Mopping up

The 2015 Nevada Legislature underwhelms

In the closing days of the 2015 Nevada Legislature, as usual, lobbyist power was augmented.

In the closing days of the 2015 Nevada Legislature, as usual, lobbyist power was augmented.


In the 1980s after the 1985 Nevada Legislature ended, I received a call from a Renoite who was well known as a local leader, particularly on environmental issues. She also took an interest in all kinds of public affairs—law enforcement, schools, even road building. Naturally, she stayed well informed, and read and watched daily news reports.

She was calling me to complain about the fact that when each legislature ended, the legislative press corps seemed to write final wrap-up stories and then go on vacation. She named several bills she had followed during the legislative session, the outcome of which had not been reported after the lawmakers went home.

I was sympathetic, but I was also exhausted after being at the Legislature each day for six months, covering it for a Reno television station. I explained to her how grueling the sessions are and how a lot of reporters feel like they collapse across the finish line. If reporters are at the legislature every day—I was not in 2015, fortunately—the last thing they want to do is rewrite essentially the same story for the 14th time with the latest developments at the top. I’m not sure I convinced her, but she was more sympathetic.

I knew the syndrome she described. After those final wrap-up pieces, all we tend to see is omnibus reports just before July 1, Oct. 1, Jan. 1 and so on about the latest batch of laws taking effect on those dates.

News entities tend to shrug and turn to other matters when a legislature ends, with the result being that many Nevadans have little idea of what the lawmakers did in the closing days. Not so in the special-interest worlds.

Last month, for example, Grant Thornton International of Chicago—one of the world’s largest accounting firms—posted an analysis of Nevada Assembly Bill 380, dealing with state collection of sales taxes from retailers outside Nevada. The measure becomes effective in part on July 1. The remaining portions take effect on Oct. 1.

The National Law Review has posted an analysis of Nevada Senate Bill 266, which makes substantial changes in the state’s entertainment tax, eliminating a considerable number of exemptions while dropping the size of the tax from 10 to 9 percent. It took effect in part on June 11, with the remaining portions effective July 1. ran a piece on the fate of bills supposedly allowing guns on campuses and other firearms measures.—a legal site—has a report prepared by multi-state law firm Sherman and Howard on A.B. 170, a measure dealing with general obligation bonds. The same site ran an analysis by multi-state law firm Ballard Spahr on S.B. 306, which revises the law on homeowner-associations and foreclosures., another legal site, ran an analysis by international law firm Greenberg Traurig on S.B. 9, a measure dealing with skill-based gambling devices, a break from previous Nevada law requiring gambling to be purely random.

David Purdum at ESPN reported on Nevada’s S.B. 443, dealing with race and sports gambling.

The Heartland Institute—a right-wing organization funded in part by Phillip Morris, Exxon Mobil, the Charles Koch Foundation and a number of similar groups—reported on S.B. 302, which created a voucher-style program under which parents who withdraw their children from public schools receive grants of 90 or 100 percent of current state per-pupil spending for use in paying tuition at non-public schools.

Thus, as reporters lose interest in the Nevada Legislature, interest groups gain more of it.

Some of these entities produce generally reliable material, though often written in professional jargon that is difficult for a general audience to absorb. Their reliability declines as the measures at issue rise on the polarizing scale and the entities fall on the clear-thinking scale.

Their efforts do make it apparent that there is always more to be said about public policies.

Tales out of school

This is the legislative session that was supposed to be the Education Legislature. But already, there are doubts.

“After all the acrimony and asinine allegations of the cartoon legislative session from hell, Nevada’s long-lamented low education funding remains pretty much stagnant,” wrote Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano last week. “Senate Bill 515 allocated $5,612 per year for Washoe County, $5,512 to more populous Clark and a 2015-16 statewide non-construction weighted average of $5,710. Basically, the needle hasn’t moved, which explains why [Clark County] withheld teacher raises, blaming a $67 million shortfall. It’s OK. Nevada students are used to riding in the back of the bus.”

When compared with the per-pupil allocations that came out of the 2013 Legislature, most of the students in the state—that is, those in Clark County—gained just $55 over two years ago. Those in Washoe County, where performance and grades have been higher, did better—$108. The average increase statewide is $120, though that is likely distorted by odd figures out of some tiny counties with few students, such as Esmeralda’s $8,415.

There are other funding sources for local school districts, but the Legislature didn’t simply provide those moneys. Rather, they enabled the school districts to go to voters and ask for them. Will voters, after five months of reading and hearing about higher taxes, be receptive?

In Washoe, for instance, the school board can go to voters for infrastructure and renovation money from car registrations, property taxes, room taxes, real estate transfers and—wait for it—the sales tax, already one of the highest in the nation.

At the college campus level, some officials say that as they look at the numbers, they are encouraging lowered expectations. “The problem is these news stories about ’huge tax increase to fund schools’,” said one. “But it’s pretty clear that higher education is not going to go back to 2003.” She spoke on background, reluctant to undercut the governor or chancellor.

Higher education in the state generally has always been funded at room temperature—lukewarm. During Gov. Guinn’s administration, the state began to break out and lift its higher education facilities into a higher class. But the recession gave the next two governors and the next three legislatures the opportunity to cut higher education funding in the state by a whopping one-third. While Nevada was doing that, several intermountain states were expanding their economic development-related higher education spending and moving ahead of Nevada in the field.

GOP Sen. Michael Roberson was one of the few legislators who even discussed fairness in taxation.

“I guess this is a major tax increase, but only when you figure out how much we had chopped down the system,” said a faculty member. “Klaich has enough problems right now, and I don’t want to do anything to make them worse, but the euphoria isn’t warranted.” (Higher education chancellor Dan Klaich has been the target of a recent series of criticisms from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He was in Sante Fe and unavailable for comment.)

