The Best and Worst of the 2015 Legislature


The story apparently isn’t true, but it should be: Chinese premier Chou En-Lai supposedly was asked in 1971 what he thought of the French Revolution and replied that we had to wait and see how it came out.

That maxim is a warning to historians not to generalize and analyze too soon. But while all legislative sessions are historic and important in some way, the 2015 Nevada Legislature clearly was more historic and important than most. The question is how it comes out.

Start with the historic and important. The Legislature passed the largest tax hike in Nevada history. It could generate at least $1.1 billion, with education targeted for more spending, but those are projections, and so, like Chou En-Lai, we wait to see how it came out. If the economy continues to improve, the new or continuing taxes and fees for such items as entertainment and DMV transactions will benefit a lot of state residents and agencies.

The Legislature approved funding body cameras for police, which could prove helpful on a variety of levels. It approved the Uber ride-sharing program, which could have a significant effect on taxi drivers and their bosses. It backed school choice and eased restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.

What the Legislature didn’t do also was important. It rejected a higher minimum wage. It didn’t change the presidential caucuses to primaries. It didn’t approve a bill that would have allowed concealed weapons on college campuses. It said no to voter ID and other restrictions designed to reduce voting and turnout.

All of which begs the question of the political impact of this session. This marked the first time Republicans controlled all six statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature since 1929 (there’s no cause-and-effect between that and the stock market crash a few months later that spread the Great Depression, but perhaps it was a warning). It was their chance to prove they could govern the state. If the Legislature were an airplane, it would have gone through record turbulence and bumped into the arrival gate without dropping its landing gear. But the plane still landed safely.

Still, in keeping with the saying that people who love sausage and the law shouldn’t watch either being made, the combination of video, social media and outrageous behavior (we’re looking at you, Michele Fiore and Ira Hansen) created a lot of vegetarians. Assembly Republicans started embarrassing themselves right after the November elections gave them control of the chamber (choosing Hansen as speaker, backing off when it came out that he had written racist columns, naming Fiore majority leader and rescinding that) and kept right on doing it.

Nor were they alone. At times, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson ran the chamber like he was training to be a dictator—which is the majority leader’s prerogative, and got things done, but Democrats screamed bloody murder and made some silly pronouncements, perhaps because it didn’t occur to them when they controlled the state Senate that they could do what Roberson did.

But will all of this matter politically? Do voters really care about how legislators behave as long as they pass the laws they want and don’t break the law? Those on the far right will hector Republicans who voted for tax hikes, but it would take a lot to dislodge them. It could be easier to defeat the less housebroken Assembly Republicans if they face legitimate primary challenges or Democrats beat them up in the general election races over both what they did and how they did it—but that depends on turnout, the quality of the other candidates, and how angry the voters are. Fiore’s district is closely divided enough to give her opponent a chance with enough support, financial and otherwise, but Hansen’s district is almost 2-1 Republican and he’s probably secure.

Sandoval secured his future among historians as a governor who was willing to take a stand for Nevadans paying more to make their lives better. When he doesn’t run for the U.S. Senate, he will be able to say that he put principle ahead of politics. But while he deserves a lot of plaudits for what he did in 2015, why didn’t he do it in 2011 or 2013?

The answer may lie with some of the previously no-taxes-no-how Republicans who voted for Sandoval’s plan. They made clear that, on entering the Legislature, they learned that more taxes were necessary—that Sandoval had spent his first term opposing taxes and expecting that stand to attract new industries, but it turned out that those new industries wanted to come to a state that has an educational system, and that requires Nevada to do something it traditionally avoids doing: spend money. He did what so few of his fellow GOP governors across the country did: looked at the facts and saw the reality, and then persuaded enough of his fellow Republicans to do the same.

But Republicans didn’t do it alone: without Marilyn Kirkpatrick and the 17 Democrats in her Assembly caucus, Sandoval’s tax plan would have been DOA. Does that mean Sandoval learned a lesson about supporting all of his fellow Republicans, and that lobbyists for gaming and mining learned the same thing? Probably not. But Sandoval deserves credit. An old Mississippi congressman, Percy Quin, once said, “There often come times in a statesman’s life when he must rise above principle and take a stand for his people.” Sandoval did. But only Chou En-Lai could tell us what it will mean.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.