The legislature ahead

Term limits have brought many new faces to the Nevada Legislature since 2010 when the voter-approved measure took full effect. Party caucuses are more contentious now as members often struggle for unity amid a scramble for power in the void created by constant turnover. The constitutional amendment has also diminished the power of the legislative branch of government.

While I remain convinced the bad outweighs the good in taking away the people’s right to choose their representatives, term limits have created undeniable opportunities for new and more diverse leadership, never more so than next year as Democrats replace Republicans in leadership of the Legislature.

In a stunning contrast with the 2015 session, the Nevada Assembly’s top positions—speaker, majority leader and speaker pro-tempore—will change from all white men to men and women of color. When Speaker-designate Jason Frierson of Clark County is chosen by the Assembly on opening day next February, he will become Nevada’s first African-American speaker. Frierson recently announced he intends to appoint two Latinas to round out his leadership team, with Reno’s Teresa Benitez-Thompson rising to the position of majority leader and Irene Bustamante-Adams becoming speaker pro-tem.

It’s the first time the Democratic majority leader has hailed from Northern Nevada in decades, as leadership power has moved steadily southward along with the majority of the state’s population. The selection of Benitez-Thompson is a testament to her hard work and ability to motivate others, along with excellent diplomatic skills coupled with a down-to-earth, likable demeanor. Progressives will be well represented by Frierson and Benitez-Thompson who both have extensive personal histories of serving others while being appropriately skeptical of the demands from corporate Nevada for more tax giveaways.

The Nevada Senate will also experience a complete transformation in the top three leadership posts, from three white men to three men of color. Aaron Ford of Las Vegas will resume his position as Senate majority leader, joined by Kelvin Atkinson as assistant majority leader and Mo Denis as speaker pro-tempore.

The lone Democratic senator who does not represent Clark County, Julia Ratti, will serve as chair of the Revenue Committee but will not have a seat on the Finance Committee where her expertise in local government budgets and human services would have been a huge asset. The appointment slightly breaks a tradition by Senate Democratic leaders in reserving one of its coveted seats on Finance for the northern senator to ensure the committee responds to the needs of the entire state. In fact, the last three Washoe County Democratic senators were given leadership positions on the committee, as Bernice Mathews served as co-chair in 2009, I served as vice-chair in 2011, and the late Debbie Smith was designated the chair in the 2013 session.

The Senate leadership is also less progressive than the Assembly, with all three leaders voting in favor of multiple tax giveaways, the latest being the Raiders stadium scam. Last time the Democrats controlled the Senate, progressives were snubbed at critical moments, such as the abrupt decision in 2013 to avoid a vote on sex education. Senators declared they had “done enough” for progressives that year.

Voters will be watching the Democratic majorities in 2017 to see if they will fully support public education by refusing to fund school vouchers and do more to help struggling students succeed. Will they give even more tax breaks to billionaires or choose to create jobs that strengthen our communities, such as infrastructure improvements?

In just two years, Nevada will select a new governor and other statewide officers, plus decide another U.S. Senate seat. Progressives will be closely watching to see if actions match the rhetoric of Democrats looking to move to higher office.