This is it, Nevada: The 80th Session of our Legislature is finally over. So what have they done? Since this is the Nevada’s first Democratic “trifecta” (or control of the Governor’s Mansion and both legislative houses) in nearly three decades, we are experiencing some actual progress on key progressive priorities, such as climate action, civil rights, and gun violence prevention. But with the state still facing systemic struggles on public education, health care, and the structure of our overall economy, some activists and long-time #NVLeg watchers are disappointed over another session of legislators kicking these cans down the road.
So let’s jump back in and look more closely at the major policy decisions made by the Nevada Legislature, and what these say about the state of our Silver State in 2019.
Education and the budget
A month ago, the Economic Forum confirmed our hypothesis that no “Deus ex-machina” will swoop in and magically make it rain in this state. About two weeks later, we looked under the hood of the then developing budget deal, including the proposed SB 543 K-12 school funding reform, and examined why no amount of fiscal gimmickry would ever be enough to substitute actual tax reform that results in raising enough revenue to adequately fund our public schools. Some in Carson City seemed to learn that lesson in 2015. But as the old saying goes, our state government often operates on the basis of “one step forward, two steps back”.
A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows that Nevada’s per-pupil K-12 education funding remains 16.8% below pre-Great Recession (as in, 2008 crash) levels when adjusted for inflation. And yes, that’s with then Governor Brian Sandoval’s (R) 2015 tax reform deal factored in. Yet with Governor Steve Sisolak (D) taking even the discussion of larger reform off the table in January, we knew all along legislators would be quibbling over crumbs.
Indeed that’s what happened yesterday, as Senators fought each other over a payroll tax (the modified business tax, or MBT) that’s enjoyed bipartisan support ever since then Governor Kenny Guinn (R) championed its creation in 2003. Then Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio (R-Reno) also helped make that deal happen, then as Minority Leader he led the bipartisan resistance to then Governor Jim Gibbons’ (R) drive to severely slash into the state’s (already meager) safety net in 2009. We can only wonder what Guinn and Raggio would think of Republican leaders now screaming about “hostages”, “crossfire”, and turducken in a manner that must make the current White House proud.
SB 543 and SB 551 ultimately made it to Sisolak’s desk, but SB 551 probably won’t be settled until the Nevada Supreme Court weighs in later this year, due to the legal question of whether maintaining a tax at current levels that are otherwise set to expire somehow constitutes a “tax increase” requiring a ⅔+ supermajority vote of approval. We’re simply talking about $98 million worth of tax revenue that used to have bipartisan support. And while Democratic leaders held about $120 million worth of reserve money to keep just in case the Nevada Supreme Court rules against them, it won’t nearly be enough to make up for decades worth of chronic underfunding of our state’s safety net.
Economic justice, continued
As we move into other facets of our economy, we’re looking at another mixed bag of progress and setbacks. On one end, the Legislature approved SB 135 on a pair of party-line votes to finally respect state workers’ right to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits after Sisolak already signed AB 136 to restore full prevailing wage for construction workers on the job at public projects. Yet while Sisolak can point to these as two campaign promises being fulfilled, another fell by the wayside with the failure to undo Sandoval’s 2017 veto of legislation to establish a Medicaid-style public option to offer on Nevada Health Link (as in, the state’s Affordable Care Act [ACA/Obamacare] health insurance exchange). Instead, Senate Democrats coughed up SCR 10 to offer an interim study on a potential future public option.
Staying on health care, the Legislature did pass AB 170 on near-unanimous votes to codify in state law Obamacare’s protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. They also passed AB 469 on lopsided bipartisan votes to rein in “surprise billing” for “out-of-network” emergency care.
Then last week, both houses finally moved to approve AB 456 and AJR 10 on near party-line votes to begin step increases to Nevada’s minimum wage until it reaches $12 per hour in 2024. Even though Democrats nationally, progressive stalwarts like U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) along with more moderate 2020 presidential candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and all of Nevada’s Democratic Members of Congress, are increasingly promising a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, legislative leaders ultimately opted to tune out these cries from the campaign trail.
Same goes for SB 312, a paid sick leave bill that only offers up to five days of annual paid leave for workers at businesses employing 50 or more people. While some of the presidential candidates are pushing the envelope on economic justice, from Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California) equal pay plan to Senator Cory Booker’s (D-New Jersey) RISE Credit and “baby bonds” to tackle systemic poverty, the Legislature mostly stuck with weaker “half-measures” and “baby steps” (if they even acted at all… Looking at you, affordable housing crisis and payday loan industry).
Voting rights and criminal justice
Perhaps the biggest move on this front was AB 345, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s (D-Las Vegas) omnibus bill that includes same-day registration, updates to online registration and the state’s voter database to better conform with Question 5 automatic voter registration, and additional updates and reforms. In addition, they passed Frierson’s AB 431 to finally ensure rehabilitated ex-criminal offenders have the right to vote after they’ve paid their debts to society.
Staying on criminal justice reform, the Legislature moved in the final hours to pass AB 236 to pursue major sentencing reform across the board and require mental health training for police officers. And already, Governor Sisolak has signed into law AB 478 to establish new deescalation standards for law enforcement and AB 183 to ban the use of private prisons beginning in 2022.
Yet shifting back to voting rights and election integrity, the one bill that received national attention also became the first bill vetoed by Sisolak last week. The late, great Assembly Member Tyrone Thompson’s (D-North Las Vegas) AB 186 would have added Nevada to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact where states deliver their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. In his veto message, Sisolak claimed, “Where Nevada’s interests could diverge from the interests of large states, I will always stand up for Nevada.” National activists and pundits, however, saw this as Nevada joining with other traditional “swing states” to hold the rest of the nation hostage to picayune matters rather than act in the nation’s best interest.
In Part 1, we went through the major legislation on civil rights, environmental justice, and gun violence prevention this past session. And stay tuned for Part 3, where we will step back, assess “the big picture” beyond Carson City, and explain why the 80th Session of the Nevada Legislature offers both signals of hope and a cautionary tale for Democrats looking to the 2020 presidential election as some kind of panacea for all that ails this nation.