In the mid-1990s, Nevada rode high, wide and handsome. The Strip was in the midst of a building boom. The joke was that the state bird was the crane. Las Vegas and Reno were enmeshed in plans to redevelop their downtown cores. Then the voters got involved.
In 1996, Nevadans changed the Constitution to limit legislative service, prompting a mass exodus after the 2010 election (with another one pending in 2012). Get rid of the career politicians, voters said. Except that the legislature is a part-time job for which members are paid only for 60 days during a session and voters had had a means of imposing term limits under the Constitution: It’s called voting. The leader of the pro-term limits crowd was Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican operative, lobbyist and behind-the-scenes player (sometimes in front of the scenes, too). No one seemed inclined to suggest that eliminating senior, knowledgeable legislators might make it easier for operatives, lobbyists and behind-the-scenes players to run things.
Since then, a legislative majority from Clark County — with more than two-thirds of the seats — has been unwilling or unable to increase taxes on mining, which isn’t exactly the heart of southern Nevada’s economy. It suggests that some lobbyists have been as successful as critics of term limits have feared. But this year, some of the most important lobbyists for gaming and mining asked to continue the taxes that were due to sunset, and Republicans turned them down. Apparently, even when special interests want to do something for Nevada, newly ensconced right-wing legislators think they are unreasonable.
Also in 1996, Nevadans approved an initiative to require two-thirds of the Legislature to approve any tax hike. At the time, many figured, no big deal — Nevada rarely raised its taxes and, when it did, the support would be just about unanimous anyway. So in 2003, Gov. Kenny Guinn wound up suing the Legislature, through the good offices of Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval, to approve the tax hike he and the gaming industry wanted. The 2011 legislature was generally paralyzed over the issue, too, until the Nevada Supreme Court ruling against taking local money for state purposes, prompting Sandoval to negotiate and some actually to say this meant he was reasonable.
The leader of the effort for the two-thirds initiative back in 1994 was then-gubernatorial candidate Jim Gibbons, who couldn’t parlay this measure into victory, but later won the job — thanks mainly to the efforts of Sig Rogich. It’s a small world.
In 1998, Nevadans amended the Constitution to limit the legislature to 120 days, with the vocal support of Bill Raggio, the longtime state senator from Washoe County. Ever since, special sessions and parliamentary trickery have been necessary for the legislature to complete its business, and each regular session is a crash landing, but without Captain Sully to glide the plane along. And before long, someone will claim that Raggio’s absence this year is the reason that the Legislature has been the modern version of Dante’s Inferno, although it has resembled that story for years.
Thus the irony: Just as the boom in Nevada proved, in some ways, to be a bubble, the voters sowed the seeds of their own destruction, not only with who they elected, but with the initiatives they supported. And the unseen hands they wanted to keep out of power helped them do it, and managed to cost themselves a significant amount of their power. It’s not just a small world; it’s a funny world, but nobody is laughing.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.