Redistricting and open meetings

The Nevada Legislature is approaching the end of the 2019 session.

The Nevada Legislature is approaching the end of the 2019 session.


Political scientist

The 1991 Nevada Legislature began with a pledge from Senate Democratic floor leader John Vergiels that the session would be the most open and honest in state history, an effort to mend the legislature’s image after a two-year scandal over the 1989 session’s lawmakers voting themselves a 300 percent legislative pension increase. Thirteen legislators had been defeated for reelection over the issue.

In the closing days of the 1991 session, after Republicans and Democrats had carefully and conscientiously drafted senate district reapportionment plans, Vergiels suddenly unveiled a new, previously undisclosed plan, gave senators a few hours to study it, then rammed it through the senate on Democratic votes.

Republicans were furious, and they were only partly pacified when Vergiels’ new districts failed to work as he expected and the public handed the senate back to the Republicans.

Jump forward 20 years.

In 2011, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the legislature’s U.S. House reapportionment plan in a dispute over whether to concentrate Latino voters in one U.S. House district or give Latinos a hefty but not controlling presence in three districts. Latino legislators supported the second option, which Sandoval opposed.

The legislature’s allowable 120 days expired before the dispute could be settled, whereupon Nevada District Court Judge Todd Russell seized control of the process and appointed a panel of his own to reapportion the districts, in violation of article 4, section 5 of the Nevada Constitution. State Republicans said they would go to court to overturn the Russell districts, but they later caved in and the districts stood.

Such fiascoes have given the already tawdry reputation of redistricting an even worse cast.

Nevada political scientist Fred Lokken said one advantage to legislative control being split between parties is that in reapportionment years, they are forced to work together.

“When you have both parties in power, they try to compromise,” he said.

Reapportionment normally happens at the first legislature after the census, meaning 2021. The political parties will pour money into the 2020 elections, trying to control legislatures—and thus reapportionment—across the nation. To many political leaders, it is a more important contest than the presidency.

This year, Nevada legislators have processed measures—Assembly Concurrent Resolution 1 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 9—to prepare for the 2021 redistricting, and those measures require compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and public participation. Those have been dispensable in the past, but at least the legislators have the matter on their radar.

Lokken said that the Republican National Committee has taken more of an interest in state legislative races than the Democrats, with the result that the GOP has an advantage going into the census year.

“In something like 38 states, they get to re-draw those lines,” he said.

Of course, in the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s difficulties could undercut Republican fortunes.

But there is another consideration for Nevada lawmakers. If they don’t improve their handling of the process, they could face a citizen initiative to take away their authority to do the job. There has been a wave of such efforts across the country, using initiative petitions to create independent reapportionment panels. And Nevada’s profile is high enough that others are watching, even in places like Idaho, where columnist Judy Ferro observed Nevada’s current legislature and wrote in Idaho Press, “Still lacking, however, is a bill to initiate a bipartisan reapportionment commission. Currently, the legislature maps congressional and legislative districts with the approval of the governor. In 2012, the governor vetoed the legislature’s efforts, and a court appointed an independent commission. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in power since have sought to make an independent commission permanent.”

She also called the Nevada Legislature a “crew of lefties,” so her view is hardly 20-20.

Politico has opined that the 2020 census will end up “perhaps putting Nevada further out of reach for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.”

There are now five states with independent reapportionment commissions, four of them in the West—Arizona, California, Washington and Idaho.

There is a difference between reapportionment and redistricting. Reapportionment decides how many districts there will be. Redistricting decides their shapes. And the outcome is not always foreseeable. In one of the gerrymanders of the notorious Vergiels redistricting, a Senate district then held by longtime Republican stalwart Lawrence Jacobsen of Douglas County started in Jacobsen’s home county, stretched through Carson City, then bit off a chunk of Washoe County, an amalgam of rural and urban designed to defeat the incumbent. The Democrats teed up an attractive Douglas County candidate. But both the redistricting and the recruitment were for naught. Senate Republican floor leader William Raggio was so angry over the railroading of the redistricting plan that he made sure Jacobsen had everything necessary to win. And Jacobsen was reelected.

Complaint department

In a different legislative issue, there are growing concerns about Assembly Bill 70, which seeks to change language associated with the Nevada open meeting law. The bill has been amended twice and is now in its third version.

The concern is that the measure changes who can file open meeting complaints from anyone to people with a direct interest in matters under discussion at a meeting. That would eliminate journalists, who are frequent attendees at public meetings and often have filed complaints that have been upheld.

The bill reads in part, “The Attorney General is not required to investigate or prosecute any alleged violation of this chapter if the Attorney General determines that … the interests of the person who filed the complaint are not significantly affected by the action of the public body that is alleged to violate this chapter.” Other language analogizes standing to file a complaint with “standing to challenge the action of the public body in a court of law.”

The bill was drafted by a task force formed in the attorney general’s office when Adam Laxalt was AG, and Deputy Attorney General Gregory Ott told the Assembly Government Affairs Committee, “I am happy to report that the language contained in the proposed bill was approved by the task force with no member opposing.”

One source suggested, “Check out who’s on the task force. The [members] are all attorneys with boards and commissions.”