Heeding History

In the past, Special sessions have spelled doom for lawmakers

It may be inappropriate for Nevada legislators to meet in a special session around Yom Kippur. But they may have a lot to atone for, and the voters may not let them.

Gov. Brian Sandoval plans to call the session sometime in the second week of October. Then lawmakers will decide whether to raise room taxes for a stadium Sheldon Adelson and Mark Davis are funding with about $1.25 billion, with visitors to Nevada ponying up the rest. Legislators have to decide whether they should increase taxes and put the additional revenue into a stadium.

It may or may not help them decide if they know that Adelson is worth about $31 billion, and Forbes values Davis’ Raiders at $2.1 billion with only about $225 million a year from NFL television contracts, and virtually every metric known to intelligent life ranks Nevada at or near the bottom in education and social services because the state chronically underfunds these programs. It may not help them if they realize everyone knows this tax hike wouldn’t happen if it funded those programs.

Similarly, it may or may not help them to know what has happened after other controversial special sessions—and this one will be controversial, whether or not the main local newspaper says so.

In 1907, the Industrial Workers of the World tried to organize miners in the boomtown of Goldfield. The mine owners, led by George Wingfield, the state’s future political boss, determined to break the strike. The shooting of a restaurateur enabled them to railroad murder convictions and prison sentences for two of the union organizers, who wound up being pardoned 80 years later—when they weren’t around to enjoy being vindicated.

The murder also provided the impetus to request that Gov. John Sparks seek federal troops to restore order to Goldfield. He did as he was told. Later, President Theodore Roosevelt, smelling a rat, sent out an investigating committee that concluded the troops were unnecessary. Roosevelt told Sparks the state could handle its own problems by creating a state police force. In 1908, Sparks called a special session of the legislature, which did just that.

This pleased Wingfield. As for the voters … six of the 17 state senators and 33 of the 40 assemblymen—yes, 33 of 40—didn’t return for the 1909 session. And remember, state senators are elected every four years, so half of them weren’t even on the ballot that year—only three of the state senators from 1907 were left by 1911. Granting the mobility of a boom-and-bust mining economy and that being a Nevada legislator never has been the most pleasant duty, it isn’t hard to figure out that the voters made clear, or many legislators understood, the price they would pay.

Two decades later, Wingfield prompted another special session. In 1927, revelations appeared that two of his political apparatchiks, the recently departed state treasurer and controller, had embezzled more than $500,000 in state funds. Since their defense was essentially that Wingfield was their boss and they figured they were safe to do whatever they wanted as long as he ran the state and liked them, Wingfield eventually agreed to make up about 30 percent of the difference. The rest would come from a tax increase, which a special session agreed to in 1928.

How did they come out? Four of the 17 state senators and 25 of the 37 assemblypeople were nowhere to be seen in Carson City in the next session in 1929.

In 1989, lawmakers approved a pension increase for state employees. But they included themselves. Those who served 30 years in the legislature would gain 300 percent. Those affected would be few, but legislative leaders told their caucuses to vote for it or their bills would be killed. One member who disagreed countered that anyone who voted for it wouldn’t be around to make their lives miserable anyway.

Said member was right. After a special session to repeal the pension hike, nearly half of the members of the assembly weren’t back for the next session.

Now, there’s always turnover. There are also many reasons someone either doesn’t seek re-election or loses. But if the past is prologue, those who go to the special session in October might want to make completely sure their constituents are with them, or the day of atonement may become the day of judgment.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.