Summer session should make itself useful, get a jump on constitutional amendments

sun sets
(Photo: Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau).

There are a couple ways to amend Nevada’s constitution. The initiative process takes two successive elections, and given the calendar anything proposed now couldn’t be passed until 2024 at the earliest. The legislative process requires two successive sessions, and then an election, which under usual circumstances would again mean nothing proposed now would pass until 2024 at the earliest.

This summer’s special session of the Legislature could jump start the process and allow voters to approve amendments in November 2022.

Changing the state constitution two and half years from now won’t immediately relieve pain people are suffering in the current crisis.

But the pandemic has exposed countless inequities and injustices, systemic failures that were leaving people behind and making life harder than it needs to be long before there was a Covid-19. Ever since the coronavirus began turning everything upside down and inside out, a lot of people, including Nevada’s governor, have expressed optimism that when we emerge on the other side, it will be into something better than what we had before. 

Constraints injected into the state constitution to serve powerful industries and outdated ideologies severely limit Nevada prospects for post-covid improvement. Rather, those constraints guarantee the new new normal will be even worse than the old new normal. Nevada’s constitution isn’t a feature, it’s a bug.

Gov. Steve Sisolak initially said a special session of the Legislature would be held in June, but pushed that back and has yet to announce a date. Nor has he set the session’s parameters, which will be up to him.

Advocates and some lawmakers have said, rightly, the scope of the session should include criminal justice reforms as well as a broader response to the economic collapse. But the session’s primary — perhaps sole — focus will be reactionary, responding to the crisis with budget cuts. Some industries are doing well despite, or even because of, the coronavirus. They could be called on to help Nevadans when they need help most and ameliorate at least some of those cuts. There is no indication Sisolak and legislative leaders have come anywhere near the vicinity of considering anything of the sort.

But the governor and Democratic lawmakers could still make the special session productive, and not just an exercise in misery, by getting a head start on, as Sisolak has put it, the need to “reinvent, reinvest and reenergize our state for future success.” 

A reinvented, reenergized and successful post-corona future is one where prosperity is broadly shared and working Nevadans enjoy a better quality of life. 

That will require changing the state constitution.

How to amend the constitution as early as 2022

Legislators could vote to agree to a proposed constitutional amendment in a special session this summer. “The Legislature then next to be chosen” as the state constitution puts it, i.e., the regular session of the Legislature that will start early next year, could approve the proposed amendment again. And the proposed amendment would be on the 2022 general election ballot for voters to approve.

One caveat. Article 16 section 1 of the state constitution specifies that after legislators approve it the first time, a proposed amendment “shall be published” at least three months before the election that selects the next Legislature.

In other words, to amend the Nevada constitution as early as November 2022, the current Legislature would have to approve the proposed amendment no later than August 3. So that’s something to think about when Sisolak sets a date for the special session.

Wait. What amendments?

Nevada’s constitution, like many state constitutions, is a bloated document, stuffed with special-interest minutiae and constituent-rousing or organization-building contrivances that belong in statute, if anywhere at all, not in a constitution. No doubt there are many parts of it many people would like to change (perhaps not least the timing and location of legislative sessions).

But given the times we’re in and their dire consequences for the foreseeable future, some changes are especially trenchant and urgent.

The low-hanging fruit. The no-brainer of course is an amendment to remove the cap on mining taxes. Legislators put this amendment on the ballot once already in the last decade. It failed by the slimmest of margins, but only because the Nevada Democratic Party effectively declined to participate in the 2014 election and so the only people who showed up to vote that year were Elko County Republicans (that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one). Get this on the ballot in 2022 and it’s a slam dunk.

The Jim Gibbons amendment. There are 63 people in the Nevada Legislature. Under a constitutional amendment spearheaded by the failed former governor as he was polishing his political brand in the 1990s, all it takes to kill any tax hike is eight of them. 

Whenever asked about raising taxes, Democratic legislators are quite fond of saying they would love to provide more funding for vital programs and services, but they can’t because this part of the constitution requires approval from a two-thirds majority in both houses. Democrats point to this constitutional condition so eagerly a skeptical person might conclude they secretly love it — they can placate their base (“yes we need more money for education and mental health systems and many other things”) while not upsetting so-called swing voters and/or campaign contributors (“but we can’t raise taxes because of the two-thirds rule so why even talk about taxes let’s talk about Republicans instead”).

If Democratic legislators’ frustration with the Gibbons amendment is sincere, they’ll try to get rid of it. 

Yes, let’s go there. Some states attract business, industry, quality jobs and a highly skilled workforce by pointing to their educational systems and other public services and amenities that build prosperity and enhance quality of life for their citizens.

Others don’t.

Historically, Nevada’s efforts to attract a broader diversity of industries and build a more textured economy has consisted mostly of saying “we don’t have an income tax.” (More recently, the state has turned to subsidizing companies and billionaires that don’t need subsidies, despite scant evidence, and that only anecdotal, that such subsidies make any difference to relocation decisions). 

Nevada’s recovery from the Great Recession of a decade ago was marked by low wages. Few states suffer as much economic disparity and income inequality as Nevada. The state’s largest single source of general fund revenue is also the most regressive tax jurisdictions can enact: the sales tax. So not surprisingly Nevada  has one of the nation’s most regressive tax systems, where the lower a family’s income, the larger the percentage of that income is paid in taxes.

In Nevada income inequality isn’t just a condition. It’s a constitutional mandate.

Nevada should have a progressive personal income tax, one that nobody pays unless their income is at least, say, $100,000, and then only at a small rate, but one that increases for those with even larger incomes.

Nevada’s constitution bans a personal income tax. It shouldn’t.

But wouldn’t all this be perilous for Democratic politicians?

Yup.

It would require tenacity and dedication even beyond that demonstrated in Nevada’s long-cherished standard for excellence in state governance, i.e., passing yet another inadequate budget but doing it in an organized and timely manner.

It would require leadership — not the kind politicians obtain by catering to public opinion’s lowest common denominators and getting elected to something, but the kind politicians occasionally earn by literally leading and shaping public opinion in aim of policies that promote and serve the public good.

Is that going to be a problem?

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.