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Gun Control, Criminal Justice Reform Among Latest Legislative Decisions

The 80th session of the Nevada Legislature is set to close on Monday, which means a crush of bills is still working its way through the legislative process.

Just this week, several bills were passed by the Assembly and Senate. They involve criminal justice reform, gun control, marijuana regulation and consumption lounges, and Nevada’s electoral votes.

Governor Steve Sisolak signed most of them, but he also vetoed one and influenced the amending of at least one other.

"To a certain extent, at the end of every legislative session there is always some frenzy about something," Steve Sebelius, politics and government editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, told KNPR' State of Nevada.

Sebelius also said that every session is unique with its own successes and challenges -- the latter this time likely being the large number of freshman lawmakers and the freshman governor.

Former Republican state senator and current lobbyist Warren Hardy said what was unique about the session for him was the number of trips he took to the finance committee.

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"So many policy issues have come out this time that have fiscal notes, sometimes substantial fiscal notes that weren't really recognized when the agenda was set at the beginning of the session, that I've spent more time in the Senate Finance Committee this time than at any point except the session [where] I served on it," he said.

Hardy noted that the Democrats, who held all the levers of power in Carson City this year, had an aggressive agenda and many of those agenda items cost money, which is why they were sent to the finance committee. 

One of those agenda items, which has passed in other states but was vetoed by Governor Sisolak, would have pledged Nevada's electoral college delegates to the winner of the popular vote in a presidential election.

Hardy said the change was one that had been pushed by many in the Democratic base, but would have been a bad move for Nevada because a strictly popular vote would mean an election would be decided long before Nevada's votes are even counted.

"I think the governor put the partisanship aside and recognized that it's not good for the state of Nevada," Hardy said.

Sebelius agreed that the decision would have been a difficult one not only because of the push from national progressives, but also because it was being pushed by Tyrone Thompson, the much-admired assemblyman who died during the legislative session.

"It was a very difficult thing I think for the governor to do that," Sebelius said, "But his veto message was perfect. The exact argument against it, the most powerful argument, [was] how would you feel if your state voted for a particular candidate and the national vote went to someone else, so you saw your electors go to the national vote winner that your state didn't vote for?"

Sebelius added that the veto is a sign that Gov. Sisolak will act for the state and not for the party.

One of the biggest changes that made it through the Legislature this year was a series of reforms to the criminal justice system. The reforms include restoring voting rights to most felons and allowing people with low-level marijuana convictions to seal their records.

But one bill that would reduce penalties for non-violent, low-level crimes with the idea of reducing the prison population hasn't passed yet, and some law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about the bill.

Sebelius notes that something is only a "low-level crime" if you are not the victim. 

"Reducing the prison population is good, overall, especially when you're talking about non-violent offenders because I think we can all agree that violent offenders... ought to be in prison as opposed to non-violent offenders -- but there has to be a balance there," he said.

Hardy agreed. He said criminal justice reform is no longer a bipartisan issue. He believes the time of lawmakers wanting to lock people up is gone because everyone has realized that just putting people in prison doesn't work.

The challenge, he said, is reducing the prison population without impacting the safety of the state's streets.

"On paper, yes, we do not want to overpopulate our prison with people who really don't need to be there ... really, the only thing they're learning in prison is how to be a better criminal," he said, "So, this is a good faith effort to address that."

Perhaps the biggest issue that lawmakers in Carson City tackled was reworking the state's school funding formula. The formula has long been criticized by both sides of the aisle.

It's more than 50 years old and does not address the needs of Nevada students today. 

While the changes to the formula received wide support from Democrats and some Republicans, it was opposed by three rural state senators.

Hardy, who is a Republican himself, disagrees with those state senators. He believes the revisions were long overdue because the old formula unfairly advantaged the rural counties.

"To me, the new funding formula, on some level, is putting the focus where it should be and that is on all students in Nevada and not just a general assumption that basically there is a weighted issue because you live in rural areas," he said.

He said the new formula will even the playing field for every student and he applauded the way the lawmakers plan on implementing the new formula over time instead of all at once.

With a few days left in the session and a lot of work left to do, Sebelius would not speculate on what would be ahead, but he thinks there is a 50-50 chance that legislators will be done on time.

Hardy agreed, based on the workload they've tackled and the way the timing of some bills must be handled.

If the legislature doesn't finish on time, there could be a short special session to clean up any last-minute items.

The former state senator did have kind words for both Democrats and Republicans in Carson City.

"I think [Democrats] had a very good session..." said Hardy. "They've addressed a lot of the issues or begun the debate on a lot of the issues that their base and their constituency cares about both locally and nationally, but I also think they did a very good job of not overreaching," he said, "I think [The Republicans] have done very well as well. I think they've done a good job of helping to balance and create balance."

 

Guests

Warren Hardy, lobbyist and former State senator; Steve Sebelius, politics and government editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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