laughed.
“In all likelihood, absolutely not. I’m not that delusional. … Frankly, I’d be very happy if Mrs. Kirkpatrick was speaker again.”