The honeymoon is about to be over for our newly married governor.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, who got hitched shortly before the session began, has enjoyed a warm embrace inside the capital bubble during his first four months. I have spent a little time with him this session, and his radiance often has surpassed his predecessor, Brian Sandoval, whom I once dubbed Gov. Sunny.
His courtship of the Gang of 63 has been about as successful as his of the first lady — regular meetings with Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro reportedly have gone swimmingly. The governor’s best people, especially Chief of Staff Michelle White, Counsel Brin Gibson and senior adviser Scott Gilles, have been well received across the courtyard.
One big, happy Democratic family.
That, I think, is about to change. I say this not because I am a cynic (guilty, perhaps) but because the legislative and executive branches, no matter the partisan matrix, always clash as the end nears.
And it could be more acute this time because the Democrats have left so many major public policy issues for the final three weeks — a dramatic change to a half-century-old education funding formula, a completely new regulatory infrastructure for a pot industry already awash in controversy, a massive rejiggering of the state’s approach to criminal justice reform and a new commission designed to protect patients in the complex world of health care. To name just a few, and I didn’t even mention the main business of every session, which is balancing the budget.
Deliberative process has always been an oxymoron when referring to the Legislature, but even for these folks, this is a little much to hold until the end, especially with so little time left and a rookie governor more used to Counting to Four than Counting to 22 and 11, and maybe 28 and 14.
Before sine die June 3, we are going to learn what kind of leader Steve Sisolak really is. He was a commanding head of the Clark County Commission, but he had three other votes routinely locked, a majority assured. In his new job, he has assured partisan majorities across the way, but they are not monolithic on some key issues.
The endgame compression is not new, and it always assures a train wreck only differing in how far off the rails they go and whether a special session is needed to get everything back on track. Here’s what to watch for:
—Where does he really draw the line? The governor made a lot of promises during the campaign and then at an IndyTalks shortly before the session. (Luckily, there’s a place to check on those.) The question isn’t just what he can deliver, but when.
I noticed a subtle change in the governor’s messaging about some of these promises in the last few weeks, as his team started talking about some of them being achieved during his tenure – i.e. by the end of his term(s). That’s both fair and telling – I am pretty sure Sisolak might have thought he knew about legislative quicksand, but you have to start sinking in it to really understand it.
He likely will sign a bill to change the way the state funds education, which is no small achievement. But he will not have done a lot to enhance overall funding, and he will have begun the process to undo what Sandoval did with reforms and so-called categorical funding.
What else will he and won’t he do that he promised to?
—How does he handle adversity? Sisolak is not on Grand Central Parkway anymore; Carson Street is a bit different, and not just because of the snow. Down South, Sisolak was known either as an effective leader or occasional bully – or both. He was known to hold a grudge, too.
He is going to get very angry a time or two in the next few weeks. How he acts – and whether his staff can control his worst impulses – will go a long way toward determining how the session ends.
The Republicans, who have been irrelevant this session, see a chance to flex their muscles by threatening to sue if he doesn’t get two-thirds on extending a payroll tax rate past a planned sunset. How he handles that – secures a GOP vote (60-40, chance I’d say) and spins the outcome either way (Why do Republicans hate seniors, the disabled and the poor?) – will be important.
One obvious metric: if Sisolak vetoes more than one or two bills, the session will have been a failure for him and the Democrats. A failure to communicate, as Strother Martin might have put it.
Cannizzaro and Frierson know what they want, too, and what their caucuses need to have. The triumverate will not always agree, but can they keep those disputes in the family?
Is there such a thing as Democratic omerta? I don’t think so.
—How does he finesse his “friends” on both sides? Sisolak had help from a lot of special interests on his path to Mountain Street, some of whom are either bivouacked in Carson City or have agents who are. So many supplicants in the Legislative Building, some who will remind the governor of the gifts they bore in 2018. It’s hard to say no to your friends, and sometimes, it can be damaging to say yes to your friends.
Some Democratic Party-aligned groups will wail about terrible compromises and opportunities lost, although some will cut Sisolak and the Legislature some slack. Some business groups will lament the loss of the free market and maybe even cry socialism, and even if they sound like Brer Rabbit, there will be much caterwauling.
This is the crucible in which leaders are made or unmade, and by June 3 we will know a lot more about how Sisolak has handled the heat. He will have to find a way between the Coalition of the Willing and the Coalition of the Unreasonable, a place where he can declare victory and not sound hollow.
As governor, as the titular head of the party, he has to ponder more global considerations – the effects of policies he pledged to pass in the short run (hence the likely delays in implementation for The Nevada Plan and collective bargaining for state employees) and the political implications on the 2020 election, when he is not on the ballot but two-thirds of lawmakers are. If Democrats do well next year, the Republicans will essentially have third-party status in Nevada for a decade.
No one will long remember the ugliness of the end of the session, or even whether it goes into overtime. The internecine battles, the eleventh-hour stunts will fades into the mists.
But people will have an indelible memory of how the new governor conducted himself in The Rush to Close, whether he led the Gang of 63 or they chafed and he had to react to them. People’s view of the Legislature won’t change much; but as the state’s most visible elected official, the governor has much to gain or lose.
Sisolak and his wife, Kathy, are hoping to take an actual honeymoon right after the session. How happy he is to take that trip will depend on how his proverbial honeymoon ends with the Gang of 63 in the next three weeks.
Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]