Democrats had their chance and they took a pass. Now what?

December 15, 2022 7:30 am

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, and Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2019. (U.S. Rep. Dina Titus social media photo).

The only time a Democrat was elected governor of Nevada in this century was when Donald Trump was president.

Maybe Nevada Democrats will get lucky, and the next time the governor’s race is on the ballot, in 2026, Trump will be president again.

In the meantime, several reforms and proposals that failed to get enacted – or in some cases weren’t even allowed to be debated – over the past four years when Democrats controlled the governor’s office and the Legislature now stand little to zero chance of being enacted into state statutes.

Nice work, everyone.

So are those measures, some progressive, some just common sense, left behind by Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic lawmakers dead for the foreseeable future?

Yeah, probably.

But maybe not necessarily.

Taking the initiative

Let’s pretend to play Jeopardy.

“This state that starts with the letters ‘Ne’ enacted a $15 minimum wage.”

The correct response: “What is Nebraska?”

Nebraska voters last month easily approved a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026.

Nevada’s minimum wage is scheduled to top out at $12 in 2024. 

Asked in 2019, when Nevada’s minimum wage legislation was being passed, why the increase wasn’t bigger, Jason Frierson, the Democratic Assembly Speaker at the time, said the more modest increase was “palatable.” 

That 2019 legislation, along with a companion state constitutional amendment Democratic lawmakers propped up in front of Nevada voters so they could approve it last month, both clarify that the current minimum wage is a floor, not a ceiling. Nevada lawmakers can raise it if they want.

Maybe they’ll propose doing that in the 2023 session. Raising the wage is popular with voters everywhere (it was approved in radical woke socialist Nebraska with nearly 60% of the vote), so Democrats could have some fun by making the Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, veto it. 

Counting on Lombardo’s veto, and falling just short of having veto-proof majorities in both houses (much to their relief), Democrats could simultaneously wink and nod to politically powerful business interests that don’t want to pay workers more (or as politicians and the media call them, “stakeholders”). See? Still palatable after all these years.

Earlier this year, citing something he spotted at a fast food restaurant – “the sign said $18 to start” – Sisolak declared that the minimum wage “kind of took care of itself.”

There are still a lot of people working for less than $18. Or less than $15. 

Wages haven’t been keeping pace with inflation.

To the degree wages have been rising, they are rising from wages that in terms of purchasing power were stagnating or falling behind for decades.

And the top priority of the nation’s most powerful financial institution, the Federal Reserve, is assuring that people aren’t earning more – by the Fed’s estimation – than they should. That’s why the Fed has been raising interest rates.

Sisolak’s anecdotal research at an In-N-Out notwithstanding, the minimum wage hasn’t taken care of itself. Raising it only to $12 an hour by 2024, Sisolak and Democratic lawmakers didn’t take care of it either. Not even close.

They addressed the issue weakly,  almost as if they were reluctant to address it all.

That’s in keeping with a long-time tendency of Nevada Democrats to focus not on the economy, but on businesses. They honor and accept a variant of trickle-down economics whereby if only the right businesses are rewarded, prosperity will make its way to working households.

Democratic cheerleading for the football field and the battery factory stand out as prime examples. But when assessing the outlook elected Nevada Democrats bring to economics, it is always worth remembering that during the Great Recession, their centerpiece policy to rescue a Nevada economy in tatters was … wait for it … film tax credits.

Nevada’s minimum wage is too low. It’s a drag on wages all throughout what remains largely a low-wage economy.

But if Nevadans want a minimum wage policy that is not merely palatable but beneficial, they’ll probably have to do it themselves, through a ballot initiative. Like Nebraska just did.

But wait there’s more

Other things that Democrats didn’t get done while they had the chance include but certainly are not limited to:

  • Rent stabilization, along with inclusionary zoning which requires developers to build affordable housing if they’re going to get permitted to build what they really want to build – high-profit mini-McMansions in prosperous neighborhoods with lots of charter schools.
  • Clarifying that local governments have the authority to institute rent stabilization, inclusionary zoning and other housing affordability measures, and needn’t wait (and wait and wait) for the Legislature to enact such measures, which they probably never will. This should be low-hanging fruit, because it’s just the state passing the buck to – or empowering, if you prefer – local governments. And yet when they controlled All The Things and had the chance, state lawmakers were afraid to touch it. Perhaps it was something the housing industry said.
  • Ending the death penalty. Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a Republican governor can sign this bill. Sisolak wouldn’t even allow it to land on his desk.
  • Capping interest rates charged by predatory payday loan stores. Nevada is the second most expensive state in the nation for payday loan borrowers, with effective annual percentage rates north of 600%. Nevada is one of a handful of states that doesn’t cap interest rates on such loans.
  • Capping the growth of charter schools, an industry whose growth has been allowed to skyrocket in Nevada with weak regulatory monitoring and relatively scant legislative attention.
  • Stopping the economic “incentive” race to the bottom, where tax breaks are bestowed on virtually every new or relocating company, and public subsidies are ladled to already deep-pocketed enterprises that don’t need public subsidies.

As with the establishment of a responsible minimum wage, perhaps the only way some of these will ever be enacted is not through legislation, but the initiative process where voters can decide. That’s how some of this stuff became law in other states.

You’ve probably heard the argument that says the initiative process is terrible and horrible and no good and very bad – that These Very Important Decisions are what legislators are for, and so should be left to them.

Eh. They had their chance.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson 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 author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.