A year of making do

Grim times make a grim legislature

illustration by William Leung

One day in April, state human resources director Mike Willden and lobbyist Paula Berkley were lingering around the entrance to the Assembly hall. Willden was scheduled to testify before a “committee of the whole” in the hall shortly. He asked Berkley how she was doing, and she said she was hoping for some luck. Willden said, “No, it’s too early in the session. First, there’s skill. Then there’s treachery. Then blind luck.”

It was the grim levity of people experienced in the legislative process in hard times. Lobbyist Berkley’s clients include a food bank and a domestic violence agency, entities that are not flush in good times and have little good news when times are bad.

Willden’s testimony before the lawmakers was not expected to be cheerful. He would be appearing before the members of both houses. Legislators sympathized with him. In many of those national quality-of-life rankings that plague Nevada, the state has been showing improvement, particularly since the 2003 tax hike. Many of those rankings are within Willden’s bureaucratic territory, and the lawmakers know that seeing those rankings turn downward again will be difficult for him.

Until very late in the session, the Democrats chased the siren’s song that enough Republicans could be lured over to provide the votes to override Gov. Brian Sandoval’s veto on a tax hike, a notion that was never realistic. Elko County Sen. Dean Rhoads wandered off the GOP reservation for a few hours, then wandered right back on. That was as close as the Democrats came.

The governor himself was, during most of the session, an off-the-radar figure. He had pledged during the campaign to veto any new taxes. Because the votes needed for an override were the same as the votes needed to approve a tax in the first place—two thirds—Sandoval had fired his big gun before the session even started. The majority Democrats were free to focus on lobbying GOP legislators.

The Republicans, as usual, tended to determine the nature of dialogue and the Democrats, as usual, were timid in their reactions—even when the topics at issue were part of the Democratic heritage. Republican efforts to stop collective bargaining were largely unchallenged on the merits, though states where teachers have strong unions tend to have the highest test scores. It sometimes seemed like monkeys banging away at typewriters could have come up with more compelling reasoning against the GOP agenda than the Democrats did.

As often as not, the Democrats engaged on issues only half-heartedly, so convinced of their own rightness that they assumed the public’s agreement, to the point that they barely made arguments. It was a Dukakis strategy. It’s not easy to inform members of the public with points of view that are not expressed.

“They don’t understand that most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the minimum wage or health care and need to be convinced,” said one lobbyist. The Republicans didn’t have a similar problem because their issue positions could be stated in short, pungent terms that need little explanation.

Legislators of both parties often seem unable to understand how difficult the Legislature is to explain to the public. Its rituals and verbiage are strange. Both the year’s legislature and its daily meetings are called by the same word—session. Both the end of daily meetings and the final end of the legislature in June are described by the same word—adjournment. Lawmakers use bureaucratic acronyms like WIC and unintelligible terms like sine die. A state capitol by definition is a building where the representative assemblies meet, not where the executive or judicial branches have offices, but that’s not the usage in Nevada.

Assembly Republican floor leader Pete Goicoechea told a television reporter his caucus would follow the governor’s lead, no matter what.

Photo by dennis myers

The Nevada Legislature was once known as a people’s legislature. Nevadans, unless they were lobbyists, could walk onto the floors of the legislative halls or into committee rooms and talk directly to legislators. Now there are signs like this:

Please respect the privacy of committee members and staff

The word only in this sign is in upper case and italicized and in bright red ink. In the Senate hall, unless they are members of the press or VIPs, members of the public can sit only in the balcony. There is a clear plastic enclosure on the main floor for the VIPs.

It’s unfortunate that members of the public are made to feel unwelcome in their legislature because it’s been a long time since the public took such an interest in the process as this year. For four months, Nevadans were circulating petitions, holding rallies, and writing letters. Toward the end of the session, there were nearly daily protests in front of the building. It’s not that difficult to understand the public’s interest during hard times, of course. Even if it were, evidence was inescapable.

A shuttered Reno casino planning an April reopening began taking job applications in March and 5,000 people showed up.

Firefighters and other public employees have taken the rap for revenue shortages in Reno and Sparks after local governing bodies have handed out corporate welfare to corporations like Scheels and the Reno Aces.

An exhibit hall in the State Library and Archives, where the fragile, original handwritten copy of the Nevada Constitution is displayed in low light, was being dismantled to make room for office space. The same kind of thing is happening in numerous state agencies to make it possible to reduce reliance on leased space.

Washoe County’s sheriff was holding rallies to draw attention to the danger of revenue shortfalls to law enforcement.

And there was education, which touches so many households, and higher education, which is such a vital cog in improving the state’s economy. In Clark County, 16 elementary school principals requested removal of 86 classroom walls to accommodate rising class sizes.

After meeting for a good part of the day after the Supreme Court decision, Democratic leaders emerged to talk to the press.


