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Nevada Today

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As Background Checks Bill Rushes Through Legislature, a Primer on “How the Sausage Is Made” in Carson City

Normally when bills move through the Nevada Legislature, they meander their way through committees and spend a couple days marinating on the Assembly and Senate floor before achieving final passage and moving over to the other chamber. But this week, the Legislature is moving at lightning speed to rush a long-awaited fix to the 2016 Background Checks Initiative to Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) desk by the end of this week.

How are they doing it, and why the need for speed? Let’s take this week’s big story as an opportunity to take a closer look at how business really gets done in “the people’s branch” of state government.

It’s not typical to see bills move this quickly this early, but it’s not like this never happens.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Anyone who knows Carson City knows strange things happen when a certain group of 63 people arrive in town every two years, from February to June. Time stands still, then time races at lightning speed. “Hurry up and wait” is uttered in hallways throughout the building at 401 South Carson Street. And of course, rules are made to be bent and tweaked in order for everyone to abide by the one supreme rule that all legislative business must be constrained to a mere 120 days every two years.

Usually the really crazy antics are reserved for the final week, when legislators rush to finish the budget and pass any other “must-pass bills” that are still in the queue. But occasionally, hijinks occur much sooner than we typically expect.

Yes, it’s happened before.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Here’s a great example: Early in the 2015 session, Senate Republican leaders rushed to pass SB 119 to allow for the “rollover” (or extension) of expired school bonds and do away with prevailing wage for school construction projects. Republican leaders wanted to shame Democrats for “voting against education”, as they correctly surmised Democrats wouldn’t support lowering construction workers’ wages, but their gambit initially backfired when a critical mass of Assembly Republicans refused to vote for what they considered a “tax increase”.

So Republican leaders regrouped and introduced SB 207, a “clean” school bond extension bill with no anti-worker provisions. While SB 119 stalled in the Assembly, SB 207 coasted with bipartisan support and swiftly earned then Governor Brian Sandoval’s (R) signature.

Democratic leaders initially did a victory dance for stopping SB 119 and forcing Republicans to agree to a “clean” school bond extension instead. But when they weren’t looking, Assembly Republicans revived and gathered the votes to pass it, as they successfully convinced the anti-tax caucus that Democrats “already did the dirty work” in helping pass SB 207. So long story short, SB 119 ended up getting signed by Sandoval just days after he signed SB 207, allowing Republicans to have Democrats do the heavy lifting in getting the “rollover” passed while Republicans struck a key blow to the labor movement… And this was all done in the first month of the 78th Session.  

So now, it’s Nevada Democrats’ turn to “ram and jam”.
Photo by Andrew Davey

In the run-up to yesterday’s hearing and committee passage of the SB 143 background checks bill, Republicans complained about Democrats’ rush to put into place a gun safety law that will have been stalled for three years by the time SB 143 can take effect. While they may be correct in pointing out what Carson City insiders often call a “ram and jam”, they neglect to mention they utilized the same set of tricks when they had all the power a mere four years ago.

So this time around, Democrats scheduled a special joint committee hearing, dropped the bill language the day before the hearing, held the hearing, and got the bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-3 party-line vote, all by last night. And just moments ago today, the full Senate passed the background checks bill on a 13-8 party-line vote. (Democrats all voted for, while Republicans all voted against.) Where the last legislative attempt to close background check loopholes got bogged down all session by crass stunts and cheap theater, this one is instead being defined by its fast track to Governor Sisolak.

Since both Judiciary Committees held a joint hearing yesterday, it will be easier and faster for the Assembly to process SB 143 on its side of the building. Though Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) is promising no suspension of rules on his side of the building, they may still be able to send SB 143 to Sisolak’s desk as soon as Friday.

Is this ideally how bills become law? No. But really, is this what happens when the Nevada Legislature is in session? Yes. And as long as “the people’s branch” of state government must continue operating under these byzantine rules where legislators craft bills in secret and surprise everyone by fast-tracking such bills, all to stay within that sacred 120 day biennial schedule, this is “how the sausage gets made”.

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