The end of days
Risks are highest at legislative close
“This is only my third session as a lobbyist,” Priscilla Maloney said.
She was in the capitol lobbying for retired public employees, and given the battle between the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Public Employees Retirement System, some might think she is troubled by transparency. Not so. These are the closing days of the legislative session, and she is concerned about how much is happening out of public view:
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about the old days, about how it used to be, and it seems like there has been a culture where everybody has this romanticized remembrance, again, of everything being held until the last minute—all the important things put into a pot, and then a handful of people decide what’s good or not good for the state of Nevada. I think that’s dysfunctional. I don’t think that’s any way to make good public policy. The people of Nevada will suffer for that.”
Romanticized is a good word in this situation. Rewritten is another good one. Long-time lobbyists like to improve the history of the closing days of earlier sessions so they can continue wreaking havoc in the closing days at each new one. In fact, this is more what the closing days have been like:
In 1977, the lawmakers accidentally enacted the toughest open meeting law in the nation—a law so tough that the standard of intent was impossible to satisfy, rendering the law useless. It was later repealed.
In 1979, the most punitive marijuana law in the United States was accidentally enacted in Nevada, remaining on the books for a quarter of a century.
In 2011, NV Energy floated a major amendment on the last night of the session, giving the public no time to comment on it in committee. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.
In 2013, NV Energy sprang an amendment that would circumvent utility regulators, and provide protection for shareholders but not ratepayers, a measure that later yielded to a second amendment that had a piece of the action for casinos.
So the lobbyists like to enshroud these goings-on in a glow of nostalgia. Perception in politics is often one of the most important factors. On the last Friday of this year’s legislature, there was a demonstration of this blind-men-feeling-the-elephant. The Reno Gazette-Journal’s wrap-up of the previous day’s legislative session ran under a wall-to-wall front page banner: “CARSON CHAOS.” Carson City’s Nevada Appeal, however, ran veteran reporter Geoff Dornan’s wrapup in a single column under the more sedate headline “Deal on vouchers program dissolves.” Dornan’s just-the-facts piece contained no hint of chaos.
Whether the closing days featured some doings that needed the spotlight is not known yet. Many errors—or intentional changes—do not surface until after the lawmakers go home.Vetoes?
The dispute referenced in the Appeal headline had its own roots in perception. Two years ago, when Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature, they pushed through a number of programs that were fairly well outside the political mainstream, such as $5,000 school grants for parents who remove their children from public schools. During that 2015 session, Democrats—including party floor leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick—warned the Republicans that Democrats would repeal extreme measures when they returned to the majority.
But this year, the Democrats softened, suggesting some compromise might be reached on the school grants. The Republicans, on the other hand, took a hard line themselves. They said if no money was made available for the school grants, they would oppose any education budget. Few Democrats outside the legislative building could understand why Democratic leaders did not stick to their original intention to kill the program, either through repeal or defunding. “The Ds extended the session by days, because they held out hope,” one lobbyist said. In the end, the Democrats were saved by Republicans who overreached at a time when they had little to bargain with—and then staged a walkout that did not accomplish anything—and the program was defunded.
Sandoval, who had remained silent—to the public, if not to Republican legislators—on whether he would veto the budget to get money for the school grants, decided in the end not to play chicken, saying, “It was the best we could do, given the politics of the session.”
Meanwhile, as Donald Trump was dealing with his own perception problems, Democrats—and some Republicans—in the Nevada Legislature were doing all they could to put the state on the green side of climate change. Following Trump’s speech on the Paris accord, a bipartisan group of governors—not including Nevada’s—formed an organization to keep their states in compliance with Paris. Nevada legislators revived net metering a year and a half after NV Energy and the state Public Utilities Commission declared war on solar power. Lawmakers also hiked the percentage of its energy the state gets from renewables.
Sandoval, who led efforts to award large corporations with some of the biggest corporate welfare packages in U.S. history, is expected to veto a minimum wage increase. The minimum is currently at $8.25. Senate Bill 106 adds 75 cents a year until the minimum wage reaches $12 an hour, $11 an hour for health-insured businesses or entities.