PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Senate Republican leader Michael Roberson rises from an interview with columnist Jon Ralston in the legislative press room.

People used to call the Nevada Legislature a “people’s legislature.”

In 1977, for instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that a railroad conductor oversaw the billion-dollar state budget in the Nevada Assembly, then went on, “Three other assemblymen are carpenters, three are electricians, and one is a railroad brakeman. There are two housewives, a motel operator, a liquor store owner, two ranchers, four insurance men, five real estate men, an optometrist, three college professors, three teachers, a radio news reporter, a retired high school principal and a preacher.”

This sort of thing was always overstated. The Assembly speaker in 1977 was a casino owner, for example, and other key figures were power players. Moreover, it was less the jobs people did than the casual, informal routine that made the Nevada Legislature a people’s place. Simply walking uninvited onto the Assembly or Senate floor and talking to one’s legislators was a symbol of it. The public was welcome in the building then.

The term “people’s legislature” is seldom heard anymore. Getting elected to the Nevada Legislature costs big money, not the kind of thing someone unconnected to money networks is likely to raise. Nor are trappings of legislative sessions as simple and welcoming as they once were. The politics, once relatively down-to-earth, have become cutthroat, as in Congress.

It is still possible to get into the legislature in some districts for a song and a prayer, but generally those legislators are not particularly influential. And the legislative routine is now hostile to “the people.”

The building is the Nevada capitol. That’s something that is little understood. The old building to the north, where the legislature used to meet, is invariably referred to by the term capitol. But a capitol is, by definition, where the representative legislative assemblies meet. Capitol—Merriam-Webster: “the building in which the people who make the laws of a U.S. state meet”; Oxford: “a building housing a legislative assembly”; Random House: “a building occupied by a legislature.”

When the legislature met in the new building for the first time, in 1971, it was three stories high and some people made a fuss that legislators—or some of them—would get private offices. Until then, in the old capitol, legislators had desks and that was all. There were no hearing rooms and sometimes finding space for a committee to meet was a challenge.

That’s no longer a problem. Not only were there committee rooms in the new building, but the lawmakers later expanded the structure to the rear, essentially adding another four-story building to the back. They also bought a nearby bank building for staff space and built a parking garage, displacing a park. The original legislative building was 96,000 square feet, the expansion is 90,000 or 94,000, depending on who told it.

There was staff talk in 2005 of acquiring the nearby Capital Apartments and of tearing down the bank building—now called the Sedway Office Building—for parking, but Sen. William Raggio put an end to that. (Raggio to staff: “We spent all that money to fix the Sedway Building, and now you want to tear it down?”)

Requests your presence

The difference between the committee rooms in the first building and the later committee meeting rooms in the expansion pretty much tells the story of this legislature’s evolution.

The first committee rooms generally had one or two doors that provided entrance and exit for both citizens and legislators together. The newer committee rooms have two sets of doors—one set for the legislators at the back, the other for citizens. Lawmakers no longer have to mix with those raggedy members of the public. There are signs:

Please respect the privacy of committee members and staff.

YOU MAY APPROACH THE DAIS ONLY IF A COMMITTEE MEMBER OR STAFF REQUESTS YOUR PRESENCE.

The word “only” is not only italicized but printed in red.

Of course, if legislators wanted privacy, they chose the wrong line of work. There is certainly nothing wrong with citizens approaching their legislators during committee breaks or before and after the meetings. In fact, it was once routine. Some legislators, able to enter those private doors, were surprised when we read them the wording of the unwelcoming signs.

PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Washoe Democratic Sen. Debbie Smith sponsored a bill on school construction. Washoe/Carson Republican Sen.Ben Kieckhefer (right) co-sponsored a bill on school construction that cuts worker wages.

“I am certainly not uncomfortable with members of the public approaching me in committee hearings,” said Assemblymember Pat Hickey, who once covered the legislature as a reporter. “As for the floor, there may be some security issues there I don’t know about.”

The Legislature went more than a century with citizens being able to approach their legislators on the Assembly and Senate floors with few problems. Security difficulties have been minor or unrelated to access to legislators, as when a Reno man named Donald Stolz—who felt aggrieved by his treatment by a Reno car dealership—broke windows in the legislative building. A man immolated himself in front of the legislative building on another occasion. In a lounge, a prominent activist once threw some hamburgers and fries at legislators who were rude to welfare mothers.

