It’s Time for an Annual Legislature

State Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom is the fourth generation of his family to serve in the Nevada Legislature, and thus the fourth generation to meet every other year in Carson City. He says that needs to change: We need annual sessions.

Wait. It’s not more government he’s looking for; it’s better government. And he’s already working on a way to make it a reality.

“It’s a work in progress,” he says. Segerbolm, D-Las Vegas, and other members of the Interim Committee on Legislative Structure and Operations are pondering limitations and rules. They hope to draft a bill for the 2013 session that would have to pass the Legislature twice, then go on the ballot. So even a successful effort would take time and, as Segerblom says, “we want bipartisan support.”

Nevada’s committee members went to Oregon to learn from its recent move to annual sessions—which was achieved with bipartisan support. “Oregon formed a commission to study the issue and come back with a proposal, and that’s what the voters approved, without any real opposition,” he says.

Segerblom is mulling something like the current 120-day biennial session in odd-numbered years and shorter, 30-45-day sessions in even-numbered years. Some states discuss only budget matters in alternate years; some allow a limited number of bills.

“Oregon’s annual session is wide open, but it’s only 35 days,” Segerblom says. “A lot of people there said it wasn’t enough time to do what they were trying to do.” He thinks Nevada will need to limit the number of bills or subject matter. “But you hate to limit it just to budget matters if something big comes up,” he says. “For example, the mortgage crisis—you’d want to be able to deal with that.”

If this wise idea passes the Legislature, it wouldn’t be the first attempt. Grant Sawyer became governor in 1959 and supported annual sessions, with the new meetings limited to fiscal issues. Voters approved the plan, but there was only one annual session, in 1960.

In a 1993 oral history, Hang Tough!, Sawyer lamented that the change went awry: “Not satisfied with being restricted to things fiscal, the legislators broadened their interpretation of the law until they had what amounted to a regular session, staying in Carson City for God knows how long and passing every bill in the book. The public and I were so disgusted with this butchery that they soon repealed the law, and there never has been another scheduled annual session … which may be unfortunate.”

Nevada needs a properly functioning annual session even more now than it did then. The state’s population is nearly 10 times greater than in 1960, with more issues and revenue streams.

Segerblom says most legislators, both present and past, favor a change, and his argument encompasses Sawyer’s and goes beyond it. “We’re not the state we were in 1864. Too much happened too fast, and we can’t project for two years. We have to wait 18 months to try to override a veto. This would limit it to six months, which would be a better way to go,” he says.

He also makes a broader point: Term limits have changed what the Nevada Constitution’s framers intended.

“We already had a very governor-dominated system, but, historically, the countervailing force was that we had legislators—Bill Raggio, Joe Dini, Jim Gibson—who had been there a long time who in their own way would balance out the system. But with term limits that balance is gone, so now you really have nothing to weigh against the governor, and I don’t think that’s what the public intended.”

Many Nevadans claim to dislike too much government and to have more sense than government officials do. If that’s the case, let’s do what we can as citizens to make government better. Logic is with Tick Segerblom; voters and their elected representatives should be, too.