The 2019 Nevada Legislature will probably be best remembered for being the nation’s first majority-female legislature. That’s fine, but somewhat sad. It should be remembered for so much more. If this legislature had been led by men, it would be basking in praise for working miracles. This staid, hidebound state now has a new gun background check law and other gun curbs, new protections for abortion, new renewable energy requirements, a minimum wage hike, incorporation into state law of provisions of the Affordable Care Act, voter rights protections, collective bargaining for state workers, and less prison for nonviolent offenders. An open records measure was passed unanimously, but that was deceptive—it nearly did not get a vote at all, because of an overbearing newspaper campaign.
Failings are that it did not deal with payday loan predators, anti-death penalty bills were more or less ignored to death, and a new funding formula for schools was approved by lawmakers, most of whom who did not really know what was in it.
It should not be a surprise that the Democrats found themselves opposing each other more than the Republicans. In 2015, when Republicans suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves with majorities in both houses, Democrats were not really a factor. In fact, the GOP members fought each other more than the Democrats (“Chaos theory” RN&R, June 4, 2015). That happens for a reason.
When Nevada Independent reporters this year wrote a piece titled “Legislative leaders tout friendly relations, prepare for high-stakes session,” it once would have been the usual story at the beginning of session about the two parties’ leaders working well together. Instead, it was also about Democratic leaders getting along. Since the Gingrich cohort in Congress began intentionally polarizing the political system in the 1990s, it has done more than just change the two parties from adversaries into enemies.
It means that when one side is in charge, the other side has little to do. The minority party can no longer bring its skills and expertise to bear. Polarization means just that. But there is still conflict, because any policy proposal spurs debate and creates divisions between those who want action now and those who approach all problems gradually. So whichever party is in charge must endure factional fights. They showed up early this year and often pitted the leaders against the rank and file.
In the Assembly, Speaker Jason Frierson had a strong sense of the legislature’s prerogatives, which worked fine because his Democratic members were suspicious of the new governor of their own party. Many assemblymembers had not forgotten the brutal primary fight Gov. Steve Sisolak had waged against the party’s beloved Chris Giunchigliani, at one point by calling her soft on child sexual predators. They wanted Sisolak on their side, but they felt he needed to join them, not the other way around. And they, not the governor, set state policies.
In the Senate, Democratic floor leader Kelvin Atkinson gave an interview to the Las Vegas Review Journal on Feb. 1, and it ran the first day of the session, on Feb. 4: “I do believe we’ll have to do a yeoman’s job to temper some of our allies. Some have this mentality that we have all three chambers, so let’s go after everything we haven’t been able to do in the last 25 years. I don’t think that’s good.”
Members quickly let Atkinson know that how much they did and when was for them, not the leaders, to decide. And then they went to work building achievements.
A month later, Atkinson resigned, leaving because of a federal prosecution against him for misusing campaign funds. When he left, he was replaced as leader by a much more activist lawmaker, Nicole Cannizzaro.
Does it matter whether there are women governing?
I have often told the story of when the first woman joined the Senate Finance Committee in Carson City. Soon, questions were being asked in that committee that had never been asked before, about families and children, and not just on public assistance budgets but also on matters like the prison budget or roadbuilding. Sen. Diana Glomb was sometimes heard to say that while every life is precious, and that prisoners should be treated with humanity, it was wrong for children in the state to live lives poorer or harsher than prisoners.
When the cohort of women lobbyists started growing into a force, male lobbyists who had always used the hardball approach found themselves having to compete with lobbyists whose life experiences had taught them how to persuade using a nurturing, coaxing approach.
At least one Nevada Supreme Court ruling was reversed when women became a presence on that body.
Anyone who does not think women make a difference in government has not paid attention.
But the Democrats had leaders who often took different positions than those they were supposedly leading. Sisolak vetoed a bill designed to make sure the popular vote prevails in presidential elections, long a Democratic Party goal. That measure was passed over the opposition of Assembly Democratic floor leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, who has served as a presidential elector herself.
Atkinson had opposed the “Blueprint” the party had been issuing in previous legislatures. Basically a printed program or platform for legislative Democrats, it was generally read and forgotten, but it bugged Atkinson, who wanted a theme-a-week approach to issues. Both struck rank-and-file members as “pointless PR,” as one of them described the approaches. “Issues have a way of emerging on their own,” said one second-termer. “Who cares?”
Just before Atkinson’s departure, a 2019 Blueprint came out. It laid out six items—schools, health care, economic security, business climate, fairness in government, families and the environment—that Democrats promised would be improved by the 2019 Nevada Legislature. The main outcome of the list was ire that housing and renters were not listed. Nevada, it was pointed out, is the least family-oriented state in the nation.
The notion of fairness being a high priority for Democrats would be new. It inevitably raises the state’s soak-the-poor tax structure, and the party has passed up chance after chance to do something about it. It’s one of the reasons Washoe County has one of the nation’s highest sales taxes, after raising the sales tax for schools six times.
On the other hand, the party has been more attentive to the problems of small businesses. In this legislature, it processed a measure limiting the filing of the state commerce tax form to those businesses “whose Nevada gross revenue in a taxable year exceeds $4,000,000.”
But generally, the Blueprint was filed and forgotten.