Generally, most of those we talked with said the state’s colleges are going back to the level they were under Gov. Robert Miller (1988-1999), not under Gov. Guinn (1999-2007)—that is, back to room temperature. If that’s true, that will be a gain, but dreams of world class scholarship will fall by the wayside.

There’s another weakness in the Legislature’s education efforts—one part of it may be illegal. The lawmakers enacted a measure allowing parents to take about $5,000 in public funds and use them for private school. In Nevada, commercial private schools aren’t known as the best game in town. Religious schools, however, are respected for their competence, so if vouchers are going to work, those schools must be in the mix.

Here’s the problem: In 1878 and again in 1880, Nevadans voted to bar the use of public funds for religious purposes. The language is still in the Nevada Constitution: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted or tolerated in any school or University that may be established under this Constitution. … No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose.” Additional verbiage revokes funds from school districts if they try it.

Those elections did not require recounts. In neither case did opponents of the prohibitions exceed 4 percent of the vote.

It’s all but certain that some group—teachers, civil libertarians—will challenge the new Nevada law in court. That happened in Colorado, in a case decided this month by the Colorado Supreme Court. That state, too, has state constitutional language barring the use of public funds “in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose” and the court last week said that “stark constitutional provision makes one thing clear. A school district may not aid religious schools.”

Some private school spokespeople have tried to draw a distinction between religious schools and the instruction they provide which—they argue—can be free of religious content. Critics regard it as analogous to distinguishing between Antonio’s pound of flesh and the blood it contains.

Off the radar

At this point, no one knows whether the legislative tax plan increases or decreases the fairness of Nevada’s notoriously regressive tax system ("No fair,” RN&R, Feb. 5). It wasn’t even on the Legislature’s radar screen after the first couple of weeks of the session, and we have run internet searches seeking later news stories that dealt with equity or fairness without success.

One economist has said he is doing an assessment of the fairness of the new tax plan, but nothing like that was available before the legislators voted.

There was some talk in the first weeks of the Legislature about trying to improve the fairness of the tax system while the governor’s plan was processed. Senate Republican floor leader Michael Roberson said he was having some research done on equity.

But as time passed, fairness fell by the wayside as an issue. So did extending the sales tax on services, a measure recommended to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce by the Tax Foundation as a way of making the state’s tax structure fairer (sales taxes on services tend to be progressive, sales taxes on goods tend to be regressive).

“The things that we were looking at, we saw some of them happen,” said Nevada Taxpayers Association lobbyist Carole Vilardo. “The live entertainment tax was corrected [by closing loopholes]. Nothing was done on the services tax because they had little information on how much revenue it would produce.”

Predictions of recovery are everywhere in Nevada. They’d better come true, because the state’s rainy day fund (formally called the Account to Stabilize the Operation of State Government), is now empty. It was cleaned out and spent in the last week of the legislative session.

“There is currently no money in the rainy day fund,” said legislative fiscal expert Mark Krmpotic. “There was $28 million until recently. It is not anticipated to be replenished at any time over the next two years.”

There are some legal triggers in statute that could start money flowing into the fund, but they are not expected to trip. Vilardo said more of the time legislators spent on forming the new tax program was devoted to making sure the state would be relying on “stable” revenue sources. They better be, because there’s not much of a cushion.

Still waters

As drought has become a steadily more serious problem in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval has been a relatively passive figure, using media events like a news conference on the dry floor of Washoe Lake to appoint a panel. He did not speak the words “drought” or “water” during his message to the Legislature.

Sandoval’s relative lassitude on the drought has contrasted sharply with that of California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been cracking down on water use and whose actions are keeping the topic front and center—something Sandoval’s appointments of people and panels have not been able to do.

“I feel like we are way ahead of them,” Sandoval said of the Golden State. “What California is doing, we have been doing for years.” But he has also said Nevada law does not give him the kind of powers Brown wields (“How dry,” RN&R, Jan. 23, 2014). Yet the drought has been around for more than three years, and he did not seek increased authority from either the 2013 or 2015 legislatures.

It seems odd in the nation’s driest state, but water planning has often been treated as a luxury. During a previous recession, Gov. Kenny Guinn shut down the state water planner’s office, though the state was not that distant from the serious late 1980s-early 1990s drought. He said the office’s functions could be absorbed by other employees. But in a desert state, there is something to be said for keeping the problem of water visible with an office devoted solely to that.

Many northern Nevadans were startled in December by a long Reno Gazette-Journal story that described how little the state does in the field (“Nevada—the driest state—has no statewide water plan,” RGJ, Dec. 28). Not surprisingly, that same article found other intermountain states were much further along than Nevada in their water planning.

Many of the issues dealt with, or not dealt with, by the 2015 Nevada Legislature demonstrate how difficult it is for lawmakers to handle more than maintenance of government. Matters like the service tax and drought are as much concepts as anything else, and concepts require time. Figuring out an agency’s travel budget is relatively easy. Figuring out what its functions and authority should be takes longer. The Legislature meets only every other year and then only for 120 days, more or less.

The lawmakers can, and do, conduct “interim” studies of problems between legislative sessions. Those study committees then report back to the next legislature with recommendations for legislation. But only the members of those committees are then familiar with the topic under consideration. When the Legislature comes back into session, most members then have to be brought up to speed on what the study committees learned. But that’s not the same as learning it themselves. Their recommendations must go through the regular legislative process—committee meetings and floor discussions. The entire legislature ends up studying in a few days what the interim committee members studied over a year and a half.

This all happened before the 120-day limit was imposed on legislative sessions in 1998, but they previously had more time to grapple in session with the issues. The best that can be said about today’s Nevada legislative system is that it doesn’t work very well. Part of the reason is that legislators aren’t trusted to do their jobs.