Stay tuned for more kapooey in ‘Cartoon City’

The recent special session dealt with a deficit of nearly $900 million. That hole might be $3 billion by the next legislature in 2011. But cheer up: That may not be the worst of it.

Many of the taxes and fees imposed in 2009 disappear by the next session, thanks partly to Sen. Bill Raggio, the Republican from Washoe County. He will deal on something that will prove inseparable from the budget and taxation fight—reapportionment.

For half a century, Nevada’s legislature operated under the “little federal plan.” Like the U.S. House of Representatives, our Assembly roughly resembled the state population. The Senate consisted of one member from each of 17 counties (including Ormsby, since dissolved and consolidated with Carson City). This meant almost anything the urban counties of Clark and Washoe wanted was defeated, 15-2—unless they offered something rural senators wanted.

The U.S. Supreme Court forced changes with what some experts call “the reapportionment revolution” of the 1960s. It held that malapportionment violated the U.S. Constitution and ordered states to get their houses and senates in order. Nevada lawmakers hated to do it, but they had to. In the first post-reapportionment session, in 1967, Clark County went from one of 17 senators to eight of 20.

One northern lawmaker warned Southern Nevada’s “hippies, beatniks and communists” would take over the state. Instead, the major change has been the ferocity of the fights over reapportionment.

In 1991, Democrats controlled both houses by small majorities. The negotiations still were “lengthy, often rancorous,” reports at the time said, with Clark County gaining seats and Washoe County upset at losing them. Political analyst Jon Ralston called it “the session from hell,” which also describes most sessions since then.

The next redistricting, in 2001, proved so hellish that Gov. Kenny Guinn had to call a special session to finish it. Those involved described special sessions as “rare.” Today they are as rare as a steak left all day on a roaring barbecue. When lawmakers thought they had an agreement, Speaker Richard Perkins said, “It went kind of kapooey,” which may not be a word, but that seems appropriate in any discussion of the Legislature.

Raggio wanted to preserve northern seats by expanding the Legislature from 63 to 69 members. His right flank fought him, presumably viewing even 63 legislators as 63 too many. Democrats opposed him, since their stronghold—Clark County—would benefit from northern losses. That the Republican leader advocated expanding government while Democrats wanted to limit its size says all you need to know about what goes on in what some call “Cartoon City.”

Making matters worse, the 2000 census entitled Nevada to a third House seat. With the first district Democratic and the second Republican, what about the third? Some Democrats tried to gut the first district to set up the new seat for then-Democratic golden boy Dario Herrera. In turn, Raggio offered to back funding for some pet Democratic projects if his counterparts would help Republican congressional and legislative hopefuls, especially his then-colleague Jon Porter. Raggio nearly pulled it off, and Porter won three terms in the House without an overwhelmingly GOP majority.

So, in 2011, a new governor will sign off on a reapportionment plan emerging from a Legislature that looks likely to be Democratic. But how Democratic will it be? Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford will be negotiating amid rumors of an impending congressional run, and Raggio, term-limited out after this session, will be looking to cement his legacy and possibly settle scores—with both parties.

Also, what about the governor? Note that Republican operatives saw Gibbons was in serious trouble and had doubts about his two opponents. Suddenly former attorney general-turned-federal judge Brian Sandoval gave up a lifetime gavel for a chancy run for governor. They had no reason to fear any Democrat would turn the state upside down on taxes and regulation, but ample reason to fear a Democratically controlled reapportionment.

The next Legislature will study Nevada’s tax structure and face mammoth questions. How they determine who decides on those matters in the future could prove about as important. This could be the biggest kapooey of all.

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