Democratic leader assesses the 2013 Legislature
“Somebody yesterday described it like jet lag and it’s so true,” Sen. Debbie Smith said.
The Washoe County Democrat was describing what it’s like after a four-month Nevada Legislature ends, with its total focus and the reduced contact with friends and family. She was working in her office in Carson City the day after the year’s legislative business ended.
Smith chaired the Senate Finance Committee, a powerful forum that only got its first woman member in 1991. When that happened, the questions asked in committee began to encompass a broader range of topics. The impact of some programs on children and families began to be explored in greater depth. The arrival of a woman chair did not involve the same sharp change, but it was one more reflection of a legislative session that was different in so many ways—and Smith herself was praised by Republicans for her handling of the committee chair.
The 2013 Nevada Legislature seriously entertained some topics that in previous sessions were considered trivial or politically impossible. Part of the reason was that Republicans were more willing to listen and work with Democrats—and Democrats felt their issues had moved more into the mainstream.
Some legislators, after the 2012 election, did not expect anything to change in the legislature. But Smith wasn’t one of them.
“I went in optimistic because we have a lot of new legislators here, including new leadership, and that there had been a lot of discussion with the new leaders that they wanted a more comfortable tone, I guess is the word,” she said. “And I think we did a good job with that. You know, there were [difficult] moments—as there always are.”
She quoted one legislative staffer who said it was the most collegial atmosphere since she—the staff member—was employed there.
Like Republican leaders (“One step forward,” RN&R, June 6), Smith found that the cooperation worked best on issues that were not symbolic or touchstones of party dogma, like marriage equality or gun control. She also points out that even in sessions with a lot of partisan conflict, most legislators tend to agree on most issues because the committee system leads naturally to agreement and resolution.
“There will be any number of bills that everyone gets to weigh in and make their suggestions of how you can make the bill better or, you know, if you change this, then I can vote for it. That happens all the time and I think that is lost in what gets reported out of the session.” (Italics reflect emphasis in Smith’s voice.)
Of course, that kind of cooperation can draw criticism. One person interviewed by this newspaper as part of a person-on-the-street interview (see page 5) said she had visited the legislature this year and this was her reaction: “They vote for political reasons—’I’ll vote for this if you vote for that’— I kind of got that feeling.”
A similar reaction is voiced in conservative and tea party circles, where activists believe that Republicans get too cozy with Democrats. They advocate more confrontational tactics and less cooperation. Smith believes that the cooperation experienced at this year’s legislature can be built upon at the 2015 session, and hopes that Republican primary elections do not create problems that will interfere with that. The voters themselves have changed their minds on issues, she said.
“I don’t think that this [cooperation] would happen if there wasn’t a sense that our citizenry’s opinion has changed.,” Smith said. “I am amazed … when I look at marriage equality being such a dominant issue for a period of time during the session, when I just look back a couple of short sessions ago. What a difficult time we had passing a domestic partnership law. And you look at where we’ve come, all that way, in just a couple of sessions. Or being able to have a discussion about background checks in mental health as they related to guns.”
As an example of the way working together paid off, she pointed to the apparent solution to a dispute that has bedeviled previous legislatures several times, creating hard feelings without any resolution.
Nursing associations wishing to change the nurse-to-patient ratio so they could give better care to their patients have repeatedly turned to the legislature for help. Hospital lobbyists have opposed the change.
“Sen. [Pat] Spearman and Assm. [James] Oscarson—two brand new legislators, different houses, different parties—came together to work on the nurse staffing bill. … And they came up with a great resolution. They worked with both sides and maybe have solved it for a long term. … Pat Spearman took charge of it and I don’t know what the relationship was of how Assm. Oscarson got involved. I think it was just something that he was interested in. And, you know, they worked together and came up with a bill that everyone supported.”
The Democrats became known for being very close to business, proposing and passing measures that created some genuine role reversal. When a bill to reduce regulation of NV Energy was enacted, Republicans objected on the grounds that it will subject ratepayers to the costs of a coming shift away from coal. Smith said the secret to that bill’s passage was that it was loaded with something for everyone. “There’s a lot of renewable in there,” she said. “There’s something in those bills, I think, that addresses the concerns of a wide variety of opinions on energy issues. So I think that’s how that happened.”
When a Democratic bill proposed a tax loophole for movie companies, most of the opposition came from Republicans.
A more normal voting configuration came on Senate Bill 416, dealing with sports betting kiosks and small slot parlors.
“Those bills are brought forward by kind of giants in the industry. … That is a very important part of our economy and so I think most legislators believe that we have to be very mindful of what we do to keep our industry viable and competitive. So their issues do get listened to, get taken very serious and they are listened to.”
But if competition is desirable, that begs the question of why the legislature stamped out competition for the large casinos by enacting legislation cracking down on the kiosks and parlors.
On business issues, Smith said her biggest frustration of the session was an inability to get support from the business community for more revenue. Indeed, business lobbyists wouldn’t even discuss it, she said. They relied on the knowledge that a supermajority requirement would stop anything that might hurt them.
“We were never able to have any serious discussion about revenue. We were continually beat up for not having a plan, but its very hard to come forward with a plan when there’s no help or interest. You know, when you have a two-thirds requirement for any revenue, then minority rules,” she said. “I think in that regard, that was the most frustrating thing for me, is yet another session when we couldn’t even have a real discussion.”