Will the 2015 Legislature End Up Being the Worst in State History?

Believe it or not, that’s open to debate.

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Based on what has happened (and hasn’t happened) in Carson City for the past few months, the 2015 Legislature seems to be doing its best to go down as the worst in our state’s 151-year history. No previous Legislature has had to replace the speaker-designate over racist writings that his supporters either didn’t know about or didn’t care about; welcomed as a hero a U.S. citizen who ignores federal laws and fees; held a useless alternative budget hearing by a state controller who wants to cut the salaries of government workers but seeks a $13 million increase for his office budget; and let Michele Fiore anywhere near a position of power.

But does all that (and more) make this Legislature the worst? Surprisingly, it actually has plenty of competition:

In 1907 while trying to block a radical union, Goldfield’s mining bosses, led by George Wingfield, drummed up claims the town was out of control—so much so that Governor John Sparks convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to send in federal troops. When Roosevelt determined the troops weren’t necessary, he told the governor to do his own dirty work: The U.S. soldiers would exit, leaving the state to create its own police force to patrol the town. In 1908, Sparks called a special session that did just that. After that fall’s elections, the Legislature that convened in 1909 lacked one-third of the state senators and four-fifths of the Assembly from the previous group. Some legislators didn’t intend to run again, but others chose not to do so because they knew what electoral fate awaited them.

The 1927 Legislature faced a tough call. Nevada’s treasurer and controller embezzled more than $500,000 in state funds, invested it in an oil company and lost the money. Wingfield (yes, him again) owned the bank where the funds were deposited—illegally, since no bank at the time was supposed to have that much state money in it—and had been behind the election of the two corrupt officials. Wingfield and state leaders dickered over how much of the defalcation would be his responsibility, and settled on 30 percent. So, to recoup the difference, lawmakers—essentially at Wingfield’s behest—raised taxes. Six of the state senators and more than half of the Assembly didn’t return for the next session.

In 1989, the Legislature approved pension hikes for its members. Those who served long enough would enjoy a 300 percent increase. A special session was convened to debate about rescinding the deal—a meeting that cost additional funds. Worse, legislative leaders had made clear that anyone who voted against the pension increase would have no chance of passing future legislation. One lawmaker responded that was fine, because he would be the only one still around when the next session convened. He was almost right: A quarter of the state Senate and half of the Assembly didn’t return in 1991.

Opponents of tax hikes like to point to five telling legislative sessions. After the 1981 Legislature passed a “tax shift” that cut property taxes but raised sales taxes, nearly half of the Assembly was voted out of office. Similar bloodbaths followed the 1983, 1991, 1993 and 2003 sessions, all of which were highlighted by tax increases.

But the biggest changes in the Legislature’s membership followed the 1985 session. Republicans had taken over the Assembly for the first time in 15 years and took full advantage: They approved a pay hike for government workers, but tried to exclude teachers because they supported Democrats; they passed a law to limit picketing (this Legislature has entertained similar thoughts); they generally fought much of what Governor Richard Bryan proposed; and they approved some tax hikes. In the 1986 election, the Assembly flipped from 25-17 Republican to 29-13 Democratic.

Granted, not every legislator was defeated; some simply chose to move on to greener pastures. Still, it brings to mind an admonition from longtime state archivist Guy Rocha—one that today’s Republican lawmakers might consider heeding: “There is precedent for the public remembering and for the public to punish.”

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.