People’s Advocate (Winnemucca), February 10, 1899:
Nevada’s University
The Legislature Stands By That Institution

The love the people of Nevada bear for their leading educational institution is shown by action of their representatives at Carson in passing the university bill. In view of the fact that economy in all directions is absolutely necessary in order to place the state on a firm financial basis, our representatives realize that it would be fatal to the best interests of the state to prevent development in higher education by failing to render the university the aid its growth demands.

The love was difficult to find this year. After the higher education system was beaten and bruised during the Gibbons administration, nearly everyone even faintly involved in economic development wanted rebuilding. It didn’t happen. University of Nevada, Reno faculty lobbyist Jim Richardson at one point said, “I’d take Jim Gibbons back in a heartbeat.”

Gov. Sandoval believes that economic development can be done on the cheap. Meanwhile, other small Western states are investing in facilities like light rail for business commuters and beefing up their higher education systems.

Not all the outside pressure on legislators was beneficial. Television commercials and billboards carried this message: “Why are they destroying our schools?” There’s nothing like angry overstatement to raise the temperature. While it’s true that Sandoval recommended reducing per pupil funding by $270, it’s absurd to say that providing $4,918 per pupil destroys schools.

One day students from Cartwright Elementary in Las Vegas, along with parents and teachers, were in Carson City on a field trip. They sang several songs, and legislators hungry for the company of their own children lined up to listen. David Bobzien of Washoe took pictures. The children sang in unison almost as well as the Republicans. In a television interview, Assembly Republican floor leader Pete Goicoechea enunciated a Lemmings Doctrine: “It’s a question of, Where’s the governor going to go? And we will support him.”

As usual, the English language was manipulated by politicians and their allies. Democrats and their supporters were angry at the idea that renewing taxes that are about to expire is a tax hike, which of course it is. The committee once known as the Senate Taxation Committee is now the Senate Revenue Committee.

Early in May, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a story headlined, “Freshman legislators speaking their minds.” One legislator saw the headline and quipped, “Too bad they’re not as good at listening.” Lobbyists reported that some lawmakers refused to even talk to them. This was particularly true of newcomers and especially of those with a tea party orientation. During the campaign, they so demonized lobbyists that as legislators they would not even meet with them.

On the day the Nevada Supreme Court threw the state budget into a cocked hat, rumors ran rampant as legislative leaders met behind closed doors. In this case, lobbyist Dan Musgrove, left, arrived at the legislative café with a rumor dealing with “bonding” that made fellow lobbyist Marsha Berkbigler, right, leap to her feet.

Photo By dennis myers

“But there are so many legislators now who—they have gatekeepers,” said lobbyist Helen Foley, herself a former legislator. “They have those assistants who stop you at the door and really aren’t interested in talking to any lobbyist.”

Refusing to talk to all players is foolish. Lobbyists are a font of information, usually more experienced and knowledgeable than legislators, and a good legislator knows how to screen the sales pitches from the good stuff. One legislator once said during his campaign that he was going to propose ethics legislation, only to learn from a lobbyist that the proposal was already on the statute books.

Toward the end, there was a really good example of how the lobbyists know the Legislature better than the legislators. In the Senate, a bill was up for a vote. It needed a two-thirds vote and didn’t get it. Sen. Mike Schneider stood and notified the Senate that he would be seeking reconsideration the next day.

After Schneider made his announcement, Senate President Brian Krolicki held a vote on it. After Schneider’s notice of reconsideration, Sen. Mike Roberson decided to file his own notice of reconsideration on a different bill. Another vote was held.

But there was nothing on which to vote. A notice of reconsideration is merely an announcement. It is not subject to debate or to a vote. And not everyone is eligible to make a notice of reconsideration. Only those who vote on the winning side are. Schneider’s notice of reconsideration was legal. Roberson’s was not. But both announcements were voted on—improperly, in Roberson’s case—and both approved, though what was approved is unknown, since no motion was before the house.

No one—not the secretary of the senate, not the senate president, not senators, not reporters—understood that what had happened was improper. But a lobbyist watching in disbelief did notice and sent electronic messages to various players, without effect. Procedure can be important. The Nevada Supreme Court once overturned three ballot measures because they were not entered in the legislative journals properly.

For legislators to cut themselves off from lobbyists is self-defeating.

“And so it really behooves you to find out as much information from the experts as you can, and you don’t have that expertise in [legislative] staff,” Foley said. “You have that in lobbyists. And so I would go enough to make sure that I got both sides of an issue.”

