Many local issues — school vouchers, property taxes — confront the Legislature beginning this month. But one of the session’s key players will be 2,300 miles away.
Every session of the Nevada Legislature eventually becomes known for something. A big debate over taxes, as in 2003 and 2015. A huge fight between special interests, such as Uber versus taxicab companies (2015) or NV Energy and solar-power advocates (also 2015). There’s sometimes bitter partisan wrangling, usually pointed out by the party currently out of power.
In 2017, a number of key issues threaten to dominate the 120 days that kicks off February 6. Democrats are back in control after losing power in 2014. Republican Governor Brian Sandoval is looking to cement his legacy as an education-and-jobs governor. And those special-interest battles won’t cool down soon.
But one of the most important factors affecting the
Legislature isn’t in Carson City, or even Nevada. In Washington, D.C., new President Donald J. Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress will deal with issues that could have a larger-than-usual impact on Nevada, from healthcare to drugs to public lands. And those actions will be largely out of the control of anybody in Nevada’s capital.
For example, Trump’s repeated campaign-trail pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even as debate still continues about its replacement. Sandoval elected to expand Nevada’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act in 2012 because of a federal promise to bear most of the cost for the expansion.
If those funds disappear, Nevada could face a significant — and totally unanticipated — budget deficit, one that could throw money debates into chaos. That’s why Sandoval recently wrote to House leaders to say “... going forward, we must ensure that any new reforms do not mandate additional costs, and second, leverage the advancements already made and paid for under the ACA. Moreover, you must ensure that individuals, families, children, aged, blind, disabled and mentally ill are not suddenly left without care they need to live healthy, productive lives.”
It’s no understatement to say Sandoval and all legislative leaders are extremely concerned about the effects repeal will have on Nevada.
The state will also be faced with implementing the Question 2 ballot initiative, which legalized recreational marijuana. Sandoval announced a new excise tax on the drug that will go toward funding education, and lawmakers are also faced with solving problems such as DUI standards and workplace rules about using the drug.
But in Washington, Trump’s Justice Department may soon be headed by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who is unsympathetic to marijuana users. If Sessions, unlike his predecessors Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, is unwilling to look the other way, marijuana users may soon get a reminder that the drug remains illegal under federal law, and will for the foreseeable future. That could send the nascent marijuana industry in Nevada into turmoil.
An accident of timing may also play out on the stage of federal-state relations when it comes to public lands: Last session, majority Republicans passed a resolution asking the federal government to transfer more than 7 million acres of public land to state control. That resolution landed in a receptive Republican Congress, but faced a reluctant President Barack Obama.
Now, just two years later, enthusiasm for the idea may have increased in Washington as Trump takes over, but it has certainly cooled in Carson City, where Democrats believe the costs associated with state oversight of those lands are either unmanageable or would force Nevada to sell the land into private hands, permanently cutting off public access. And there are more than a few people talking about reversing Obama’s 11th-hour designation of the Gold Butte National Monument. Where Trump and his new Interior secretary fall on that issue remains to be seen (Trump has said at times he wants to keep the lands in federal hands, to ensure they remain great).
But Trump won’t affect every decision in Carson City this year.
For example, the most contentious fight in the capital is likely to be over the Education Savings Account program. Passed on a party-line vote in 2015, ESAs allow parents to control a portion of the per-pupil spending and use it for private expenses, including tutoring, books, home schooling expenses or private school tuition.
The state Supreme Court struck down the program on technical grounds: It cannot use money that has been designated for public schools. But Sandoval found $60 million elsewhere in the budget — not enough to cover the more than 8,000 applications that have already come in, but enough to get the program going.
Democrats are unchanged in their opposition, but ESAs may become part of the legislative endgame negotiations, something to be traded away in exchange for other concessions. (The program may also be modified, say, to include a means test so only middle- and low-income families benefit, or to say that only kids from poorly rated schools get priority.)
Another area of contention: taxes. In 2005, as property values skyrocketed, so did property taxes. The Legislature put a cap on the annual increases. But the Great Recession erased those high values, sending tax receipts tumbling. Now they can only increase slowly under the cap. Local governments and school boards want a fix that would allow tax receipts to grow more quickly. But Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson has already declared flatly that no reform that increases property taxes will make it through the session, and he has the numbers to back him up: Any increase would require a two-thirds vote for approval, and Democrats don’t have that in either house. Plus, the specter of 2015’s “largest tax increase in state history” still looms over the legislative building in Carson City.
As well, we may see lobbying titans clash once more over transportation. Taxi companies have seen their business and revenues fall as ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft have taken hold in the valley, often working in far-flung neighborhoods that aren’t profitable for the regulated taxi industry.
Instead of changing fees or regulations, the Taxicab Authority elected to wait for the session, a sign that taxi company owners may plan to make a legislative stab at their more fleet-footed rivals. And if past is prologue, it could become a bitter fight, one that lawmakers didn’t anticipate in 2015, but that ended up dominating much of the session.
The specter of partisanship doesn’t touch every issue in Carson City, but one that might be affected is private-party gun background checks, narrowly approved by voters last year but held up by the FBI’s refusal to conduct the checks. (The state already has a system to check both federal and state databases, but the initiative specified an FBI check only to avoid state fees.)
Democratic lawmakers could try a legislative fix to resurrect the checks, but that could prove dicey, since most Republicans opposed the measure. Fights over that, or perhaps a vetoed attempt to repeal an education reform that’s sustained by the Legislature, could poison the well in Carson City.
This is, after all, still politics.