If you can’t slice the pork, slice the districts

If you follow the Nevada legislature — and you should — the real excitement has begun:  The hearings on redistricting.  Every 10 years, after the census, lawmakers have to gerrymander themselves back into office or gracefully eliminate their districts. This time, Clark County holds the balance wheel. Its percentage of Nevada’s population has increased from just under 69 percent to 72 percent, meaning it should gain a legislative seat or two. Since Clark County’s delegation now comprises two-thirds of the legislature, making its decisions veto-proof, its members should be able to decide redistricting largely as they wish.

Note the use of italics. If the Clark County delegation would unite, as it should, its members could easily filet Gov. Brian Sandoval’s draconian budget by saying “If you want to cut, we’ll shut down the state north of Clark County, and you can find a new place to live.” They are unlikely to do that, since they tend to vote by party rather than by geographic constituency — a problem that never bothered rural Nevadans and some Washoe County members of the legislature, especially when they had more power.

Assemblyman Richard Segerblom, the Government Affairs Committee chair — and thus one of the key players — told the R-J, “The rurals are obviously an issue, and Hispanics.”  Two interesting answers to that statement already have come up:

  • Tibi Ellis, who heads the Nevada Republican Hispanic Caucus, says there should be a Hispanic majority district — an odd notion coming from a party that has fought the creation of districts that contain a majority of minorities. She said Latinos on both sides of the aisle are ready to sue for this.  “Look, we’re 26 percent of the population in Nevada, and we do vote as a bloc.  We deserve this,” the R-J quoted her as saying, and she’s right:  Hispanics voted as a bloc for Democrat Harry Reid and against Republican Sharron Angle. But most of those Hispanic voters live in the district represented by Shelley Berkley, who continues to explore whether to run for John Ensign’s Senate seat.  No one seems likely to argue the point that if Berkley decides to move up, the field is open. If she stays in the House, she gets to keep a safe district. Her district includes a substantial Hispanic population. If legislators protect her — and Joe Heck in District 3, which has a smaller percentage of Hispanics — carving out a Hispanic district might be difficult.
  • Steven Horsford, the State Senate majority leader, suggested that since the size of state government is supposed to shrink, why not shrink the legislature? For Horsford to make that argument might endear him to those who dislike government, but that isn’t his usual, more liberal-minded constituency.  Horsford has political ambitions, although their direction may be open to debate.  He won’t be term-limited next time, allowing him to seek reelection in 2012 if he wishes — unlike Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, who seems likely to seek a House seat. So might former Representative Dina Titus, Horsford’s predecessor as Senate Democratic leader.

But Horsford may be up to something else here.  Namely, any addition to the Clark County delegation is likelier to benefit Democrats than Republicans.  Horsford — and Oceguera — need some Republican votes to get to the two-thirds they need to override any Sandoval vetoes on redistricting and taxes.  Might Horsford be suggesting a deal for northern Nevadans  (especially Republican northern Nevadans) that if they want to keep their existing representation, they just might want to vote with Democrats on budget and tax issues?  Horse trading is the political rule, not the exception.

Redistricting always is part of the broader legislative agenda.  So, don’t be surprised if Sandoval’s no new taxes pledge and other programs and ideas suddenly get caught up in the fight over the legislature’s composition for the rest of the decade.