The outside world occasionally intruded on the Nevada Legislature. On March 11, the 33rd day of the 120-day legislature, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami occurred, and by May, every state legislator in the nation had received their new copies of State Legislatures, a magazine for state lawmakers. The cover story, “The other nuclear problem,” was on nuclear waste and Yucca Mountain in light of Japan. The cover article was on page 14. On page 11 was a table listing U.S. states by the number of earthquakes they experienced over three decades. Nevada was listed fourth, just behind Alaska, California and Hawaii. (The June issue’s cover story: “Reconstructing higher education.”)

New York Times columnist Gail Collins, May 27, 2011: People, have you ever seen a state legislature in action? … I have, and my first thought was not: “Gee, let’s give these folks a whole lot more clout.”

At River Fest in Reno, Donna Clontz circulated petitions asking the Nevada Legislature to raise revenue for education and other quality of life uses.

Photo By dennis myers

Collins is one of the best columnists and finest writers in the nation, but those kinds of cynical comments about legislatures are far too common. It’s easy to demonize state legislators and to forget they come from us. Speaker John Oceguera frequently gave the impression of a man who regretted running for office because it took him away from his toddler son, Jackson. When Jackson occasionally showed up at the Legislature, the speaker’s face lit up.

Assemblymember Pat Hickey holds public forums on issues at which both sides get their say.

Some legislators take on tasks that no one else wants. Sen. Valerie Weiner, for instance, works on “greater transparency in executive regulations.” It’s a subject that makes eyes glaze over and gets her little ink. Not all legislators are motivated by a desire for publicity.

The poisonous atmosphere of politics has interfered with the working relationships Nevada legislators used to enjoy. The kind of thing that happens in Congress did not visit itself on the state legislature for a long time, but slowly it has seeped in. It used to be just the Republicans who practiced it, but there were reports that Democratic first-termer Lucy Flores encountered disapproval from Democratic leaders when she socialized with Republicans.

In a year when lawmaking brought out the worst in many legislators—in Minnesota there was a bill making it illegal for the poor to have more than $20 in cash on their persons, in several states Republicans pushed laws designed to depress low-income turnout by requiring voters to produce identification at the polls. (Several such bills died in Nevada.)

In Nevada there was one legislator—a Democrat, supposedly—who, after the state had cut the higher education system by more than a third, sponsored a bill to give the campuses what they really need: Guns. But generally this was a working session characterized by seriousness.

Still, the process often seemed unbalanced. At a time when labor was demonized and asked to sacrifice and business was not, that did not stop some industries from putting their hands out at the Legislature.

Assemblymember Steven Brooks, May 26, 2011: Dear Lord, I would like to make a special prayer for my colleagues and I today, that we would be able to understand that you have assembled special people, in this special place, for this special moment. I would like to explain that we came to fight and we came to win, but not against one another, together as one. … I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

On May 26, the Supreme Court of Nevada ruled in a 2009 case that the state can’t raid local government funds. The full scope of the vague ruling was not clear, but it was certain there was a lot of money in the new proposed budget that did not belong there and would have to come out.

The court ruling was a setback for Sandoval, who had built his recommended budget on local money. His no-new-taxes promise in the campaign never said no-new-revenues, so he tapped local treasuries to pay the state’s bills and kept state spending up a little higher.

But it was also a setback for the Democrats. It focused all attention on the quick-fix—again raising the 2009 taxes that were set to expire and were about the same amount as the money restored to local governments. Plainly, those were the only tax hikes the Democrats were going to get.

It also brought the governor back into the process, which was a surprise to many legislators who expected the Democrats to take charge. Sandoval quickly conceded he would have to agree to the tax hikes of the 2009 taxes. One GOP legislator said, “As soon as the governor signaled that he would go along with keeping the sunset taxes, I knew what would happen. The Democrats would allocate that money in the budget and go home. They’d get credit for wrapping it up and bringing this mess to an end.”

He credited the Democrats with more daring than they’ve shown since Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit. Some lower- and mid-level Democratic legislators wanted the party leaders to move quickly and were demoralized when instead they started working with the governor. “Sandoval told us my-way-or-the-highway all session long,” said one. “Then he loses a court case that makes him look about as smart as a tree stump. What happens? Our leaders bail him out and make him look good.” He said he knew the budget could be wrapped up quickly because “we did the same thing with reapportionment—put together a quick second plan after Sandoval vetoed the first one.”

Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano quoted an angry liberal lobbyist: “None of us believe the Democrats should have gone to the Republicans to negotiate after the Supreme Court decision. The governor had to balance his budget and the only way was to extend the sunsets, so why negotiate?”

With the Democrats’ help, soon editorialists were describing Sandoval as a statesman. There was another consequence for the governor. By choosing austerity as the state’s only response to hard times and using his veto power to enforce that choice on a majority of legislators, Sandoval has taken ownership of the recession. He will have no one else to blame in 2012 and 2014. And if the progress made in Nevada’s quality of life reverses, he’ll get the rap for that, too.