Smile, a whole lot of nothing is coming your way

Nevada’s legislative process is horribly wrong and no one will fix it

happy happy joy joy
Democratic Assembly members from Southern Nevada pose for pictures before filing to run for reelection Monday. (Photo: Hugh Jackson)

Happy Super Tuesday! Maybe Joe Biden will win many states. That might not please Nevada Democratic caucus goers, who gave Bernie Sanders a smashing victory in the state last month. But it would delight Harry Reid, who felt compelled to personally correct Nevada’s caucus results by endorsing Biden Monday.

We don’t know who will win the Democratic nomination, or whether that person will win the presidency, sparing the world from continued creepy Trumpeteering.

But here’s a safe bet: A year from now, when Nevada legislators are once again at camp in Carson City, a whole lot of nothing will be going on.

In addition to being the day when Reid made his anticlimactic, er,  electrifying endorsement of Biden, Monday was also the first day of filing for elected office in Nevada.

So Democratic legislators got dressed up for pictures and went down to the Clark County Government Center and signed up to … do what, exactly? 

Do you have an underfunded and long-neglected public policy priority? There is no excuse for you not to, since there are many for you to choose from in Nevada.

Education is the perennial favorite. But Nevada’s mental health services are by some measures the nation’s worst. Child care can cost more than college or rent, and state financial support for it is a pipe dream. So is state support for student debt relief.

And are public health services adequately funded in Nevada?

Looks like we’re about to find out. Meanwhile, wash your hands.

One could go on and on — public transit, elder care, a  judicial system that treats poor people as a revenue model.

But why bother? None of Nevada’s systemic policy failures that make like harder for working people than it needs to be will get fixed any time soon.

Nevada’s built that way.

To raise revenue — to raise taxes — in Nevada, you see, requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature. When last they met, in 2019, Democrats had such a supermajority in the Assembly, but not in the Senate.

“So much attention is being directed everywhere except the place that matters, and that is getting a Republican vote for revenue,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said a few moments before filing for reelection Monday.

That’s a happy thought. But even if one Republican senator (or more, depending on how many are needed to reach two-thirds after the 2020 election) could be persuaded to support new taxes, it would assuredly be a trifle of a tax that would fall far short of financing Nevada’s neglected needs.

Democratic state Sen. Chris Brooks suggested the surest path to progress is winning a supermajority outright in November.

 “A lot of the problems that we face in the state … require more funding, which would require more revenue. And so I’m just focusing solely on trying to get to a place right now where we have solid majorities in both houses, so that if there are opportunities to do anything with revenue, we have the votes,” Brooks said. 

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton was a little more cheery. No, seriously. She said that marijuana tax revenue as well as revenue from a tiny business tax established during the administration of Brian Sandoval five years ago are growing nicely, and will allow legislators to make, well, progress.

“We’re seeing things steadily increasing, steadily growing,” Carlton said, just cold refusing to accept rude suggestions from this interviewer that the revenue streams she’d highlighted, even if growing, are too little to allow the state to make desperately needed improvements, and in fact at best would allow the state to tread water.

Carlton did temper her rosy projections by noting state revenue will take a hit from the pandemic.

“What kind of impact might it have to Las Vegas? It’s a short term impact, but it’ll still be an impact,” Carlton said.

See? Pretty cheery. 

Unlike the last legislative session, Carlton added, the governor won’t be inheriting a budget from his predecessor, but gets to write one of his very own.

“We look at the budget a little bit differently than some of the previous administrations … we want the money on the ground helping families, not going to things like Tesla,” she said. 

In 2016 Carlton was among the super-minority of legislators who wanted the money on the ground helping families, not going to things like a football field.

There was no bigger champion for money going to things like a football field (instead of money on the ground helping families) than than the person who will be presenting a state budget, Gov. Steve Sisolak.

One of the more tingly vibes at Monday’s candidate filing shindig was the Democratic infatuation with the census. The more Democrats there are in the Legislature, the easier it will be for them to draw legislative districts that favor Democrats for the next decade.

It’s one way to get a two-thirds majority on a tax bill.

Looming over all of this is 2022, when the aforementioned stadium-loving, budget-writing governor will be up for reelection. Even if Brooks’ dream came true and Democrats won two-thirds majorities in 2020, nothing in Sisolak’s governorship so far indicates a willingness to sign off on any tax increase, save perhaps the aforementioned trifle, a tax measure so small (and ineffectual) that even a Republican could support it.

If the two-thirds majority is as much a hindrance to progress as Democrats say it is — and it is — how come they’ve never made even a hint of a move to try to get it out of the state constitution? They might not have the votes to raise taxes, but they will have the votes to put a constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot.

They won’t. It would be fraught with political peril. Besides, there’s one thing about the supermajority requirement that a lot of Democrats secretly like: It’s a handy excuse for not doing anything that might upset campaign contributors, like, oh, raising Nevada’s smallest-in-the-solar-system gaming tax.

Democratic legislators laughed and smiled and cheered each other on as they filed to seek reelection Monday.

But when those lawmakers finish their next legislative session, working families with stagnant or falling incomes, and whose resources are stretched even thinner by a cheap state that neglects basic services, won’t be laughing or smiling or cheering about the results.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.