Seven Things We Learned From the Legislature

From power struggles to actual beneficial legislation, a closer look at this past session

As we recover from our roller-coaster biennial Legislature, with its usual slow start, its quick, harrowing finish and the vetoes (a dismay to some, a relief to others) that follow, here are seven important take-homes. Consider them your Carson City souvenirs.

1. Some intelligent legislation passed. We had the historic resolution that will lead to the repeal of Nevada’s ridiculous definition of marriage (ridiculous not merely because it’s bigoted, but because a state with a revolving door between divorce court and wedding chapels shouldn’t define marriage). We had the decision to keep moving away from coal-produced power and encourage renewable energy. The Legislature also defined crimes that target the transgendered as hate crimes, and it legalized dispensaries for medical marijuana.

2. A quiet, almost unnoticed power struggle continued. This particular struggle was between an increasingly assertive Legislature and an alliance between the governor and the bureaucracy. The Legislature looked seriously at how to have annual sessions, and the subject will keep coming back as long as the 120-day limit leads to failure. Lawmakers also passed a bill to expand their power to keep tabs on government agencies. And you can tell it mattered because one of the agencies most in need of watching—the Nevada System of Higher Education—tried mightily to kill it, and the “governor of Reno,” as one legislative critic calls Brian Sandoval, vetoed it. Add these measures to the Legislature having won voter approval for the right to call itself into special session, and we may see more of a true system of checks and balances.

3. Two new caucuses gained ground and should keep gaining it. The Southern Nevada caucus sought to do more to bring together the more than 70 percent of the Assembly and Senate members who are supposed to represent Clark County. Southern Nevada also got some more education money than it has enjoyed in the past—but still less than it should have. Meanwhile, the Hispanic caucus had a lot to do with passing the law enabling illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s privilege card and securing more educational money for English-language learners.

4. Lawmakers are at once smarter and dumber than we thought about taxes. They know Nevadans still suffer from the delusion that we can give tourists the laboring oar and avoid as much responsibility as possible. Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick tried to push through “entertainment” taxes without success. But legislators did agree to pass the buck to Clark County commissioners on taxes and thereby let them take the hit. They fumbled and bumbled on the business-margin tax that teachers have gotten onto the 2014 ballot. Meanwhile, one of the more interesting developments of the Legislature was that several Southern Nevada Republicans—most notably Sen. Michael Roberson of Henderson—supported higher mining taxes.

5. Lawmakers knew enough not to do certain things. They didn’t approve continuing right-wing efforts to turn college campuses into shooting galleries or let the speed limit go as high as 85 mph. As recently as 20 years ago, we might not have been so lucky.

6. Lawmakers can’t hide. Thanks to Twitter and other social media, legislating is different than it used to be—and attention and pressure will keep making it better.

7. Governor Sandoval inadvertently helped the Democrats. In fact, he handed potential opponents issues with which to beat him over the head during the 2014 campaign—if they have the brains and guts to do it. He vetoed a bill to reduce government waste, which makes him vulnerable to attack from the right, and the more notable one on background checks that prompted one local critic to suggest calling him Governor Sandy Hook (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might like to spend some of his money to promote gun responsibility here). He also had no need to express an opinion on repealing the marriage ban but opposed it anyway. However, Sandoval did break with orthodoxy to approve allowing Clark County to raise taxes—more evidence that his belief in “no new taxes” tends to shift. You can call that wishy-washy, if you want. But you can also call it acknowledging reality.