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The No Heroes Session

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

The worst thing I can say about the Democratic hegemons who run Carson City after Special Session 31 is this: The results would not have been much different had the Republicans controlled the capital.

Or maybe I can say something worse: Instead of funneling money – $40 million or so – back to state employees whose union dumped $250,000 on the Democratic caucus shortly before the session, the Republicans might have put that funding into education or health care.

I have seen many terrible capital performances (and a few incandescent ones) during the last three and a half decades, but the 12 days of The No Heroes Session was the nadir. From Democratic lawmakers debasing themselves and the institution by placing scores of flip flops in the corridor to mock anthropomorphic jellyfish Keith Pickard to embarrassing intonations of solemnity (Pat Spearman invoked the late John Lewis, who rolled over in his grave before he even got there) to Democrats caterwauling about mining taxes ($50 million) before finding $50 million in the CARES Act, this was an exercise in fecklessness unprecedented in state annals.

Saddest of all: They essentially did nothing, changing the governor’s recommended $1.2 billion in cuts very little except to shovel money to the state employees, who unlike tens of thousands of Nevadans still have jobs and health insurance. Nothing imaginative, creative or visionary.

And a state that has never funded any essential services adequately is now even worse off, with no end in sight and a creeping coronavirus threatening an even worse economic downturn before The Gang of 63 returns soon to do less than it should. What exactly, as we head to November, is The Democratic Party’s argument for why their legislative candidates are better than their opponents?

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak cannot escape culpability, either. His obvious frustration (euphemism alert) with lawmakers notwithstanding, he refused to use the literal and rhetorical power of his office to chastise them, to force them not to spend 12 days in Seinfeldian silliness. The greatest irony is that Sisolak, who has been called a bully in his career, refused to be one when he should have been, adopting more of a passive non-aggressive approach until he finally sent lawmakers home for a time out.

Slack must be given, of course. The chore handed lawmakers is unprecedented, and the weight of having to gut services that will hurt real people in real ways must be crushing. And the governor, who has meager resources at his disposal, has been consumed with tackling a pandemic that is killing hundreds of Nevadans and devastating the economy.

But the last near-fortnight has shown a failure of leadership that cannot be masked by self-congratulatory press releases or floor speeches. No heroes. None.

That includes the Republicans, who could be heard singing a twisted version of the “Hamilton” song: How lucky we are to be irrelevant right now. Except for Pickard, of course, who became the focus of the session for a few days as Democrats almost raised mining taxes with his help.

As the Assembly GOP caucus, best known before this for its leaders being agnostic on mask-wearing, whined about the wondrous mining industry, Pickard was showing everyone the art of a deal-breaker. Rarely has a lawmaker asked for a light to be shined on him and then demonstrated just how, ahem, flexible he is.

Pickard emotionally said in his final floor speech that all he had was his integrity, but his integrity is not in question. His constancy, his intellectual honesty are, however, up for debate.

The timeline is not his friend.

On Thursday, on the floor, Pickard said he would have been a definite yes if the mining tax money were earmarked for education.

On Friday afternoon, in an interview with The Indy’s Riley Snyder, the rookie senator said, “If they were to come back and create language in the bill that moved this money to education, I already said I’m a yes.”

On Friday evening, he made a deal with the Democrats to vote for the tax increase the following day after the language was changed to do what he asked.

On Saturday morning, he met with his caucus and told the RJ’s Colton Lochhead he would not vote for the bill because there was a better way — which turned out to be a $600 million fee on renewable energy that my colleague David Colborne would later describe as “a laughably mendacious offer” that would “break family budgets and annihilate commercial and industrial activity throughout the state.” (How proud the Senate Republicans must be for proposing a probably illegal, massive tax increase on a single industry. Good to know what they stand for.)

Pickard had at least three different explanations for his change of heart that showed how disingenuous he was: The mining tax did not raise enough funding, the renewable energy tax was a better way and you shouldn’t take money from an industry without permission.