Whether obstacles thrown up between legislators and their constituents—and there are many of them—were the desire of legislators or were planned by staff is uncertain. Overzealous staffers often put space between legislators and the public, in apparent ignorance of what poor public relations it is. The signs alone send plenty of people home enraged.

There also used to be large public lounges for individuals and groups to use. They were located right outside the legislative halls and were among the largest rooms in the building. Now there are no such accommodations. A room on the third floor, distant from the halls, was at least intended as a public lounge when planning for the expansion was going on—but it’s kept locked and dark now, in contrast to the open public lounges of yesteryear.

In the Senate, public seating on the floor level slowly shrank and is now consigned entirely to the balcony, except for a press desk and “VIP seats” on the floor in a glass booth, akin to an Israeli courtroom. The glass booth is normally empty. The Assembly still allows floor seating.

Climate change

The tone of the Legislature, of course, is very different than it once was. For a long time, the kind of mean-spirited partisanship plaguing Congress stayed out of the legislative halls. But eventually, as this century got underway, the poison started seeping in. Two incidents can demonstrate the change.

During the 2013 legislature Sen. Debbie Smith of Washoe County—a Democrat—tried unsuccessfully to get more money for school construction.

She returned to the 2015 Legislature ready to try again. She introduced Senate Bill 106 on Feb 1. On the same date, Sens. Becky Harris and Ben Kieckhefer introduced a very similar bill, S.B. 119, but it contained a provision that cuts the pay of construction workers on school buildings. On Feb. 3, it was announced that Sen. Smith had a brain tumor and would undergo surgery. The next day, a hearing was held on the Harris bill—but not the Smith bill, though its cosponsors could have filled in for Smith. On Feb. 6, the day Smith went under the knife, the Harris bill was approved by the committee. Ten days later, the Senate approved it and sent it to the Assembly.

The Democrats were upset by the tastelessness of the maneuver. Bills with similar purposes are often heard in committee in tandem, but these two weren’t. Moreover, Smith’s history with the cause of school construction was well known. “It was hijacked,” Sen. Pat Spearman told the Reno-Sparks NAACP. The Democrats found themselves in the unaccustomed position of voting against a school construction bill because, as Spearman put it, “any time you use unskilled labor, you’re putting the people who are going to occupy that building, you’re putting their lives at risk,” she said.

Now let’s jump back 16 years.

Toward the end of the 1999 legislative session, a state birth defects registry bill sponsored by Democratic Assemblymember Jan Evans came under attack after she was hospitalized with the ovarian cancer that later killed her. In her absence, Christian conservatives tried to get the Evans bill killed, calling it an invasion of privacy. Women lawmakers in both parties, appalled at the tasteless assault, closed in around the Evans measure to protect it and make sure it got passed, speaking with direct, no-nonsense language. In a conference committee meeting, GOP Assemblymember Dawn Gibbons told one legislator that if he continued opposing the measure he would have blood on his hands. The bill became law.

That kind of bipartisan cooperation—as well as simple courtesy—has become less common. Amber Joiner, who was appointed to a vacancy in the Assembly in January, once wrote a scholarly paper on the play patterns of children. It may have been good preparation for legislative service.

Embedding

“I’d be middle of the road here today,” said former Clark County Sen. Bill O’Donnell. The now-white haired O’Donnell, who served from 1986 to 2002, was schmoozing with a couple of acquaintances in front of the legislative building as a young family member played in the grass.

O’Donnell was very conservative in his time—probably the most conservative in the Senate, so much so that he once staged an unsuccessful GOP rebellion against his own party’s leader, William Raggio. But even he can’t believe what has happened at the Nevada Legislature.

Just as exclusion of the public has become ingrained in the institution of lawmaking, so dogmatism and divisive partisanship has become part of it—and is becoming more so.

Party caucuses, for instance, were once very rare at the Nevada Legislature. “I don’t think we ever had a party caucus when I was there,” Reno attorney Thomas “Spike” Wilson, who served in the Senate for 16 years, once told us (“Evolution,” RN&R, Jan. 13, 2011). In the 1970s and ’80s, party caucuses were so infrequent that they stand out in memory, because they were held for uncommon reasons—and they were open.

PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS The only public seating on the Senate floor—inside a glass booth reserved for VIPs.

