How to, and not to, legislate

When the Nevada Legislature opens on Feb. 4, the pomp and circumstance will inspire many a new legislator, and rightly so. They’ll be taking part in a storied democratic tradition and assuming a huge responsibility to represent their constituents well and improve the quality of their lives.

For Democrats, the expectations will be especially high, given the veto-proof majority in the Assembly, a strong majority in the Senate and the first Democratic governor in 20 years. The pent-up demand for Democratic priorities such as increased access to health care, collective bargaining for state workers and the perennial quest for significant new funding for education will be challenging, though, given the limited resources represented by the state budget. Innovative initiatives are unlikely, and the dreams of new legislators may be reduced in the end to watered down bills that amount to nearly nothing.

Prior to term limits, new legislators weren’t under such pressure to produce and perform in their first session. But in this era of musical chairs, when people win an election one month only to resign for another position a month later, there are few legislators who are in it for the long-term.

Combine the constant churning of legislators with a complex legislative process, and it’s no wonder there are fewer significant reforms that emerge from our legislative sessions and more incremental changes that often don’t get the job done.

As a former legislator and close observer of the legislative process, I offer a few suggestions for the newest crop of legislators who want to make the most of their 120 days of power.

Follow your policy passion and work hard to become a well-informed internal expert. Be the person your colleagues turn to when they’re confused or uncertain about the best way to proceed on a bill in your area. Find allies in unlikely places and collaborate.

Don’t let fear of the media paralyze you. Reporters do get it wrong sometimes, but they are in the business of truth-telling no matter how loudly the president lectures us on “fake news.” The media is a direct line to your constituents, so be courteous and available whenever possible.

Don’t spend all your time on Twitter, especially when you’re in committee. Listen carefully to people who are testifying, and show them the respect they deserve by making eye contact and asking thoughtful questions. Pay attention during floor sessions, even if it seems boring. Legislators who fully understand the process and are engaged in it instead of reading their email or instant messaging their friends get more done.

Don’t believe all the wonderful things your new friends, the lobbying corps, will tell you about their favorite subject, you. Lobbyists have a wealth of information and context, and they can also help round up votes. But don’t forget that they are there to do a job for their paying clients. If feeding your ego helps them get your support, they’re more than willing to do it. You’re far better off with a reputation as someone who listens and makes up her/his own mind, than with a new “friend” who will disappear when you’re no longer useful.

Treat people with respect, especially the citizen who approaches you in the elevator, your colleagues in the other party and staff. Everyone makes mistakes, and the process gets overly emotional at times. Apologize when you’re wrong, and thank those that help you.

Be prepared to lose. Don’t let it destroy your confidence or make you bitter about the legislative process. You’ll be thwarted by leadership, a colleague who kills your bill, or a lobbyist scheming behind your back. Work harder, find another way, or make a promise to yourself to bring it back in 2021. The Legislature will still be there.