As a Libertarian, it’s tempting to argue the Legislature shouldn’t meet at all.
For starters, it’s a little hard to claim that legislators are representing constituents when constituents don’t know their names and can’t place them in a lineup. Only half of the likeliest (and presumably most engaged) Nevada voters in 2018 knew enough to have an opinion on Aaron Ford and Michael Roberson, and they were the Senate majority and minority leaders, respectively. Name recognition among less prominent legislators must be even worse.
It’s also a little hard to claim there’s an unimpeachable separation of powers when Nevada’s executive branch gets to sign “emergency regulations” to route around the damage the legislative branch creates for itself. Then there are the special sessions for electric car manufacturers or NFL teams, each called on behalf of the governor’s office. Additionally, the Nevada Administrative Code, which defines how the state government shall interpret and implement the various statutes and clauses of the Nevada Revised Statutes, is plenty large and voluminous. Why not just cut out the middleman?
Besides, unlike Nevada’s legislators, who meet for 120 days every two years, the employees of Nevada’s state agencies (already largely run by the governor’s office) face their constituents every single day. Who do you think knows more about the needs of the underemployed – an entry-level clerk at the Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation, or some rookie assemblyperson whose day job, when the Legislature isn’t in session, is working as a lobbyist?
Then there’s the cost. The 2019 Session is budgeted to cost Nevada’s taxpayers $15 million. That’s nearly enough to fund the Opportunity Scholarship program on its own. Speaking of cost, the lieutenant governor needs something to do — put them on a steady rotation of state tours, checking in to see how Nevada’s state agencies are holding up. It’s surely a more worthwhile use of taxpayer funds than presiding over the Senate.
Yes, it’s tempting — dangerously tempting — to argue that the Legislature shouldn’t meet at all.
The real danger, however, is actually in the vestigial nature of Nevada’s Legislature. Our state arguably has, by design, one of the weakest legislative branches in the country. The Legislature meets, on its own accord, at least, only once every two years for 120 days. Additionally, each member of the Legislature may only serve in one house for up to 12 years. This means, assuming no special sessions, each legislator gets to work 720 days in either the Assembly or the Senate before they must find something else to do with their lives (or get elected to the other house and work up to another 720 days). In the latter case, 24 years of service amounts to less than six years’ worth of working days.
At first glance, this doesn’t sound half bad. The less the Legislature meets, the fewer laws they can pass and the less harm they can do, right?
In practice, clearly not. What instead happens is the Legislature hastily throws as many well-intentioned bills through its committees as fast as possible, then hopes the governor bails them out with “emergency regulations” if they mess up. This is exactly what happened last session when the Legislature passed a bill requiring background checks for school volunteers, a mistake they’re only starting to fix.
This isn’t a new problem for Nevada.
Voters in 1958 resoundingly passed two ballot questions which promised to give the Legislature more time and latitude to work in. Question 3 promised to solve the “dilemma of covering the clock on the sixtieth day” (the old deadline for regular sessions), “and continuing the session thereafter as though the sixtieth day had not passed” (isn’t Nevada something?) by eliminating session deadlines entirely. Question 5, meanwhile, switched the Legislature to annual sessions. Question 4, on the other hand, demonstrated exactly how much trust Nevada’s voters had for its Legislature, and how consistent Nevadans are in applying their principles in the ballot box, by amending the state constitution to declare that the Legislature would only get paid during 60-day regular sessions and governor-convened special sessions.
That’s right — the same voters who voted for removing deadlines for sessions also voted for setting legislator pay based on deadlines they amended out of existence.
That Humboldt Sink-in-September depth of conviction was displayed once again in 1960, when Nevada’s voters decided, only two years later, that perhaps biennial sessions were better after all, actually, and passed Question 4.
To think, some people refer to a “citizen Legislature” as a good thing.
Legislature session deadlines were reapplied in 1998 with Question 5, but not with a corresponding adjustment in days paid. To be fair to our fair citizens, voting to require the Legislature to work 120 days while also voting to require they only receive 60 days’ worth of pay is an illustrative example of what happens when labor valuations are set through political processes instead of the market. Besides, prior to the passage of Question 5, the Legislature frequently met for over 160 days — 60 days’ pay for 120 days work certainly beats 60 days’ pay for over 160 days.
The 2019 Legislature wants to address this. Senate Joint Resolution 5, if passed by both houses of the Legislature and by the voters in 2020, would reduce odd-year sessions from 120 days to 90 days and add an even-yeared 60 day session. It would also, if passed, remove legislative pay periods from the Nevada Constitution. Naturally, some people in rural Nevada are already opposed.
I think they’re arguing against their own interests.
In The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, Murray Bookchin wisely noted, in a chapter titled, “Anarchism and Power in the Spanish Revolution,” that, “power cannot be abolished; it is always a feature of social and political life.” He further added that, “There is no closet in which it can be tucked away, no ritual that can make it evaporate, no realm to which it can be dispatched — and no ideology that can make it disappear with moral incantations.” This is just as true in modern Nevada as it was in Barcelona during the Spanish Revolution.
Yes, it’s true that a Legislature that meets more frequently can pass more laws and consume more money while doing so. Yes, it’s also true that, if the Legislature considered fewer bills and wrote fewer Bill Draft Requests, it would pass fewer laws and consume less money. However, if the Legislature abdicates its political power, it doesn’t make that power disappear and evaporate. It will instead be wielded by a persistently overworked judicial branch, an executive branch with a proven propensity for “emergency regulations” and administrative code, and a fickle electorate that can be spun around like a weather vane during a desert spring, like they were on Question 3 in both 2016 and 2018.
Voter referenda and gubernatorial elections are winner-take-all. If rural Nevadans vote one way and the rest of Nevada votes the other, rural Nevadans get, say, Gov. Sisolak and whatever “emergency regulations” he issues over the next four years, whether they like it or not. The Legislature, however, offers rural Nevadans the only path for continuous, consistent representation in Nevada’s government.
Naturally, I expect them to fight tooth and nail against it.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].