As a sideshow to Pickard’s Change, an early nominee for Worst Performance by a Legislator in History, the Clark County Education Association’s performance was quite laughable. CCEA created Pickard by endorsing him in 2018 over Democrat Julie Pazina, who lost by 24 votes and thus paved the way for the mining tax’s failure.

On Friday, CCEA boss John Vellardita lobbied Pickard to vote for the mining tax and when he folded, CCEA tweeted: “Pickard let teachers down. He made a promise and broke it. One termer.”

Speaking of constancy, the thuggish threat was later deleted but Vellardita told The Current’s April Corbin Girnus about the Pickard endorsement: "Do I regret it? It's politics. Do we regret it? No. We work across the aisle. We don't regret. We re-calibrate. But there will be consequences."

The entire mining tax drama was all-too-familiar, and it occurred on the wrong stage.

I have been writing for decades that mining’s special place in the Constitution should be changed and that the miners should pay more, which also could be accomplished by removing some or all of the dozen deductions the industry is allowed to take to reduce its gross to pay a net proceeds levy.

But springing such a plan at the eleventh hour of a special session is a terrible way to accomplish this goal. Maybe some of the deductions make sense. Maybe none of them do. Let’s have a vigorous debate, not just succumb to the incessant wailing by progressives on social media to #BeBold. How about #BeThoughtful?

The only way this mining taxation policy would have made any sense is if the governor and lawmakers of BOTH parties had talked about it before the session. (Oh, and maybe give the industry more than two hours notice? Caricature the miners any way you want, but anyone deserves that courtesy.)

Maybe the result would have been no different, but talking amongst themselves before the session – and the governor and legislative leaders informing mining it was time to pony up to help save the state – would have shown some planning, some comity, some thoughtfulness. We saw none of that. None. No heroes.

That lack of forethought was emblematic for the session and showed how partisanship and the DC-comes-to-Carson mentality has become a capital pandemic, infecting all decisions. Some might say that this is inside baseball, that all sessions look terrible in the immediate aftermath, that none of this really matters.

Indeed, it may be true that the Democrats emerged with two mass Republican votes against taxing mining, which could hurt GOP legislative candidates in urban Nevada where voters don’t give a whit about mining but care about education and health care a lot. And perhaps, with Democrats in such safe districts thanks to gerrymandering, they will simply continue to behave as if the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

But the voters will only slumber for so long. And the Democrats’ disregard for the minority will come home to roost, the worm will turn and memories are long.

What’s so sad is that it didn’t have to be that way. Speaker Jason Frierson is one of the finest people ever to serve, but he seems frustrated by the process and…the state Senate. And state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, while relatively new, has immense potential but seems capable of only the most anodyne statements except for an occasional fiery floor speech. She is in the key legislative seat in November, but if she keeps looking in the rear-view mirror, she is going to crash and burn.

Many others in both parties have potentially bright futures, and we are lucky to have them there despite the low pay and paltry rewards (like this column). They are capable of doing what is called for here. But the last 12 days do not bode well.

This is no way to run a state.

The legendary Bill Raggio used to lament that too many legislators came to Carson City, were treated like kings and queens and then cared only about re-election, thus paralyzing them. And with every successive session, regular and not-so-special, the erosion continues.

Tradition matters. Decorum matters. The institution matters.

The sins of past legislatures, the cancerous neglect of education and basic services have been visited upon the current one. But never before has Nevada so needed a break from the past, leaders who realize that with a cratering economy, this may be the last chance to stop the slide into Third World country-status.

The governor matters, too. And despite any missteps since he took office last year, on COVID-19 or anything else, his greatest challenges lie ahead. And Steve Sisolak will either lead the way or be crippled for re-election — if he even wants to run.

The Democrats have done a formidable job of acquiring almost absolute power in the capital the last two cycles. But with great power comes great responsibility; it’s just power for power’s sake if you don’t do anything substantial with it.

If they are not going to be heroes, maybe it’s time to give the Republicans a chance.


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