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Cauldron of chaos

One thing we can predict for the 2015 Legislature: unpredictability. And maybe a tax plan? Maybe a deal to fund education? Maybe some bipartisanship? Don’t hold your breath

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The 2015 Legislature doesn’t begin until Feb. 2 and already this:

The Republicans, who control the Assembly for the first time in 30 years, designated as speaker a man who once used phrases such as “simple-minded darkies” in columns and said on television, “I haven’t called anyone a homo for a long time.” That man, Ira Hansen, soon had to step down — only to be given the No. 3 spot in lower-house leadership.

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In his place, the Republicans held an “election” in the office of his presumed successor, Paul Anderson. But Michele Fiore, who once played a character named Storm Fagan in a movie called Siren, arrived with proxies from a passel of newcomers and installed John Hambrick, a low-key, likable fellow who sat stone-faced as his elevation was announced.

And as the New Year comes, Fiore, who claimed the majority leader’s position for herself and installed as whip one Jim Wheeler — who once said he would vote for slavery if his constituents asked — has been found to owe the federal government more than $1 million in taxes. She was scheduled to chair the — you guessed it — Taxation Committee. (She was briefly taken off in mid-December, then reinstated after complaining of a “war on women,” then taken off again.)

All of this may change again before the gavel comes down — yes, as of this writing, we aren’t even sure who will be brandishing said gavel — as a handful of renegade Republicans have been in talks with the 17-member Democratic minority to create a coalition government that would remake the leadership team into a bipartisan mélange. This, of course, would be fraught with peril and is destined to acquire fissures before long.

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I remind you again: The session hasn’t even started yet.

Every Nevada Legislature is sui generis, but they have a similar rhythm: They commence with a happy but slow pace, full of ceremonial proclamations and fourth-grade classes introduced. The middle is a notorious slog, with only the most skillful lobbyists lining up their various items in the trough really aware of what’s happening. And the end is always The Rush to Close, with 63 lawmakers careering toward sine die, the governor trying to grip the tiller and the 120-day deadline rarely or barely met.

2015 promises to be different: The Session of Chaos.

When the red wave crashed down on Nov. 4, it washed away Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, including a 10-seat flip in the Assembly. But as Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose campaign caused the tsunami that made the wave so broad and deep, celebrated in public, behind the scenes he was concerned about the be-careful-what-you-wish-for result that had turned the Assembly into something not imagined by the Founding Fathers but instead conjured by Barnum & Bailey.

Sandoval had been having quiet conversations with Democratic Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson about how to craft a tax package that could pass the Legislature, create a sustainable way to fund education and reform a system that has only been picked at for decades. But now Kirkpatrick has been relegated to the minority and the Assembly has become a cauldron of uncertainty, with counting to the necessary 28 votes to pass a tax plan as unlikely as Storm Fagan’s try for rock stardom. Add in a rookie Senate majority leader (Roberson) and a first-time Senate minority leader (Aaron Ford), neophyte committee chairs in both houses, 17 newcomers in the Assembly and conventional wisdom seems like an oxymoron.

Can a tax plan possibly pass? Who are the players to watch? What are the hot issues to watch for? Here are my thoughts, which — considering the velocity of the zaniness before the session even starts — may be rendered moot by Feb. 2.


Five possible tax plans

The Sunrise, Sunset Plan.

This would be the simplest one to accomplish: Simply extend expiring, or sunsetting, taxes to fill the budget hole. Enough Republicans could justify this to create a two-thirds majority by claiming, as Sandoval has done in past sessions, that this isn’t really a tax increase. But this also would be the narrowest, creating no “new” taxes.


The No Business Tax Plan.

The Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce has released a study that does two things. First, it removes many exemptions and broadens the tax base by creating a sales tax on services and increasing those covered by a payroll tax. Second, in so doing and by not proposing a tax on business income, such as a net or gross receipts tax, the chamber has sold out its smaller members and protected its larger ones. This is not new.


The Sunset-Plus-Break Even Plan.

This would involve extending the sunsets and passing what would be seen as a revenue-neutral broadening of the base. For instance, a sales tax on services but at a much lower rate — say, 3 percent. Or a package of tax cuts passed along with the plan for new money. Even the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which previously proposed a sales tax on services, might go along. And the think tank’s policy guy, Geoff Lawrence, is advising Assembly Republicans.


The Marginal Plan.

This would be 2003 redux. A bunch of new revenue but no real broadening of the tax base. Many supplicants would be happy, as they were during the last Great Tax Debate, because they got their money. But the method would be madness, and the problem of narrowness would be unresolved.


The Legacy Plan.

This would be all the marbles. A new business tax (don’t call it a margin tax!) that increases the contributors to the state budget and dramatically changes education funding, including hundreds of millions for English Language Learners. This would be forever known as The Sandoval Plan. It also is the least likely of any of the possibilities.


[Hear more: Should the mining industry pay more taxes? Hear a discussion on KNPR's State of Nevada.]


Five issues to watch

The chapter named 288.

Of all the reforms the new GOP majority sees with both houses and a Republican governor, changing Nevada Revised Statute Chapter 288, the collective bargaining law, may be paramount. Some will see this as an attempt to hurt unions, a Democratic special interest. But reforms will range from reasonable to extreme, including erasing the section. That won’t happen, but I bet something will.


The Democratic defect is gone.

