With the dramatic Democratic victories in the midterms, it won’t be business as usual in Carson City when the Legislature convenes this month. Here’s a primer.
When it begins on February 4, the 2019 Legislature will be unlike any in recent memory, with a solid majority of Democrats and a historic number of women, not to mention a blue executive branch. What does this portend for the 120-day session? You have questions, we have answers.
What is the Democratic agenda for 2019?
Making improvements to public education and healthcare will surely be prime topics, especially since so many of the party’s members campaigned on those issues — including Gov. Steve Sisolak. Democrats will want to continue funding for some of former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reforms, while tinkering with others (the Read by 3 program and the statewide funding formula may be in for adjustments). On healthcare, Democrats will want to continue the expanded Medicaid program that gave insurance to thousands previously without it. A Medicaid buy-in program (which would allow anyone to get Medicaid insurance by paying the full cost) might return.
What might cause dems to hit the brakes?
There are several factors which together might produce a less activist Legislature than some conservatives fear and some progressives hope. First, Sisolak is in his first term, and he surely wants another. That’s a prescription for a more moderate approach. Second, Sisolak is a moderate — look at his contentious primary with an actual progressive, Chris Giunchigliani. Third, the Democratic supermajority in the Assembly and the near-supermajority in the Senate will want to prove that Democrats can govern responsibly, if for no other reason than to get re-elected in advance of the all-important 2020 session, when new district lines will be drawn that could determine which party controls the statehouse for the following decade. And fourth, the pragmatic leadership of Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, and the lack of a 14-vote supermajority confronting Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, suggest steadier, rather than radical, lawmaking.
How will the first female-majority Legislature in American history be different?
Nevada has had female leaders before — Lorraine Hunt-Bono served as lieutenant governor, and two women, Barbara Buckley and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, have served as speakers of the Assembly. But never before have women made up a majority in the Legislature. State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, puts it like this: “We physically and socially experience life differently than our male counterparts, and without equal representation, our ideas may go unheard. ... I have no doubt Nevada’s majority-female Legislature will result in more thorough discussions and better policy-making. … We’ll be representing all Nevadans, but for the first time, women’s voices will be just as loud as men’s, and I think our state will be better for it.”
How will Sisolak be different from his predecessor?
Sandoval and Sisolak have different backgrounds: Sandoval was an attorney, former state lawmaker, gaming regulator, and federal judge. Sisolak was a telemarketer and university regent who sued Clark County over property restrictions, and made a fortune before getting elected to the County Commission. Sandoval’s temperament was judicious, while Sisolak is known to be mercurial. But there are likely to be far fewer differences in style of governing than had conservative Republican Adam Laxalt won the election. Sisolak has boasted of being the most conservative Democrat anyone has seen, and Sandoval was always a moderate, nonideological Republican. Both support fully funding education reforms and putting money into economic development projects.
What can Republicans do to enact their agenda?
Not much. The fact is, Nevada’s Legislature is driven by the majority party. Its leaders pick committee chairs and decide which legislation comes to the floor. Unlike the U.S. House of Representatives, minority party members can’t even start a petition to get a bill to the floor, and unlike their counterparts in Washington, D.C., senators can’t filibuster a bill or require a supermajority to vote. Republicans can certainly offer alternative legislation, make speeches, and use the media to promote their causes, but that’s about it. Only in cases requiring a two-thirds supermajority (overriding a veto, passing a tax) do Republicans have any power, and then only in the state Senate, where Democrats are one vote shy of having two-thirds.
Will there be any payback by Democrats to Republicans, who controlled the Legislature in 2015?
In general, no. It was the 2015 Legislature, in fact, that passed Sandoval’s commerce tax, the first tax on business revenue in Nevada history. (Democrats had tried unsuccessfully for years to enact such a levy.) But if there’s one thing that might happen in reaction to things the Republicans have done, it’s reform of the state’s recall process. Three female state senators (two Democrats and an independent who caucused with them) were targeted unsuccessfully by recalls in 2018, and Democrats noted that the law doesn’t require the subject of a recall to have committed any malfeasance in office. Moreover, while most lawmakers have to be in office for six months before a recall can be filed, members of the Legislature can be targeted just 10 days after the session starts (when they are required to be in Carson City legislating and unable to campaign to save their jobs, and are legally prohibited from raising money). Look for changes to be made.
Will they raise taxes?
Very unlikely. Not only will Democrats be wary of the tax-and-spend caricature, but there’s really no need: Sandoval already cemented in a package of once-temporary taxes and passed the commerce tax. While lawmakers might redirect some marijuana tax money from the state’s rainy-day fund to the general fund, or edit some of the governor’s spending plan, it’s not likely they will impose new taxes.
What will be the session’s most controversial issue?
There are plenty to choose from, including energy policy following the defeat of the Energy Choice amendment. How much renewable energy should the state insist upon, by when, and how should it be produced? What types of gun control will the majority enact, and what will Sisolak sign? What changes should be made to education funding, and should districts such as Clark get more money because of its unique challenges?