The Session of What Might Have Been.
Every Legislature needs a name, and this one fits. Amid the gushing by the Gang of 63 and the governor about this being The Greatest Session Ever and the gnashing of teeth by progressives and righties alike that this was The Failed Session, this nomenclature is more apt.
The Session of What Might Have Been had lawmakers not showcased all the shortcomings of a broken process by introducing game-changing measures so late.
The Session of What Might Have Been had they done more for workers and less to hurt employers – it’s all about your perspective.
And The Session of What Might Have Been (as I wrote a fortnight ago) if they had tackled education funding in a serious way along with a new funding formula, as opposed to the same old cobbling together of disparate revenue sources.
One week is hardly enough time to get all of the required perspective. All sessions end ugly; it’s only a matter of degrees.
But despite the cheering and carping, the 80th session was at the very least historic. The first-in-the-country’s history female majority ensured certain issues were elevated and showed XX was more than just a passing grade. The first Nevada governor to spring from local government showed he knew more than just filling potholes and pleasing developers, proving that being a quick, savvy study and hiring the right people helps a lot.
Despite the cries of “you could have done more, you should have done more” from some on the left, the Democrats actually used their hegemony to do a lot. It was not quite “The State That Liberal Dreams Are Made Of,’ as the misleading headline (that sound you hear is of GOP ad makers’ salivary glands) on Matt Ford’s otherwise excellent recap of the session.
On health care (surprise billing reform, for example), on criminal justice reform (the big bill may not have gone far enough for many but it exists), on the environment (a landmark renewable portfolio standard), on state worker and teacher pay raises (they don’t happen every session) and on the trifecta of minimum wage/paid time off/pay equity (again, not enough for some but help for many), the majority delivered what the leaders promised and will change lives.
Yes, the majority party lit policy fires and then allowed them to be doused by late amendments (too many to name) or early entombments (bail reform, death penalty abolition), with law enforcement or business interests brandishing the hoses. But so many of these issues had languished for decades as non-starters; now they are in statute, which may not be everything but it is something.
You can’t really expect one session to redress decades of neglect. Lawmakers have to live in the real world, not Planet Progressive Utopia. And even though the session-long bleats of THIS IS THE MOST ANTI-BUSINESS SESSION EVER were a bit hard to take, a legislator’s job is to balance competing interests and find a middle ground. It was inevitable that some on the left would think the ground found was too far to the right.
Collective bargaining for state employees is instructive. The governor from the Clark County Commission promised it, surely without knowing the ultimate cost or the ceding of his authority. The final version grants the employees bargaining rights they long sought to be on equal footing with their local counterparts, but essentially gives the governor the ability to veto any package.
Collective bargaining for state employees now exists in Nevada. But Sisolak gutted it, and the Legislature acquiesced. If that isn’t an emblem for The Session of What Might Have Been, I don’t know what is.
That eleventh hour maneuver, along with the late delivery of the landmark funding formula bill (then abruptly amended to give the governor more power over the outcome) and the deus ex machina surfacing of a legislative attorney’s opinion allowing the Democrats to pass a tax extension without a two-thirds vote, also was all-too familiar: Major policy initiatives introduced or changed at the last minute, with hopes and prayers that they don’t prove to have problems in the 20-month interim. This is no way to run a government.
The process is terrible, and no one seems keen to fix it. I don’t expect anyone to take on the major reforms that would solve a lot: Erase the 120-day limit, and pass annual sessions.
But they have those 20 months to come up with ideas, so most bills should be introduced right away, and no measure should be voted on until it has incubated for a set amount of time. Rules should not be erased except in real, not manufactured emergencies. It’s the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start.
Republicans in Carson City this session were too small in numbers and too bereft of any coherent strategy to fail on any big scale. But they were right about one thing: The money was available to balance the budget, albeit in a questionable fashion, without extending the payroll tax rate. And when it did pass, and then suddenly a Christmas tree bill with $60 million in ornaments surfaced, the Democratic game was revealed. They needed the money for pork, although most or all of the projects are worthwhile and ones many Republicans would support.
The real failure of leadership came from those in charge, by passing these tens of millions of dollars through a tax extension without a single Republican vote and leaving parts of the budget up to a branch of government that history shows should be called The Capricious Courts.
(I ain’t a lawyer, but if a business’s tax rate is supposed to be X on one day and a new law causes it to be X+Y, that’s a tax increase and requires two-thirds — at least in the spirit of the Constitution, if not the letter.)
Democratic leaders should have spent the entire session strategizing a way to get the one GOP senator’s vote they needed. Instead, they allowed pressure to build, released a Pearl Harbor “we don’t need you” legal opinion near the end and then simply decided to win politically if not legally. By the time they made their play, the Republicans were more resolute than anyone imagined, backed into a rhetorical corner and unable or unwilling to emerge. The coup de grace of erasing Education Savings Accounts from state law, while ruthless, was salt in a wound that won’t close for some time.
I consider Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro to be fine but very different leaders who shepherded through a broad legislative agenda. You can say Frierson didn’t herd his 28 cats until too late or that Cannizzaro had one eye on her problematic re-election toward the end. But they presided over one of the smoothest sessions in history and deserve thanks from quarters who will not be so gracious because they can’t see through their ideological blinders while they brandish their political bludgeons.
But both of them have to answer for allowing so much to come in so late and for passing a budget that may have a hole blown in it by a court. The buck stops with them on everything that happened and did not happen – and now millions of bucks could be erased by the Supremes. It’s a calculated gamble, but one they did with other people’s money.
The governor, of course, is complicit here, too. He should have either found a way to corral a Republican vote or told the leaders not to risk the budget on a court case.
But as with the Democratic legislative doyens, Sisolak surely can walk away from the session with pride in keeping many of his promises. This governor is a bundle of emotions, good and bad. He is as real and raw as anyone who has held the office.
Sisolak would probably acknowledge he knew little about the process when he began, a local fish out of water swimming in a much bigger and deeper pond. But he knew what he wanted, and more importantly, he surrounded himself with one of the best senior staffs I can remember. When I saw him hug his chief of staff, Michelle White, shortly after sine die and tell her how he couldn’t have done it without her, his sincerity was touching, his conclusion accurate.
And that is when I knew how this really was The Session of What Might Have Been, despite all the inevitable complaints of not doing enough or doing too much.
What everyone – especially Democrats but Republicans who care about the state, too – seems to be forgetting is why this appellation is so resonant. Step back, get some perspective, see all that happened (and didn’t happen) and consider:
The Session of What Might Have Been had Adam Laxalt been governor.
Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.