Now party caucuses are basic not to lawmaking but to party tactics and strategy and the enforcement of party discipline in lawmaking. At the 2003 Nevada Legislature, it was entirely possible that Assembly Republicans spent more time in caucuses than in the hall. Enforcement of discipline was so fierce that three moderate GOP members were either ejected or were made to feel uncomfortable attending.

This year, the Republican leader of the Senate, Michael Roberson, has added something new to embedding partisanship in the process. Roberson, who gained a reputation in 2013 for being able to work well with Democrats on things like taxing foreign mining corporations, has become a more polarizing figure this year. Among his innovations was dividing the seating in the Senate hall along partisan lines—Democrats on the north, Republicans on the south. However petty this may seem, it serves a partisan purpose. The traditional Nevada practice of mixing members led to congeniality, members getting to know colleagues in adjoining seats, forming friendships and having discussions of issues that helped filter and process proposals, often educating members of both parties and helping to prevent uncooked proposals from getting into the law books. It also distanced members from the hold party leaders have on them.

The Democrats are not happy with the seating manipulation, but there’s little they can do. They are taking some comfort in knowing Roberson is trading his former moderate image for the role of partisan warrior.

That’s one of the few satisfactions they, or anyone else, is getting from this particular Legislature. Staff, journalists, lobbyists all agree the tone this year is acrid.

Unelected lawmakers

But legislators are not the only people in charge of legislative sessions anymore. Voter approval in 1998 of a 120-day limit on legislative sessions has had all kinds of unforeseen consequences. For one, there has never yet been a 120-day session. The lawmakers get around it by starting budget hearings two or three weeks before the clock starts running on the 120 days, and often go into special session after the 120 days end.

In addition, the legislators have become more dependent on both staff and lobbyists, enhancing the power of staffers and the influence of lobbyists—neither of whom are in any way accountable to voters.

Legislators are absolutely dependent on staffers for research, legal advice, fiscal analysis and—increasingly—judgments on policy. “Bill [Raggio] always had great trust in his Finance Committee staff people, but he was able to get the best,” said one legislator. “Now a lot of staff people are involved, subtlely but involved, in making judgments that I question they have the discernment for.”

There are other reflections of changing times, too. Though legislators sometimes did it reluctantly, curbs have been installed on lobbyists at the Nevada Legislature, products of unfortunate incidents like an assemblymember who voted against the Equal Rights Amendment with an anti-ERA lobbyist seated next to him.

Thus, Assembly rule 94: “No person may do any lobbying upon the floor of the Assembly at any time, and it is the duty of the sergeant at arms to remove any person violating any of the provisions of this rule.”

But technology has overtaken these kinds of precautions. Legislators are seen consulting electronic devices at important moments, like just before votes. It’s happening across the nation, of course—“[T]hey have their Blackberries or other texting devices in their hands,” veteran Missouri reporter Bob Priddy told the Columbia Journalism Review last month. “And I have seen members of the legislature looking at the messages they’re getting on their devices while they are debating an issue. So the rules about lobbyists not being in the chamber—those rules mean not physically, but the lobbyists are in the chambers now, and they’re very influential.”

One setback for lobbyists is likely to hurt the public. A growing number of Nevada legislators refuse to even meet with or talk to lobbyists. Some simply don’t want to deal with lobbyists. In other cases, just as a growing portion of the citizenry reads or watches only material that tells them what they want to hear, some legislators will speak only with lobbyists representing interests with which they agree.

This is no service to the public. Not every lobbyist represents overbearing corporate bosses or labor leaders. Many represent interest groups with a stake in community—barbers and beauticians, speech and hearing therapists, nurses, veterans, food banks, groups of all kinds. They serve a purpose in the process and many times have saved legislators from enacting uncooked measures.

Lobbyists, at any rate, are usually on the cutting edge. The legislators, not so much. A good deal of what is described here is pretty old-fashioned in a supposed age of access and transparency. Hoary congressional practices, such as dividing the seating by party, have been installed in Carson City. At a time when the public has become largely indifferent to political parties and party loyalty—registering with parties mainly so they can vote in primaries—the legislature is becoming more partisan.

There’s a new legislative medallion being struck to commemorate this year’s Legislature, and the upper half of the medallion could stand by itself:

NEVADA STATE LEGISLATURE

2015

Nevada’s State Fossil

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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...