Nevada Democrats festina lente

The 2019 legislative session is history now, with its first-in-the-nation female majority and the highly unusual loss of three legislators, two by scandalous resignation and one by tragic sudden death. Democrats did a better job of moving policy priorities than Republicans did when they hit the trifecta in 2015—controlling the governor’s office, the Assembly and the Senate—managing to keep their intra-party feuds mostly behind closed doors. Alhough a Democratic majority is vastly preferable to Republicans obsessed with diminishing women’s rights as, currently, in red states like Alabama, Georgia and Missouri, our Democrats in Nevada were fairly timid in advancing progressive policies when compared to other Democratic Western states.

Nevada did enact some good health care policies this year, becoming the fifth state in the country to incorporate protections for pre-existing conditions into state law as a hedge against the Republicans’ continual quest to undo the Affordable Care Act. And after a 15-year battle between hospitals and health insurance companies, a compromise was finally reached on “surprise billing,” removing the risk of insurmountable hospital bills for patients unlucky enough to encounter an out-of-network doctor in the emergency room.

But in Washington, a newly Democratic trifecta state like Nevada, state legislators took a much larger progressive step this year, becoming the first state to provide residents with a public option for health insurance. These plans are expected to be at least 10 percent cheaper than private insurance plans and will be available to all residents, regardless of income, by 2021. Washington also removed the personal/philosophical exemption to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine while Nevada legislators couldn’t pass a bill to allow schools to quickly identify non-vaccinated kids during an outbreak of disease.

Washington legislators also passed a $280 million plan to enhance its mental health system, with funding for new types of treatment centers, new facilities, and workforce development. In Nevada, where we’ve been ranked 51st in the nation for the last three years in the annual Mental Health America report, the legislative focus was more on policy development with some of the best legislation emerging from the new Regional Behavioral Health Policy Boards, particularly the creation of a crisis stabilization framework which should save millions while diverting patients to treatment instead of jail.

Much waving of the green flag occurred when Nevada passed a bill to require that 50 percent of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, with a non-binding goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050, on unanimous votes no less. I remember well the early battles over Renewable Portfolio Standards when energy officials and Republicans predicted clean energy requirements would doom Nevadans to exorbitant pricing and economic ruin. How times have changed.

But the rainy state of Washington joined Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico to commit to 100 percent clean energy by 2045, instead of the aspirational goal featured in Nevada’s bill.

Nevada’s current minimum wage is an embarrassment, but there was no serious fight for $15 an hour here. Instead, our legislators settled for the “more palatable” gradual increase from $7.25 to $12 an hour in 2024. Washington’s minimum wage is already $12, rising to $16 an hour for large employers in Seattle and Tacoma this year.

Nevada’s Democrats did return voting rights to people released from prison, enacted modest criminal justice reform, and passed moderate gun safety laws, but backed down from the stronger measures many expected after the horror of the October 1 tragedy. Let’s hope for a bolder agenda in 2021 to protect tenants from rapacious landlords, rein in payday lenders, get us out of last place in class sizes, and figure out more affordable health care. Because clearly we can do better.