The Pottery Barn Politicians

Supposedly, as secretary of state, Colin Powell warned George W. Bush that going to war with Saddam Hussein was like the rule at Pottery Barn: if you break it, you own it.

Setting aside whether Bush was stupid or a war criminal (my bet: both), we have broken the legislature, and we own it. The legislators didn’t break it. We did when we elected them and didn’t hold them to what we elected them to do.

Some of the breakage involved sex education. State Sen. Mo Denis, the majority leader, withdrew a bill to improve sex education that the Assembly had passed with much discussion and tribulation. Those tribulations include threats against Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who recounted her personal trials in explaining the value of sex education and received death threats for her trouble from believers in enlightened discourse.

The general interpretation has been that Denis and his colleague Justin Jones, a fellow Mormon Democrat who, unlike Denis, is in a swing district, were already out on a limb in supporting the resolution to repeal a ban on gay marriage. Two bites from a socially liberal apple might be too many. Besides, Gov. Brian Sandoval would be likely to veto it anyway, so why shed blood?

But Jones also introduced a bill to promote background checks for gun buyers. He spent weeks talking with the governor’s office about this. Finally, Sandoval just couldn’t bring himself to sign it because it would include mandatory private party background checks, which is just too intrusive for him—though Sandoval’s definition of intrusiveness appears to vary, as he opposes repealing the gay marriage ban.

In turn, State Sen. Michael Roberson introduced a bill to incorporate many of the provisions of Jones’s bill, but without those nasty background checks. Democrats howled, with Jones observing, “It’s politically craven for Sen. Roberson to decide on day 114 that he suddenly cares.” Democrats made clear that Roberson’s bill is dead on arrival.

The biggest splash Roberson has made this session has been not in cooperation with the governor, but in opposition to him. He proposed a ballot measure to increase mining taxes, which would go against everything Sandoval believes about the importance of avoiding even the slightest whiff of a hint of a possibility of raising taxes (except when he supported retaining taxes increased in 2011 that had been due to expire).

Democrats declined to support Roberson’s efforts, apparently because they felt he was trying to use the mining tax proposal to defeat a business tax that teachers are supporting. On the one hand, we shouldn’t look a gift mining tax attempt in the mouth. On the other hand, given Roberson’s maneuvering on Jones’s bill, Democrats might be onto something with the idea that he likes to play games.

That said, what do Democrats have to lose by going all-out for mining taxes? Rural support, meaning the three votes they get in each election from the counties between Washoe and Clark (this is only slightly hyperbolic). But if they are too willing to tax, they’ll be attacked as tax-and-spend liberals. And if they too strongly support sex-ed in swing districts, they’ll be attacked as hippies and commies.

Blame your legislators all you want. If you’re liberal, blame the state senate Democrats for rolling over and playing dead on sex education and the Republicans for trying to protect gun manufacturers. If you’re on the right, blame Roberson and some of his allies for daring to suggest a need for higher taxes, whatever their motives.

But we elected them. And Nevadans voted for the proposal brought forth by Bill Raggio, the longest-serving state senator, to limit sessions to 120 days, which is why all of this is coming to a head now. And Nevadans voted for term limits, which is why some people who should be in Carson City representing us are no longer there. And Nevadans voted for the requirement that two-thirds of the legislature must approve a tax hike, which is why there is no majority rule in Carson City.

Before the session began, a former legislator told me that only two of the state senators who served in the 2009 session were still in that body. Yes, some of the new arrivals had been in the assembly. But thanks to term limits, there had been a large turnover. When you lose that much institutional memory, knowledge and experience, you should expect a crash landing—like the crash landings we have had in every session since the 120-day limit began.

Blame legislators all you want. But in a republic, the voters should take responsibility, too. We broke the legislature. We own it. And we need to fix it.