The 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature is already almost over. And already, Nevadans across the state are asking: What exactly have they been doing this year? That’s a good question, and it’s a question that Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and legislators will soon need to find decent answers for.
Just as we suspected, the Nevada Legislature is going nowhere fast on taxes and counting on federal stimulus support to patch up the budget (for now).
Last time we checked in on the Nevada Legislature, we noticed another round of “deja news” with the Nevada Supreme Court cracking down on another shifty money maneuver and legislative leaders continuing the time dishonored tradition of kicking the tax can further down the road. Just as we noticed earlier this month, the Legislature is essentially just waiting for federal American Rescue Plan dollars to come online to fix our structural fiscal problems.
Yes, the $2.738 billion in Rescue Plan funds coming to the State of Nevada will clearly provide plenty of rescue in our latest and greatest hour of need. But as we noted earlier this month, the American Rescue Plan only helps us this year and next. Now that President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are trying to figure out how they proceed (if at all) with Biden’s infrastructure proposals, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Congress will agree to another federal stimulus package that includes additional state and local government aid.
This brings us back to the Nevada Legislature. After multiple days of “having conversations” with various “stakeholders”, legislative leaders are once again stuck “having conversations”. As of today, the three mining tax initiatives from last year’s 32nd Special Session (AJR 1, AJR 2, and SJR 1) remain under “waiver” from previous deadlines, but this Wednesday’s deadline is a hard deadline that these three tax initiatives can not escape. If legislative leaders decide not to advance any of the three mining tax initiatives this week, then they will have chosen not to let voters consider any of these initiatives next year.
As we explored back in February, mining tax reform alone won’t fix the entirety of Nevada’s inadequate tax system. Sooner or later, we will have to confront these other deficiencies, including our total lack of income tax. Though Democrats obviously don’t have the supermajorities needed to get past Question 11’s restrictions on raising taxes now, they have had the ability to initiate another constitutional amendment to modify or fully repeal Question 11. They chose not to even try to have this conversation, as they have instead placed the onus on Nevadans outside “The Building” to do what the legislators whom voters elected to legislate won’t do.
Why are fiscal notes such a big deal in the Legislature, and why is this such a big problem?
One of the dirtiest and worst kept secrets in Carson City is this: If a lobbyist or some other vested “stakeholder” wants to imperil a bill, all one must do is attach a fiscal note. What otherwise seems like such a simple concept – assessing the costs associated with a bill – all too often becomes the ultimate “kiss of death” simply because legislators are afraid of their otherwise simple policy bills being twisted into “budget busters” that are left in the purgatory known as “the money committees” (remember: the main job of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees is putting together the state budget) until the Nevada Economic Forum releases a final tax revenue forecast that also functions as legislators’ excuse to either proceed with these policy bills or kill them softly in “the money committees”.
All too often we see bills pertaining to crucial issues, such as fixing our state’s historically insufficient health care system, updating our state’s outdated formula for funding public education, protecting our state’s natural resources, and even ending institutionalized racism in our state’s criminal justice system, the mere attachment of a fiscal note and/or the mere fear of spending money to implement a policy may prove to be a stronger determining factor for a bill’s success or failure than the bill’s actual policy merits.
Here’s where we return to our state’s chronic fiscal woes. Not only is Nevada’s antiquated tax structure a problem for the state’s budget, but this problem also spills into larger questions of racial justice, climate action, economic justice, gun violence, and so much more. As long as this antiquated tax structure remains in place, Nevada might make some occasional progress on the above-mentioned issues, but that progress will always be threatened by “concerns” over a bill’s cost.
Speaking of policy matters, where is the Nevada Legislature on policy bills?
Nearly a month ago, State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) dropped a bit of a surprise bill with SB 420, which aims to establish a Nevada Public Option program that essentially requires insurance companies who provide insurance plans under the state’s Medicaid, Public Employees’ Benefits Program (PEBP), and/or workers’ compensation to offer similar insurance plans on Nevada Health Link. So far, SB 420 is moving towards a Senate floor vote. But as I hinted at above, it’s only moving now because Cannizzaro agreed to an amendment to drop requirements for Medicaid to expand health care coverage for pregnant women.
Staying in Senate leadership, State Senator Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) has introduced an omnibus climate and energy bill, SB 448, that includes tax incentives for renewable energy storage facilities, expansion of rooftop solar for commercial and multi-family residential complexes, and a mandate for a $100 million investment in electric vehicle charging stations. While several of these provisions seem like laudable upgrades, these largely fall in line with what NV Energy has already committed to do with its Greenlink Nevada project. Just four years after the Legislature appeared to distance themselves from NV Energy on the expectation that Question 3 was on track to become law, they’ve simply shifted from entertaining fanciful visions of “energy choice” to catering to NV Energy’s whims and fancies without pursuing an alternative approach to energy regulation. SB 448 passed the Senate unanimously last Friday, so it’s a pretty safe bet that Brooks’ omnibus energy bill is on the glide path to Sisolak for his signature.
