All sessions end the same way:
Complex legislation is barely vetted and jammed through, unintended consequences are all but guaranteed.
The governor boasts his budget was passed virtually intact and then rattles off a list of “accomplishments” and praises the folks across the courtyard for their statesmanship.
Legislative leaders brag about how they came together for the people of the great state of Nevada, shortly after Republican votes for taxes have been corralled.
Lobbyists lament that this has been the (insert superlative) session of them all, then whisper to their (mostly clueless about how it all works) clients that they did everything that was possible.
And so the ritual is repeated, every two years with a sameness that Bill Murray’s weatherman would recognize and seems depressingly immutable. This session was only slightly different than most, thanks to COVID and a legislatively sealed building for most of the session, leaving lobbyists wailing to be let in with the ferocity of Dustin Hoffman pounding on the church glass in "The Graduate." And this was no holy place, unless you include worshipping at the altar of Battle Born Progress and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Hello, darkness my old friend.
The lamentations are not all wrong. It’s a terrible, broken process, but it was broken long ago by having the Legislature be part-time, every other year with a joke of a lawmaker salary that often attracts ne'er-do-wells who can’t get another job; term limits, which throws the good legislators out with the bad; and the imposition of a 120-day limit, which renders real deliberation nearly impossible and is incentive for The Rush to Close and concomitant shenanigans.
Add that the process has become more and more politicized over the years, with partisan operatives running around the building whose only job is to sow division, and lawmakers who worry more about their ideological flanks and special interest Twitter stalkers than working to pass compromise legislation.
This session, the frequently apocalyptic pronouncements of the business community confronted with an all-Democratic capital did not come to pass, nor did the hyperventilating over a progressive agenda that apparently sought to free all criminals and defund the police (and that never materialized). The Chicken Littles, the Carson Cassandras were again proved wrong.
And the much-ballyhooed mining tax, which will raise less than $200 million a biennium for a $9 billion dollar budget, was only passed because of sops to a handful of Republicans and a gaming industry worried about its own taxing ballot question qualified by the Clark County teachers union. Or as one longtime lobbyist told me: “Mining survives but at their own expense, teachers get a fourth of the money they are looking for, the left wing loses the shutdown effort but gaming gets their tax ballot question pulled!”
Yes, that’s essentially what happened. But there is both more and less to it than that. Take the three most high-profile passed bills, which are emblematic of Session ’21.
The mining tax will not raise that much money, and the encomia thrown the industry’s way, mostly by industry flacks, is a little much to take. It will raise a lot less than the resolutions that could have been headed to the ballot, and the industry still has its protections enshrined in the state Constitution.
Please, Br’er Gang of 63, don’t throw us in THAT briar patch.
But – and this is not an insignificant but – just as The Commerce Tax passed in 2015 didn’t raise a lot of money, the mining tax bill did create a new revenue stream and codified a new tax. And you don’t need to be a legislative insider to understand that taxes are almost never repealed but often are increased.
As Nevada charts its future, the more revenue streams it has to choose from, the better. (This I understand even better now as the head of a nonprofit!) And in the endless, repetitive effort to gather enough votes to surmount the two-thirds requirement for taxes in the Constitution – another terrible policy that empowers major special interests and tiny minorities – the more choices they have, the better.
Second, in a session suffused by COVID, the major health care policy enacted was a so-called public option. An option, as one lobbyist pointed out and The Indy’s Megan Messerly has reported, “that has no public involvement other than issuance of a governmental mandate to the private sector to do something. By all appearances, that mandated task will guarantee losses for the private sector.”
It also doesn’t take effect until 2026. And five years is an eternity for mischief-makers.
But – again a substantial but – the so-called public option, even if it is a variant, is now in Nevada Revised Statutes. It will be difficult to repeal, easy to tweak. That ain’t nothing.
