Like it or not, it comes every two years: a bitter Groundhog Day of failed schools and frayed social safety nets, liberal and conservative platitudes, droning testimony, recrimination and ass-covering. It is the biennial session of the Nevada Legislature, doing the people’s business, setting tax and public policy, funding the educational aspirations of our communities, keeping the wolf of economic deprivation from the doors of our homes and businesses, and somehow keeping the government waddling dysfunctionally forward another 24 months.
All in the space of 120 days, with much of the really serious work squeezed into the final minutes of the month of May. It’s a bureaucratic miracle.
This session will be all about the budget, taxes and education reform. Just like the last session, and the one before that, and the one before that, lather, rinse, repeat, going back decades. But it would not be Nevada if there weren’t the occasional weird twist to the proceedings. Nine years ago, it was the impeachment of a constitutional officer, State Controller Kathy Augustine, who was accused of violating state ethics laws (using state employees to work on her campaign). Despite her guilty verdict, she stayed in office another two years. Her story finally ended in tragedy.
This year, the arrest and subsequent involuntary commitment of Assemblyman Steven Brooks, who allegedly threatened Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, is lending drama to the legislative session that begins Monday. Members of his family and the Democratic Party have expressed concern over Brooks’ mental health, and the personal crisis for the Assembly member, who was arrested with a handgun and ammunition, is a weird echo of the national debate over gun violence.
Opponents of gun-control proposals have suggested that a better avenue for addressing the more than 35,000 deaths from gun violence annually in the country would be to provide better mental health services. Now the Brooks situation has definitively put that issue before the Legislature.
Of course, in the perennially cash-strapped Nevada government, funding for any program is a zero-sum game. If more money is provided for mental health, those dollars will have to come from other programs.
At least the small but distinct evidence of economic recovery has both progressives and conservatives breathing a collective sigh of relief. Unlike the previous three sessions, the economy appears to have stabilized — admittedly, far below the level of activity that we saw in the roaring years of the early 2000s — and further deep cuts won’t be needed. The state now has modest positive growth in the gross domestic product of less than 2 percent, but in 2009, the GDP was shrinking by almost 7 percent — and with it, jobs in the private and public sectors and, consequently, tax revenues for state and local programs.
Progressives and public employee unions are hoping that funding for key programs, including education and social services such as mental health care, will rise along with the state’s economic tide. But as they have in years past, the progressive coalition is looking for fundamental restructuring of the state’s tax and budget structure, with more revenue coming from business and gold mining.
Stacey Shinn, lobbyist for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says her organization is going all out for Senate Joint Resolution 15, an initiative that would strip the fixed tax rate for hard-rock mining — read: Nevada’s incredibly profitable gold-mining industry, which took more than $9 billion in gold from the ground in 2011 — out of the state Constitution. PLAN and other groups want to increase revenue from the industry, which generated $81 million for the state in 2011 in net proceeds taxes, for an effective tax rate of less than 1 percent. (The measure has to be approved twice by the Legislature, then put on the ballot.)
Shinn says the mining industry has stepped up the pressure to stop the measure. Industry supporters are claiming that if the PLAN-backed measure passes, mining might end up paying less in a new tax rate set by the Legislature. Nonetheless, she’s optimistic, based on the fact that the measure passed the first hurdle of legislative approval in 2011.
“This is definitely the first step in achieving reform,” she said. “Last time, it passed pretty much on party lines. If we can keep it to party lines in this session, SJR15 will pass… There seems to be a consensus that the structure of our tax system is in need of repair.”
PLAN and others also support the Education Initiative, a 2 percent tax on business revenue for companies making more than $1 million annually. The Nevada State Education Association estimates that the tax increase, which was challenged by a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce-backed group before the Supreme Court in December, would generate $800 million a year for public schools.
The Education Initiative, because it is not a change to the state Constitution, can be approved by the Legislature and go into effect in 2014. If the Legislature rejects it, it would go before voters in 2014.
Brian Fadie, executive director of ProgressNow Nevada, said the focus on tax and budget issues might benefit the non-finance related wish-list of the progressive community.
“Tax reform will most likely be dealt with in the first 40 days because of the teacher initiative,” Fadie said. “That leaves the remaining two-thirds to delve into the other topics, which did not get as much focus in the previous session because all of the oxygen was out of the room because of the budget.”
Nevada law says the Legislature must deal with initiative issues in the first 40 days. However, the Supreme Court still could take the issue off the table. A Nevada District Court in October said the summary language in the petition was unclear, but the NSEA appealed.
According to Nick Di Archangel, NSEA spokesman, the Nevada Supreme Court could issue a decision on whether the initiative petition language is legally sound as soon as this week, which means the Legislature could begin considering it this week as well.
Other issues that the progressive community will champion include revoking the threat to remove Nevada from the Tahoe Regional Management Plan; an overhaul of the way public schools teach sex education; and a proposal to restrict the sale of military-style assault rifles, among many other issues.
Another topic that will come before legislators is education reform, specifically the proposal from Gov. Sandoval to give companies tax cuts if they provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. That is a wrinkle in the conservative effort to provide publicly funded vouchers to support private education, one of several proposals that has the teachers’ unions unhappy.
There also will be a move to undo Nevada’s 1992 law banning gay marriage, particularly now that several other states have taken that plunge.
A key factor for progressive groups is overcoming the lobbying power of well-funded business and conservative organizations. Annette Magnus, communications director of Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, said her organization will work to get people to the Legislature for Grassroots Lobby Days, March 5-6. Backers of more funding for higher ed and K-12 schools will bring their case to the Legislature Feb. 25.
The progressives believe the efforts of individual voters to talk to legislators can be critical counterweights to the lobbyists.
“We depend on good old fashioned grassroots lobbying,” says Laura Martin, PLAN spokeswoman. “We’re connecting legislators to people who live in their districts. That matters more than any lobbyist buying a bottle of wine or a bottle of beer. Lobbyists come and go, but the voters care so much about their neighborhoods, their families and their schools. We sometimes underestimate the power of the voters.”
And while so-so coffee, interminable hearings and acrimonious debate will wear everyone down over the next 120 days, at the moment progressives sound almost as sunny as optimist-in-chief Sandoval.
“I’m fired up about this session,” claims Fadie, notwithstanding decades of frustration punctuated by occasional victories. “We have the ability to make the kinds of changes that we know have to happen to improve our education system and diversify our economy. It’s the dawn of a new day. Those changes are possible. It’s up to the Legislature and the governor to make them happen.”