Almost two months after Governor Steve Sisolak and Democratic legislative leaders promised some kind of action to ensure a “soft landing” upon the expiration of Nevada’s state residential eviction moratorium at the end of this month, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) finally introduced AB 486 last Thursday. AB 486 calls for Nevada courts to “stay certain proceedings for evictions under certain circumstances where a tenant who has defaulted on payment of rent has a pending application for rental assistance”. Though this still places the onus on tenants in need, this at least allows more tenants to have an easier time resolving their cases should they land in court.
And as I hinted at earlier, any remaining hopes of further criminal justice reform after last year’s 32nd Special Session have become a final game of inches following Senate Democratic leaders’ decision to kill AB 395 (death penalty abolition) earlier this month. The bail reform bills (SB 369 and AB 424) both passed second house on bipartisan votes of approval last Friday after both bills were amended to provide loopholes to keep more of the accused incarcerated, and AB 440 (banning the detention of defendants accused of non-violent misdemeanors) passed the Senate on a 12-9 party-line vote last Friday.
Policy matters, continued: How the Legislature’s approach to gun violence prevention is just another example of the overall dynamic
In July 2018, we took a closer look at the emerging fights over how to regulate 3D printed guns, also known as “ghost guns” due to their ability to elude background checks and other gun safety laws that are currently on the books. In 2021, Assembly Member Sandra Jauregui (D-Henderson) introduced AB 286 to prohibit the sale or transfer of unregistered “ghost guns” and make it easier to remove individuals carrying unwanted guns from their premises. That latter section was eventually amended out of the bill, and it passed the Senate on a party-line 12-9 vote last Friday.
But as is often the case in the Legislature, certain bills and policies that seem to be “dead” can suddenly be resurrected and led out of the tomb, so long as such bills “know the right people” in the Legislature’s lobbyist lounge. Such is the case with SB 452, Cannizaro’s bill that proposes a narrower expansion of just casinos’ ability to remove trespassers from their property should they be carrying unwanted guns into the property. Unlike AB 286, where we see the typical clear-cut and party-line division over gun violence prevention legislation, SB 452 scrambles that up and pits MGM Resorts and Everytown against a coalition of gun lobbyist groups who oppose any and all gun safety regulations, as well as more progressive/leftist criminal justice reform activists who fear that casinos and law enforcement agencies will abuse this law to target vulnerable communities. And when it comes to gun safety policies that have more potential to prevent more gun violence, such as universal gun licensing, we never even saw a BDR (or bill draft request) emerge.
Between MGM Resorts’ last-minute maneuvering on SB 452 and NV Energy hitting the jackpot with SB 448, we continue to see this dynamic where companies that can afford to hire armies of lobbyists and make huge campaign donations can not only “have conversations”, but ultimately direct these conversations’ outcome. In case anyone still wonders why I’ve harped so much on Nevada’s need for stronger campaign finance reform for the last decade, now you know.
At least one of them finally got #NVLeg trending on TikTok, but it’s going to take more than just viral videos to finally bring the whole Nevada Legislature into the 21st century.
Last Thursday, we discussed the challenge Nevada Democrats now face in proving to voters that it pays to have a fully blue “trifecta” running the state government. Yet thus far, the “trifecta” that has so far provided more bang for the buck has been the one in Washington, D.C., thanks to President Joe Biden’s and Congressional Democrats’ commitment to get the American Rescue Plan across the finish line.
While Nevada’s Democrats in Congress came to their state-level counterparts’ rescue with some badly needed state and local aid, they ultimately can’t legislate for the Nevada Legislature. And especially as long as structural hurdles like the U.S. Senate’s filibuster remain in place to hamper U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto’s (D) and Jacky Rosen’s (D) ability to pass bills in that chamber, this is when we really need our state legislature to run on all cylinders to advance better policies.
So far, one of my favorite highlights from the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature has been Assembly Member Selena Torres’ (D-Las Vegas) foray onto TikTok. After many years of critics calling out legislators and other political insiders for conducting official government business in a place that’s physically so removed from the vast majority of Nevadans and their everyday lives, here’s a legislator who harnesses the power of the internet to give Nevadans a better view of what’s happening there.
But then again, even this feels like the government we want to have instead of the government we actually have. While it’s great to have a legislator take the initiative to bring more of “the people’s house” to the people this house is supposed to serve, we still have far too many examples of this house’s insufficient service. So far, the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature remains on track to cement its reputation as “the session of missed opportunities”, and we’ll have to wait and see whether Nevadans decide to take future opportunities to make the kind of changes that can resonate above and beyond our TikTok “For You” pages.