Finally, the most lobbied bill of the session may well have been the so-called Right to Return legislation carried by friends of the Culinary union and is as special as any special-interest legislation has ever been. It pitted the most potent Democratic special interest against the most potent special interest in the state, and nearly all of the negotiations took place at the highest levels and out of the sight of everyone — including the Legislature!
This is sausage the gamers only grudgingly accepted after making changes, but that the Culinary can take credit for jamming through. The Culinary and its brothers in the AFL-CIO gushed afterwards about the law, while gaming lobbyists privately suggested the measure was imbalanced and could inhibit hiring while driving wedges between union and non-union properties that will be difficult to repair.
This is one where the devilish details will be seen in the ensuing months and years, and we will discover whether this is a revelatory, pro-worker bill (that exempted small businesses at the last moment) passed in a right to work state or one that further cripples an essential industry already devastated by the pandemic.
All three of these complicated measures, and a massive energy bill, were dropped into the Legislature at the eleventh hour, as if to create an object lesson on how messed up the process is. And in so doing, they also exposed how the Democratic triumvirate of Gov. Steve Sisolak, state Senate Majority Leader Nciole Cannizzaro and Speaker Jason Frierson was not one for the ages. This wasn’t Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, although it would be unfair to relegate them to Three Stooges status, either.
The governor, dealt a terrible hand because of COVID, did not play his cards well and was not even at the table for most of the session. As one insider put it: “The governor laid back too long. If he thought leadership was going to exercise control, he has to be disappointed. He could have moderated some of the nonsense.”
But Sisolak, who has never really cottoned to a process where he had to get 22 and 11 votes instead of just three other county commissioners in order to get his way, did play a major role behind the scenes (along with his small staff) in closing the session. And any inside baseball criticism of his performance is far overshadowed by Sisolak coming out of the session with some major new laws, a rebounding economy and a chaotic GOP field of foes that will help his re-election.
The Republican minority was stunningly inept at going after the governor with two leaders, Robin Titus and James Settelmeyer, who essentially played no role in the endgame. As usual, a handful of moderates played ball and were key to the compromises, while the so-called Freedom Caucus (labeled the “Free-dumb Caucus” by other Republicans) and ranters such as Annie Black and Ira Hansen were heard but accomplished nothing. (Hansen at least has his own thoughts and beliefs, while Black essentially was a performance artist who had no interest in legislating.)
As for the leaders, Frierson’s cat-herding skills were tested by 25 colleagues who were each caucuses unto themselves, and he spent an inordinate amount of time killing his own party’s bills. Frierson had a testy relationship with Cannizzaro, who garnered a reputation for being insular but who nevertheless has her name on two of the most important bills of the session – Right to Return and the public option.
The one measure that seemed to encapsulate this trio’s relationships – or lack thereof – was the death penalty repeal, which progressives celebrated getting out of the Assembly as if that house had approved the 13th Amendment. But it never really had much hope in a Senate led by a prosecutor and with a governor concerned about his re-election, especially against a possible GOP nominee who is a sheriff.
Maybe if they talked a little more, a little earlier…
As in any session, lower profile laws were enacted that will have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, including some criminal justice measures (derided as half- or eighth-measures by some progressives) and an elections bill that embeds mail voting and raises the eternal question of why Republicans are so upset about more people casting ballots.
In the end, though, it was more of the same: Flawed people in a flawed process passing flawed legislation. It’s hard to envision it getting better anytime soon, and good people may be leaving – I wouldn’t be surprised to see both legislative leaders decide they have a right to not return, and with no heirs apparent – especially Maggie Carlton, perhaps the last regular person who came to Carson City two and a half decades ago not knowing anything and who will leave (after the inevitable special sessions for redistricting and other matters) knowing almost everything. Agree or disagree with her, Carlton worked as hard as anyone, stuck to her core beliefs and you always knew where she stood.
We need more of that, not less. And what the Legislative Building really needs is to be designated as an Innovation Zone, where those inside have the power to make changes that will give them more autonomy, more staff and more time.
It’s long overdue.