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It could have been worse

Members of the Nevada Legislature listen to Gov. Steve Sisolak's State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

It could have been worse.

Realistically, that’s how any halfway self-aware article about a legislative session starts for any writer, regardless of political affiliation. Nobody ever gets everything they want, and it’s rare that anyone gets even most of what they want. This session was no different. Conservatives (and I) will, of course, decry the abolition of Educational Savings Accounts, even though they were never funded, and they (and I) have sharp words about the direction the Legislature took gun laws in the state. Meanwhile, progressives (and I) will, of course, decry the failure to abolish the death penalty, as well as the unnecessary — let’s call it a Clark-block — of marijuana lounges.

Even so, it could have been worse.

For this week’s column, however, I look back at some predictions I made going into the session: Hardy’s prostitution ban would go nowhere; taxes would go up; and criminal justice reform would be a big deal. Did they hold up? The answer, as long as you don’t sweat the details, is yes. (Of course, when you make predictions as safe as mine were, you’d rather hope so.)

Let’s dig in.

Did Joseph Hardy’s attempt to ban prostitution pass?

SB413 suffered the same fate as Nevada’s brief attempt at abolishing the death penalty and died quietly in the first legislative deadline.

Did taxes go up?

Yes they did, though not the way I thought. SJR14 went nowhere, which surprised just about everyone, myself included. Additionally, the Commerce Tax wasn’t touched at all; instead, the Legislature focused on ending a sunset on the state’s payroll tax. I also didn’t expect a Democratic Legislature to support a sales tax increase, assuming they’d prefer taxes that were less regressive. Much to my surprise and others’ disappointment, however, that’s the direction they chose. Instead of approving a sales tax increase themselves, they chose to authorize county governments to pass a sales tax increase instead. This, admittedly, was a halfway clever workaround for the constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority requirement for statewide tax increase legislation.

That said, even the county government the bill was drafted for is not enthusiastic about this.

The one thing I was right about tax-wise was that the Legislature wouldn’t touch property taxes with a 10-foot pole. Unlike Clark County, which has, at best, flagging enthusiasm for another sales tax increase, the City of Reno asked the Legislature for authorization to ask the voters to raise property taxes after 2020. The Legislature’s response? Silence.

Did criminal justice reform advance?

At the beginning of the session, I predicted that criminal justice reform could be a major focus of the Legislature, assuming they didn’t flinch. My litmus test was SB19, which upgraded poop-flinging from a misdemeanor to a felony. If that measure went anywhere, it was a good sign that the Democrats in the Legislature were worried about not looking “tough on crime.” If it didn’t, it meant they were going to take criminal justice reform halfway seriously and actually reduce the number of ways Nevadans could become felons.

SB19 was never even heard in committee.

AB236, the main criminal justice reform bill, is sitting on the governor’s desk as I write this, but it hasn’t yet been signed. AB183, which bans private prisons by 2022, has been signed by the governor and is thus binding law. AB431, meanwhile, restored voting rights to felons; this means we have one less thing in common with Alabama and Mississippi and one more thing in common with Montana and New Hampshire. AB192, which seals records on decriminalized offenses (including marijuana convictions), wasn’t vetoed like it was in the last session.

So, yes, criminal justice reform was taken seriously.

To be clear, there’s a lot more that could have been done, and arguably should have been. The death penalty is still technically on the books in Nevada, much to the chagrin of both this columnist and others with similar titles here. AB411, which would have turned traffic violations into civil violations instead of criminal violations, died, though parts of it were integrated into AB434. Bail reform sadly died in the Senate.

However, for the first time in memory, the Legislature opted to take power away from dodgy prosecutors and barely accountable judges and instead give power back to the people. If you’re a fan of criminal justice reform, as I am, celebrate the victory. It’s been a long time coming.

As someone who was raised during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, I grew up in a country where it was politically impossible to be too tough on crime. That period still continues to haunt us.

Our current president, for example, put out a full-page ad years ago calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, four teenage African Americans and a teenage Hispanic falsely accused of assaulting and raping a white female jogger, and still maintains that they’re guilty even after they were exonerated by DNA evidence and the confession of the actual killer.

Joe Biden, the current frontrunner for the Democratic Party presidential primary, helped pass the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which increased incarceration rates and tore poor and minority communities apart. Kamala Harris, another frontrunner for the Democratic presidential primary, fought the release of an innocent man and fought efforts to free prisoners from California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons while she was California’s attorney general.

Again, these are people who are either president or who could become president after 2020. Old habits, in this case, don’t die hard — they’re not dead yet, nor anything remotely close. And yet, despite all of that, Nevada has become one of the first states in the country to start swinging the other way.

Things could have been different — one of our two major gubernatorial candidates in 2018 also didn’t want to release an innocent man, after all. And things could still be different — 2020 is coming fast, and as the ascendancy of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris demonstrate, being unnecessarily “tough on crime” isn’t anywhere close to being a disqualifier among most American voters and might even be a necessary prerequisite.

However, that can’t change unless and until we’re willing to take steps, locally, statewide, and nationally, to change our habits and attitudes regarding justice and rehabilitation. The 2019 Legislature’s efforts to take those steps were a great start. Here’s to many more where they came from.

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].

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