Yesterday, the Nevada Legislature closed its 31st Special Session with its anticlimactic passage of a modified version of Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) budget cuts that relies on leftover “loose change”, additional federal funds, and good old-fashioned “creative accounting” to lessen the blow of Sisolak’s originally proposed cuts to public education and health care programs.
So how on earth did they end up mostly where they began, and what happens next?
First, why was Senator Keith Pickard such an important player during the final hours?
As we discussed last Friday over the sudden birth and death of (some very modest) mining tax reform, there were far too many forces determined to shut down any meaningful attempt at breaking the Nevada Legislature’s time-honored status quo. And yet, after AB 4 appeared soundly dead, some last-minute Senate hijinks injected one final round of melodrama into “The Building”.
To understand what happened over the weekend and why it resulted in the Legislature’s latest failure to bring Nevada’s tax system and public infrastructure into the 21st century, we must jump back to 2018 and notice two key developments. One was the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) breaking away from the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) statewide teachers’ union over an internal power struggle. The other was State Senator Keith Pickard’s (R-Henderson) 24 vote margin of victory in the increasingly swingy SD 20.
In the former, CCEA leaders tried to demonstrate their version of realpolitik delivers better results than NSEA’s more straightforward public education advocacy agenda. In the latter, CCEA’s “maverick” endorsement of Pickard may have actually made a difference in SD 20, considering how razor-thin Pickard’s margin of victory ultimately was. Even though Sisolak (+3.31%) and U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) (+3.13%) both carried SD 20, Pickard won just enough crossover votes to keep this seat in Republican hands, and to deny Democrats a ⅔ supermajority in the Senate.
Next, how did the sudden “breakthrough” fall apart so quickly?
In 2017, Keith Pickard had a somewhat moderate voting record during his one term in the Assembly. Yet after his election to the Senate, his voting pattern took a hard right turn as he voted more often along party lines against legislation addressing workers’ rights, women’s reproductive rights, voting rights, and gun violence.
But then, shortly after AB 4 died the first time last Friday, Pickard reemerged as a potentially pivotal vote when he suggested he’d switch his vote on AB 4 if it were amended to send all its estimated $50 million in new revenue into the K-12 weighted funding program that launched in 2017. So when Democratic leaders amended AB 4 to direct all the new mining tax revenue into the K-12 weighted funding program, it appeared that Pickard was poised to give the mining tax deduction limitation bill a new lease on life. That lasted all of three hours, as Pickard gave alternating excuses of “wrong numbers” in the bill’s accounting, AB 4 “falling woefully short” of what schools need, and AB 4 risking putting “dozens” of mines “out of business” for his last-seconds-of-last-minute return to voting with fellow Republicans (again) to kill the bill once and for all on Saturday.
Other progressive groups pointed their fingers at CCEA for backing Pickard over Democratic opponent Julie Pazina in 2018, but CCEA pointed fingers back at them, at Pickard, at Sisolak, and at other Democrats while promising to plow forward on two ballot initiatives: one to raise the gaming tax that’s looking far less lucrative now due to COVID-19 issuing a death blow to Nevada’s gaming and tourism industry, and another to raise the sales tax that’s one of multiple regressive taxes that disproportionately targets the middle class and the working poor.
What ended up happening, and what comes next?
With AB 4 off the table (again) and any remaining chance of a bipartisan breakthrough on tax reform as dead and gone as AB 4 was, Democratic leaders brought forward a federal CARES Act backed $50 million block grant to assist at-risk students with distance learning as the final amendment for AB 3 while keeping in place everything else that was already worked out last week (as in, moving around $127.6 million to pare back health care and K-12 education cuts). That resulted in a unanimous Senate vote and a final 36-6 Assembly vote to pass AB 3 and send it to Sisolak’s desk (where he will sign it).
Though Sisolak and legislative leaders have declared “mission accomplished”, Nevada’s still having to suffer over $700 million in budget cuts. Despite Republicans’ accusation that state workers got some sort of “sweetheart deal” over a pared back furlough program, state workers are still getting a pay cut while working during a still-active pandemic. Despite paring back some of Sisolak’s originally proposed K-12 cuts, K-12 public schools will still get less money than before while NSHE colleges and universities face just over $135 million in cuts.
With state legislators now leaving it up to the federal government to decide whether any of these budget cuts will be restored any time soon (even though the White House and Congressional Republican leaders are still signaling zero interest in doing any such thing), attention has turned to the 32nd Special Session of the Nevada Legislature. Sisolak has already signaled the second special session of 2020 will focus on the civil rights matters raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, worker safety and “stabilizing Nevada businesses”, voting rights and election protection, and the still-beleaguered unemployment insurance program that’s now being litigated in state court.
While Democratic leaders originally signaled that the 32nd Special Session would begin soon after the 31st ended, that timeline is now up in the air as Sisolak urges caution amidst the state’s still-rising COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates. And considering how the Nevada Legislature began its 31st Special Session with Sisolak’s proposed budget cuts and ended with (overall) slightly less severe budget cuts, I wouldn’t get my hopes too high for the 32nd Special Session.