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Old Nevada meets new Nevada

The Nevada State Capitol in Carson City as seen on Monday, Aug 14, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

No state has aged quite like Nevada. Decades of often nation-leading growth have brought millions of new people from all over the country and the world seeking opportunities they can’t find elsewhere. And yet, despite rapid and radical changes in population and demographics, much of what made Nevada Nevada has stayed the same. Nevadans of all stripes have been rightfully concerned with safeguarding what made Nevada successful and attractive to so many people in the first place. But the need to protect the past regularly butts up against the need to build for the future. The old Nevada and the new remain in constant tension. 

In the final weeks of the 2021 legislative session, we saw the old and new Nevada collide in a way that represented the good that both sides had to offer, and the progress they can make together. A large coalition of lawmakers and stakeholders struck a broad bargain on mining taxes and education funding. It was no panacea, and nobody got all that they wanted. But it was a step forward for Nevada, and one that stands in bright contrast to a national political system where compromise is a dirty word.

Few things are as “old Nevada” as a debate over taxes. Taxing in general and mining taxes in particular are issues that pre-date Nevada’ statehood. Nevadans actually rejected the first proposed state constitution in January 1864 over the issue of mining taxes. So they revised the constitution, protected mining, and sent the Nevada Constitution off for another vote — this time successfully. 

Representing much of the “new Nevada” were new players and new approaches. The Legislature was led by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who are living proof of a changing Nevada. Speaker Frierson is Nevada’s first African-American Speaker, and Majority Leader Cannizzaro is the state’s first female majority leader. Both lead the nation’s first and only majority female Legislature. 

Also new to this process were three pending constitutional amendments and two statutory initiatives — all aimed at raising taxes. The Legislature (maybe for the first time) proposed and passed all three amendments during a special session, fast-tracking the constitutional changes with strong support from the progressive base of the Democratic party.  

Additionally, gaming, Nevada’s largest industry, was brought to the bargaining table because it faced its own taxing threat. The Clark County Education Association (CCEA)* had qualified a ballot initiative to significantly raise gaming taxes, and both the mining tax amendments and gaming tax initiative would have been on the ballot in 2022 unless the industries struck a tax deal during the legislative session. And any proposal required the votes of all Democrats and at least two Republicans in both the State Assembly and Senate.

In other words, gaming, mining, education, Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives, the Legislature and Gov. Sisolak all had to come together to reach a deal. The most powerful of the powers that be had to reason and bargain with each other as they used to in old Nevada. 

Gaming, mining, and education all had seasoned lobbyists, well-versed in complicated, tough, multi-party negotiations. New (but absolutely critical) to the discussion was Tyre Gray, the first African American president of the Nevada Mining Association. Speaker Frierson and Sen. Chris Brooks (a third-generation Nevadan who understands better than most the need to mesh old and new) led the negotiations for the Democrats. For the Republicans, Sens. Kieckhefer, Gansert, and Hammond, and Assembly Members Jill Tolles and Tom Roberts, were all willing to work together (and with the Democrats) to find agreement where possible.  

Lawmakers, lobbyists, and stakeholders alike were navigating relatively new territory. Never before had they had to negotiate with one another with five different constitutional and statutory questions headed to the ballot if they failed to reach an agreement. Of course, Nevadans have a history of rejecting initiatives that raise taxes, so mining and gaming could have simply rolled the dice if they did not like the offer on the table. But they stuck with the negotiations and crafted a compromise that was not only preferable to the pending initiatives, but that made sure the new revenue went exclusively to education. Old Nevada gave way to a better Nevada.

Still, even with leadership in sync, the deal needed enough votes in the Legislature, where the path to victory was narrow. Democrats had to keep the progressive base happy enough to ensure unanimous Democtratic support even while giving Republicans legislative wins that Democrats may not have loved. In particular, Democrats had to accept, among other things, new funding and help for Opportunity Scholarships and charter schools and the removal of straight ticket voting from an election bill they had put forth.

Opportunity Scholarships and charter schools have been partisan flashpoints for some time. Straight ticket voting was more complicated. Given how progressive Nevada’s elections laws already are (and would become with permanent mail balloting), there really was no good government justification for straight ticket voting. It would have done little more than help down-ballot Democrats, and ensure that individuals like Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske do not squeak through in otherwise strong Democratic election years. Given today’s all-encompassing partisan warfare over voting rules, though, it was no small thing Democrats were willing to put good policy ahead of pure party needs. 

The six legislative Republicans who voted for the ultimate compromise also faced strong headwinds. The anti-tax wing of the party is as strong as ever, even for a tax the industry being taxed supported. Commerce tax memories from 2015 were strong for many Republicans. Moreover, in the age of Trump, it has never been harder for a Republican to break from the party on any core issue. The political math rarely works, especially these days, as you almost always lose more Republican votes than you may gain elsewhere. Nevertheless, six Republicans negotiated some wins for their party, voted their conscience, and closed the deal. 

Compromise, wisdom, perspective, reasonableness, unorthodoxy and openness to change (however small) are all virtues the old Nevada relied on for success and the new Nevada would be foolish to abandon. With the rest of the country finding new roads to madness and division, it is nice to see Nevada charting at least a slightly different (but wholly Nevadan) course. There is still room here for cooperation and competition, preservation and progress. How much longer that remains true is entirely up to us.

* Disclosure: Daniel Stewart was local legal counsel for one of CCEA’s two qualified ballot initiatives, but not the one related to gaming taxes. 

Daniel H. Stewart is a fifth-generation Nevadan and a partner with Hutchison & Steffen. He was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s general counsel and has represented various GOP elected officials and groups.

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