Hugh Jackson: How not to get things done

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<p>Hugh Jackson</p>

I DID NOT GO to the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature, didn’t even parachute in for a day or two. So perhaps I should show restraint and couch my observations in caveats and caution.

Ha, just kidding. Besides, two of the most momentous developments coming out of the session weren’t debated by legislators anyway.

The first, of course, is the teachers’ business-tax initiative. The law gave legislators 40 working days to approve of the initiative, with which Nevada would join the 47 other states that levy some manner of tax on business income or revenue. Within the 40 days legislators also could have voted to reject the teachers’ plan, and then put a competing tax proposal on the 2014 ballot.

Legislators instead did that for which their characters and temperaments are best suited: nothing. The session ended last week, but the most important day of the 2013 session was March 15, the day that those 40 days were up and the tax initiative officially, by default, won its place on next year’s ballot. Interest groups, activists and engaged citizenry will now do what the Democratically controlled Legislature would not — debate a truly consequential tax proposal. Republican politicians will run against it, hard. With a few exceptions, Democratic politicians will mumble something along the lines of, “Gosh, we really need to have a discussion about taxes, but it just isn’t good policy to decide important tax policy at the ballot box blahblahfartblahsniffle.”

And then come November 2014, all the legislators along with state officeholders from the governor on down, as well as candidates for legislative and state offices, of both parties, regardless of what they do or don’t say about the business tax on the campaign trail, may well vote for it. Even Brian “No New Taxes Derp Derp Derp” Sandoval knows that an overhaul of Nevada’s unfairly regressive and anachronistically dysfunctional tax system is much needed and long overdue. A powerful argument in favor of the business-tax initiative holds that voters must act because Nevada’s elected officials won’t. No one is more aware of Nevada elected officials’ palsied inability to act than Nevada elected officials.

The other hugely important consequence of the session that wasn’t actually debated at the session was the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. Starting next year, affordable health-care coverage will be available to tens of thousands of Nevadans who currently have none, and hundreds of millions of dollars will be poured into the state, constituting an economic stimulus to Nevada larger than the stimulus bill itself.

Like several Republican governors across the nation, albeit earlier than most, Sandoval realized that every state in America will ultimately opt to expand Medicaid in accordance with the Affordable Care Act because the federal government pays nearly all the cost. Coupled with the driving force that has come to characterize Sandoval’s political career — the insatiable thirst to avoid a fight and be as boring as possible — expanding Medicaid was, as Harry Reid once put it, a “no-brainer.”

In fact, the session was largely over before it began when Sandoval announced his budget would include Medicaid expansion as well as an extension of tax hikes first passed in 2009, and Republican legislative leaders said okey-dokey. In Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and other states, GOP governors have signed off on expanding Medicaid only to get hammered by fire-breathing Republicans in their state legislatures. In Nevada, legislative Republicans led by Michael Roberson in the Senate cheerfully went along with their governor, and the Medicaid expansion, as well as extending the tax hikes, sailed through the session with nary a peep.

In retrospect, Sandoval and his Republicans may have played their hand too early and too openly. Had they held back support for the tax-hike extensions and the Medicaid expansion, they could have demanded concessions from majority Democrats before allowing those policies to go forward (even though Republicans favored the policies). One shudders to think what the feckless Democratic leadership might have agreed to — gutting public employee pay and benefits some more, or perhaps a school “choice” plan written by corporations on a mission to privatize America’s public education system for profit. The Republicans probably underestimated the ineptitude of Democratic leadership. Nevada got lucky.

Democrats did secure some noteworthy achievements, including the amendment to take the mining tax out of the state constitution (voters must approve it next year), the amendment to overturn Nevada’s ban on gay marriage (has to be approved by the Legislature again in 2015, then voters must approve it) and the gun background-check legislation (by the time this is published, Sandoval presumably will have vetoed that bill because when it comes to America’s discussion of gun violence Sandoval is every bit as principled and courageous as Sen. Dean Heller, R-Lying Coward).

But it’s not clear if the gay marriage amendment or the gun bill passed because of Democratic legislative leaders, or despite them. And Democratic leadership seemed willing to let the mining amendment die a quiet death until they were shamed into action by a Republican, Roberson.

And on fiscal and economic issues, Democratic Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis secured exactly zero traction on even the piddling little proposals they trotted out. Intended to be their signature contributions to the single biggest task this or any legislature deals with — the budget — their wee ideas were not merely dismissed. They were scoffed at, mocked and laughed into oblivion.

Some of us, having been in the legislative building on occasion, are in no rush to return. Others very much want to go there, as legislators. After distance-watching the floundering Democratic leadership this session, I have to wonder why.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.