What Is Going on in Carson City?

We have a theory or two.

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The news that The X-Files is returning must seem fitting to those who regularly follow our state Legislature. The puzzling way in which our lawmakers do business in Carson City these days often seems like a case for Mulder and Scully.

Not that this is the first time the Legislature has been weird. In the early 1980s, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s then-state-capital reporter announced his departure with a series on how often some lawmakers were drunk or asleep at the wheel. (Since then, reporters have been more willing to point out when lawmakers and lobbyists enjoy themselves more than they should.)

In recent years, some legislators have staked out lonely positions, from longtime state Senator Joe Neal becoming known as a liberal lion for supporting gaming taxes to right-wing Assembly members such as Sharron Angle (remember her?) seeming to oppose almost everything. Today, the Assembly’s 25 Republicans are almost evenly divided between conservatives who once sat on the far right of the Legislature and more moderate right-wingers who once were as common in Carson City as snow in Las Vegas.

Some of the results during this session have been frightening to those who believe in effective government. And sanity. To wit: Assemblywoman Michele Fiore enjoyed a brief turn as majority leader and taxation committee chairwoman, despite her various tax problems and her continued support for Cliven Bundy. Then there was the far right launching unsuccessful recall drives against fellow conservatives … and officials investigating alleged vote extortion.

Meanwhile, the kind of peculiar legislation that the leadership used to nix before it became a bill-draft request now advances to committee hearings—in recent weeks, there’s been an attempt to discriminate against transgenders; a failed effort to introduce a “religious freedom” law modeled after Indiana’s disaster; and an obviously unconstitutional plan to demand the federal government give up its land in Nevada so that it can be properly destroyed.

The last measure evokes not just Bundy, but the Sagebrush Rebellion, which sought similar results in the 1970s. And thus the question: Is the Legislature that much different now, or are we just more conscious of its quirks than before?

The answer is yes … and yes.

Consider social media. Previous Legislatures were famous for some outrageous sexcapades, including trysts in the stairwells, a committee chairman who regularly chased interns and occasional romps on the lawn outside the legislative building. All of that preceded mobile phones. Imagine what Twitter, Facebook and other social media could do with that today.

Newer forms of media not only air embarrassments, but also provide actual relevant coverage. In 2015, fewer than a dozen reporters cover the Legislature full (or even part) time, and those reporters must keep track of 63 lawmakers, more than 10 times as many lobbyists and staffers, and the 10 standing committees in each house. The good news is we no longer have to wait for the next day’s fish wrap to find out what’s happening. The bad news is this immediate release of information more easily brings the sublime and ridiculous to our attention. And once it’s on the Internet, it doesn’t go away (Hillary Clinton’s basement server to the contrary).

New technology also makes it possible for someone in Las Vegas to testify before a legislative committee meeting taking place 400 miles to the north. The intent of locating the Legislature in Carson City wasn’t to enable its members to burrow out of sight to do the public’s business, but that was the result. Now, all you need is an Internet connection to check out hearings and debates and read bills. That makes it tougher for the Legislature to hide its peccadilloes and shortcomings.

Another way the Legislature has changed: increased partisanship. Nevada Democrats are more liberal today than such legislative giants as Joe Dini, the longtime speaker from Yerington, and Jim Gibson, the Henderson Democrat and longtime Senate power broker. Meanwhile, Republicans are more conservative and, more importantly, less compromising. Bill Raggio, the longtime Republican Senate leader, often sat much farther to the right than many now remember, but he also knew how to make a deal and was willing to do so—until more conservative colleagues ousted him for opposing Angle’s U.S. Senate candidacy in 2010.

Indeed, the Legislature has changed. But so has our access to it and ability to know what it’s doing. Mulder was right: The truth is out there. Unfortunately, so are too many of our state’s lawmakers.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.