Not Just What, But How

Tedium, silliness and horse-trading are the legislative norm. They don’t have to be.

Cierra Pedro | Vegas Seven

Now that the 2017 legislative session is over, what did we learn?

Setting aside the most important news (state employees get a pay raise!), we are taxing marijuana, unwisely trusting the state attorney general, ramping up the UNLV medical school, not funding school vouchers, erecting some much-needed buildings and infrastructure, possibly forcing transparency onto pharmaceuticals, raising renewable energy standards and instituting a useless civics exam for high school seniors. We’re also discovering that Nevadans can’t know what’s going on in Carson City without Twitter, some veteran legislative correspondents and the reporters for The Nevada Independent.

But here’s what we should have learned: We need to repeal term limits and the requirement for two-thirds of the legislature to approve tax increases. And we need annual sessions.

If you followed the legislature, it was bursts of tedium (supposedly boring hearings, not much activity) followed by outbursts of silliness (generally the work of state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, though others certainly contributed), with the eventual endgame of horse-trading and amending bills into forms totally different from their originals. In other words, it was seemingly normal.

That doesn’t mean we have to accept it as normal. We can and should fix it, or at least improve it.

The problem with term limits is bigger than you think. Both Speaker Jason Frierson and state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford were first-time leaders. That doesn’t automatically mean they did badly, but they and several other lawmakers were new to the controls. Small wonder each session winds up looking like a circus.

Term limits allegedly were going to free lawmakers to vote their consciences and intellect. Instead, some figure they might as well kick the can down the road because they won’t have to deal with an issue next time, simply because they won’t have a next time. Worse, the lack of background and institutional memory further empowers lobbyists and consultants—the supposed enemies of good legislation. That isn’t actually true, but lobbyists’ jobs may be easier if new lawmakers simply do as they’re told—or tougher when they have to educate newbies who shouldn’t be there or newcomers who think they already know it all and don’t.

We already have term limits. They’re called elections. Also, anyone who has been around Carson City long enough inevitably hankers for the genius of Bill Raggio, who spent nearly 40 years in the state Senate. They also tend to bring up Joe Dini, an assemblyman for 34 years and speaker for nearly half that time. Granted, neither Raggio (of Washoe County) nor Dini (of Lyon County) did a lot of favors for southern Nevada. That’s actually part of their charm, and the point: Northern Nevada, then and now, reaps the benefit of their long service. Southern Nevadans didn’t usually serve so long, given that they were dragging themselves 400 miles from home to be in the legislature.

Theoretically, then, term limits should have leveled the rest of Nevada and turned Clark County into the land of milk and honey. That didn’t happen, partly because legislators should and do think of themselves as Nevadans (oddly, it didn’t occur to northern and rural old-timers to return the favor when Southern Nevada really, really needed something), and partly because the Clark County delegation votes by party rather than region. When she was Nevada Assembly speaker, Marilyn Kirkpatrick tried to build more unity down south, but she resigned to become a county commissioner, and those efforts went south.

Legislators aren’t alone. Governors are term-limited, and shouldn’t be. Without term limits, would Brian Sandoval have acted differently? We can’t know. That isn’t to criticize him. But he might be able to accomplish more, and if he’s popular, why shouldn’t the public decide whether or not to keep him around?

Eliminating term limits might alleviate the partisan rancor that increasingly colors affairs in Carson City, especially if done in conjunction with two other measures. First, we should get rid of the two-thirds majority rule for raising taxes. It should be unconstitutional on federal grounds, relying on the precedent of each vote being equal; thanks to such legislation, your vote matters more if you’re one of the one-third who can stop taxes. Almost every tax issue has involved a strict partisan division, with a couple of people hailed (rightly or wrongly) for breaking with their caucus. Perhaps a simple majority would lead to better and/or more beneficial tax legislation, since it could be passed without every Democrat or every Republican on board.

Second, we need annual and longer sessions. Meeting annually would ease the burden of predicting the next biennium, improving the state’s management of our money. It could lead to the elimination of the Interim Finance Committee, whose appropriations and actions appear to violate our state constitution. And it might throw legislators together more often and more meaningfully, and that might ease the partisanship, too.

These are pipe dreams, since voters approved the initiatives creating these problems and prefer to avoid the solutions, which might cost them money … or so they think. The result is being penny-wise and pound-foolish—and during and after each session, both Nevadans and simple logic take a pounding. We can do better.”

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.