Many Republicans have been frustrated by the trial lawyers’ hegemony in the Legislative Building, which has allowed them to block changes to laws governing lawsuits against builders to fix construction defects. The process is arcane and occasionally illogical and has made a lot of lawyers very rich. The war between developer accountability and lawyer rapaciousness has no heroes, but may have a different outcome next year.


“It depends what you mean by reform.”

Everyone wants to “reform” the education system. Merit pay. Vouchers. School choice. End Common Core. Reinforce Common Core. No social promotion after third grade. How any or all of these fit in with — or perhaps hold the key to — any tax package will be one of the session’s pivot points.


There is an app for that.

This will be Uber fun. The cab oligarchy says it just wants the ride-sharing behemoth to play by the rules, but its message is: We don’t need no stinkin’ Uber. Uber says it is a tech company, not a transportation company, so it shouldn’t have to abide by those strictures. This risible argument will dissolve but a compromise will occur. There are too may good lobbyists on both sides. Pass the popcorn.


Wonder who prevails on this one?

Prevailing wage is a longtime GOP hobbyhorse. And they will ride it this session with majorities in both houses. I would guess the law will be changed, but how dramatically is the question. I wonder if this issue could be used by Democrats, prodded by their union pals, to hold up support for tax plans. Watch for that play at some point.


Five key playersto watch

Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The amazingly popular governor, fresh off a 70 percent win, has political capital to spend. But in the entropic Legislature of 2015, which he helped create with The Sandoval Sweep, what should he invest in? Does he go big and go to DC? Or go small and try for more in ’17? I don’t think he knows yet, but what I do know is he wants to try to fix the tax structure and create a long-term funding source for education. Can he find 28 votes in the Assembly? That is the question for this session.


State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson.

Roberson is no Bill Raggio, the silky-smooth late legislative legend. But he is a leader unlike any this state has seen on the GOP side. Self-assured to the point of arrogance, he backs it up with a Raggioesque work ethic and commitment to education funding and reform that we haven’t seen in a while. After a rocky start with the governor, he is a loyal soldier in Sandoval’s army now. His ability to help the governor find GOP votes on the other side of the hallway will be one of the session’s keys.


Speaker X.

It may be John Hambrick. It may not be. The Assembly Republicans may not be done yet with their leadership reshuffling, with the possibility of a Democratic-Republican coalition electing Pat Hickey or Paul Anderson. Hambrick is unlikely to be speaker all session — he is too laid back, too sweet for the nasty game that will be played. If he does somehow retain the post, he will be influenced by Michele Fiore and her friend, Sue Lowden, who wants to play a role in the session and helped talk Hambrick into seeking the top spot. This caucus’ motto: A coup a day keeps the crazies in play.


Assembly Minority Leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

She thought she would be speaker in her final session. With the shock and disappointment having worn off, Kirkpatrick is doing what she does: Thinking about policy prescriptions as her legacy, trying to help Sandoval and Roberson get a tax package through, perhaps attempting to form a governing coalition. She has never had a head for politics, and she may not be temperamentally suited to be speaker as she was to being a committee chair. But she has great respect among the lobbying corps and across the partisan aisle, so she will be very, very relevant.


State Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford.

Ambitious and focused, the new Democratic leader can’t do worse than his counterparts from 2013 and 2011, who essentially surrendered to the governor. But what does he want besides his pet film tax credits restored (More Paul Blart movies, please!)? He is seen as more moderate than other members of his caucus, which caused him problems with the liberal wing. Can he hold that caucus together? Will he work well with Roberson? He is a true wild card.


Five reforms that would help

Evict the partisan operatives.

Allowing caucuses to have hit men and women whose jobs are to hover like vultures waiting for the other side’s lawmakers to make a mistake, then sending out vitriolic news releases and Tweets makes governing that much harder. Several are highly skilled, but they need to become a capital relic.


Don’t allow capricious rule suspensions.

Every session, lawmakers make a mockery of the guideline that allows them to suspend the rules, which is code for Rushing Stuff Through that May Be Bad but It’s Too Late in the Session to Care. This is when really bad things happen. Fix it.


Pass a ballot question for annual sessions.

I know it’s unpopular. But Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes together could not budget for 24-26 months ahead. At least create the momentum for a short session in even-numbered years to reflect on where the economy is and how it has affected projections, while also having the ability to fix mistakes from the odd-numbered-year session. Yes, they make mistakes.


Force lawmakers to have roll call votes on all ballot initiatives. 

Last session, the Democrats wouldn’t even hear the margin tax and in all their cowardice simply let it be on the ballot. The law says they have to act or not act within 40 days of opening day or an initiative — see legalized pot and background checks — goes on the ballot. They should have to conduct an up or down vote. You know, do their jobs.


Mandate that all contacts with lobbyists be disclosed.

Every week, lawmakers should have to disclose which lobbyists contacted them and on what issues. Lobbyists should have to do the same. For some reason, I bet both groups don’t want this to be enacted.


Five predictions

1 A tax plan (beyond extending the sunsets) will not pass during the 120-day session. But one will pass during the third special session.

2 A voter ID bill will pass and be signed into law by the governor. It will be perceived as a “moderate” plan, but will draw huge protests and threatened lawsuits.

3 The mining industry will not be taxed. This is the easiest prediction for anyone to make. Every session.

4 At least one legislator who begins the session will not be there at the end. And all of the others will envy this person.

5 The Nevada Supreme Court will have to intervene at least once during the Legislature to resolve disputes. Someone will accuse the justices of legislating from the bench. They will not care. 

Political commentator Jon Ralston writes at