Little was done about repealing measures the Republicans enacted during their one-session majorities in 2015. While Atkinson in 2019 wanted the Democratic Party to restrain itself, the 2015 GOP legislators saw no reason to do so, enacting everything they could come up with, another instance of the Republicans listening to their base, the Democrats not. The 2017 legislative session mostly failed to deal with the GOP measures, and in 2019 lawmakers overturned some changes in prevailing law statutes the GOP had made. But the Republican “school choice” plan remains on statute books. It allows grants only to families that remove children from public schools, and those grants only supplement funds families can already pay, with the result that they were used only in high-income areas. But the Democrats have failed to fund it while leaving it on the statute books, which has prompted protests from groups that want the funding, and are now headed to court to get it.
Like so many things in government, the “choice” plan remains on the books, though its function has ended.
As for public schools, in 1967, the entire state population was 449,000 people. That’s when the current school funding plan was put together.
There are currently over three million people in the state. After months of preparation, a new school funding plan was first shown quietly to business and education leaders—no open meeting advocates objected to that maneuver—after which that preview was followed by introduction in the legislature on the 99th day, giving the lawmakers just 21 days to absorb it and approve it. Instead of being studied simultaneously in each house, the Senate began scrutiny and hearings, then approved. Then it was given to the Assembly on the last day of the legislative session. The Assembly dabbled with it, then approved it two minutes before the session ended. After senate concurrence with an assembly amendment, it was sent to the governor. This appalling processing of one of the most important bills of the session left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and left the session in poor repute because it was the last major order of business.
Sword of Damocles
Speaker Friersen sent a message to liberals in his own caucus on April 19. In a Reno Gazette Journal article, it read, “If progressive activists have something they want to tack on to a bill, there’s nothing stopping them from proposing amendments, Friersen said.”
But there was. Nevada is not like Congress. Article four, section 17 of the Nevada Constitution forbids non-germane amendments. It is against the law to propose, say, a tax amendment to a transportation bill, or vice-versa. A payday loan amendment must be attached to a payday loan bill. And that was liberals’ most important way of aiding workers in 2019. But when they complained about payday loans, Friersen gave them procedure. The legislative leaders could not find a way to get controls on payday lenders through the legislature. Speaker Frierson claimed it was because the Senate had prior claim over this issue. It was the greatest single problem Democrats wanted solved. Procedure should have come last.
But the members of the legislature, women or otherwise, were not as finicky about other sections of the Nevada Constitution.
Jim Gibbons has been living quietly in LaMoille but was mentioned during this legislature in the Elko Free Press, Las Vegas Review Journal, Reno Gazette Journal, and Nevada Current (twice). That’s because of something he left behind when he left politics.
During his first, unsuccessful run for governor in 1994, he needed something to set him apart from the GOP’s preferred and anointed candidate. He came up with an initiative petition to require supermajorities in the legislature to increase revenue. His candidacy for governor failed, but his initiative petition was approved in first- and second-round voting.
Nevadans have a record of shooting down anti-tax measures. They did it in 1956, 1980 and 1984. But in the case of the Gibbons initiative, no one opposed it. In the 1984 case, which would also have required supermajorities to raise taxes, the then-Democratic governor and the state teachers’ association put together a campaign against the measure, and it failed. But in the case of the Gibbons tax initiative, the teachers and the new Democratic governor didn’t bother opposing it or campaigning against it, and it was approved. It lost 8 percentage points between first- and second-round voting, but that was not enough, and so, in 2019, it was hanging over the legislature.
A payroll tax set to expire was raised again by the 2019 legislature, but without the required supermajority. Democrats claimed that no such supermajority was required. This is how the Gibbons portion of the Nevada Constitution reads: “Except as otherwise provided in subsection 3, an affirmative vote of not fewer than two-thirds of the members elected to each house is necessary to pass a bill or joint resolution which creates, generates or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes, fees, assessments and rates, or changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.”
After this language went into the state constitution, the first time it came up in the Nevada Legislature was when Las Vegas leaders wanted a new pipeline from the Colorado River to feed growth. Unfortunately, representatives of other parts of the state were not interested in raising taxes to help Las Vegas grow, so the measure was amended to pay for the lowering of the railroad tracks and flood control in Reno.
There still was no certainty that the number of required votes were there, so they came up with another arrangement. Instead of the legislature raising taxes, it “enabled” local county commissions in Clark and Washoe counties to raise the taxes—and they would produce the supermajorities. It worked like a dream except that Gibbon’s tax-cutting initiative had produced the unforeseen result of higher spending.
Anyway, the legislative staff lawyers, then and later, issued opinions saying that such bills must always be voted on by a supermajority. But those lawyers can be flexible. In 1975, after the legislative lawyer offended leading senators by ruling that the lieutenant governor could vote on any ties in the Senate, he was fired. His replacement then produced an opinion saying that lieutenant governors can vote only on lesser matters like ceremonial resolutions.
In 2019, the legislature’s lawyer produced an opinion saying that fewer than two-thirds of the members of a house can raise revenues.
So the legislators voted for a higher payroll tax without the two-thirds vote. And Republicans have now gone to court to overturn the increase. As it happens, the additional funding is for schools and Sisolak says even if the courts rule against the Democrats, the funding will still be there. He has not explained how.
The Democrats never offered an explanation to the public of why it was necessary to raise taxes in 2019 when taxes had been raised in 2003 and 2017, both times in the name of education—or why it was necessary to do it through the mechanism of raising an expired tax.
As Nevada Current noted, nine members of the 2019 Senate and eight members of the Assembly voted without major scrutiny in 2016 to raise room taxes to pay for $700 million-plus in corporate welfare for the Oakland Raiders, and that Steve Sisolak—then a Clark County commissioner—supported that move.
Not everything has changed in government.