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Missed deadlines don't bode well for the end of the session

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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The Legislature seemingly doesn’t have actual “rules.” Instead, it appears to have a bunch of guidelines that (more or less) only apply when lawmakers find them convenient.

And, much of the time, they don’t find them terribly convenient. 

Last week, the session’s first bill deadline — the date by which legislators’ bills had to be introduced — was postponed as more than 200 potential bills had yet to be drafted or finalized by legislative staff. The new deadline is March 27, which happens to also be the scheduled date for the session’s second bill deadline — the date by which all other bills must be introduced. 

Is another extension looming in the immediate future? 

While unusual, it’s not actually the first time a bill deadline has been moved. In the 2021 session the same deadline was moved because of delays caused by pandemic protocols that wreaked havoc on the usual happenings in Carson City. This time around, however, it feels like there’s little reason for the delay other than poor time management — which wouldn’t be a terribly unheard-of phenomenon for a legislative body. 

After all, on the national level, it’s been almost three decades since federal lawmakers have passed a budget on time. Clearly, managing legislative schedules is almost as difficult for our electeds (at all levels) as the actual policy work expected of them. It’s a truth that seems painfully obvious at the end of every legislative session in Nevada, when the entire process breaks down into an unconstitutional free-for-all as legislative leaders scramble to get things done before sine die

Assuming lawmakers can stay on track between now and the next major deadline, the delay probably won’t drastically change the flow of the session — so it might not really be that big of a deal. (Then again, what are the odds?) 

However, as Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) rightly pointed out, such situations create a bit of a public relations problem for lawmakers.

“I think the public thinks occasionally that we are hiding the ball because bills come out late,” Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) said during the hearing. “And it doesn't fare well for the relationship between the Legislature and the public.”

She’s not wrong. However, the reputational impact of missed deadlines is nothing compared to that which is wrought during the chaos of each session’s closing couple of weeks. 

In other words: Buckle up. It’s going to get much worse. 

Every biennium, as the 120th day of the session approaches, rules are routinely dismissed in a tornado of last-minute bill revisions, backroom deals and bipartisan horse-trading. The requirements that “all bills must be read three times” in each chamber “and each reading must be on different days” are the first rules to be shredded as lawmakers clamber to give life to their dying priorities before they adjourn in early June. Ostensibly, such rules are suspended as an “emergency” procedure — as if merely running out of time on an agreed-upon schedule somehow constitutes “a sudden, unforeseen happening.”

Undoubtedly, in a couple months’ time we can once again expect lawmakers to pretend the arrival of sine die is somehow reason enough to dispense with rules that are supposed to ensure transparency and accessibility in the legislature. 

Such end-of-session shenanigans — as expected as they have become — are far more detrimental to the relationship between lawmakers and the public than some mere deadline extension in the first half of the legislative calendar. After all, suspending rules that are put in place to ensure deliberative and transparent debate on the most important topics of the year — including budgets, education bills and any other major projects that give rise to partisan tensions — doesn’t exactly instill confidence among those who watch such chaos unfold. 

Instead, it underscores a pervasive anti-transparency mentality within the legislative branch of government. The state’s open-meetings law, for example, inexplicably doesn’t apply to the legislative process — giving lawmakers free rein to craft backroom deals with one another on contentious issues about which most regular voters would expect to see open and public debate. And in 2023, transparency has become even more threatened, as legislative leaders significantly tighten media access to lawmakers. 

In past sessions, for example, reporters used to be able to walk on to the Assembly floor before and after sessions, walk up to the dais after committees adjourn, and “speak freely with lawmakers in the hallways.” 

Not so anymore, according to a recent editorial penned by two veteran reporters and managing editors with The Nevada Independent. 

Unfortunately, things are only about to get worse as the session lumbers toward the session’s chaotic final weeks — a time when leadership will undoubtedly cast aside the inconvenient rules designed to keep the process open to the media and the public. 

The only thing the recent delay really does is serve as a reminder of what awaits us in late May when even guidelines aren’t of much concern to lawmakers.

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.

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