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July 7, 2015

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Jon Ralston: Legislators compromise, but future not bright

Optimism, Gov. Sunny told us on the eve of Session ’11, is the foundation of courage.

I still don’t know what that means, but I know this: The resolution of the 76th Legislature sprung not from bravery but from fear. Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Gang of 63 were afraid of the impact of a stunning state Supreme Court decision, which catalyzed a collegiality and collaboration not seen in this all-too partisan place since the time of legendary leaders Joe Dini and Bill Raggio.

I do not discount that faced with a reality — or at least a perceived reality — imposed by the high court that every leader in this city rose to the occasion. An inflexible governor became malleable. A flame-throwing Senate majority leader turned off the blowtorch. A speaker resolved to go home without additional money engaged in fruitful negotiations. And the two Republican minority leaders released the pressure on their caucuses not to vote for extending taxes and managed to achieve some reforms they sought all session.

But all of this was a result of a startling judicial intervention, and we will never know if such compromise would have been in the air if it were still polluted by the toxic fumes of partisanship that pervaded the Legislative Building most of the session.

When all of the posturing and bragging concludes this weekend and lawmakers go home, we will be left with mind-numbing post-mortems about the Could Have Been Worse budget and the supposed betrayal of principles by Sandoval and Republicans who supported a tax compromise. And a look ahead shows many dark clouds on the horizon that Gov. Sunny cannot obliterate, as the impact of term limits and legislator ambition, along with a repeat of the serial failure to address the tax structure or infuse enough money into the system, give little reason for optimism.

It is facile to conclude that the Democrats won because they secured $620 million in additional taxes and had to give up very little. But there is more to it than that: A Democratically controlled Legislature snubbing the teachers union and other labor groups to pass education and collective bargaining reform? Unprecedented.

But let’s not go too far: The reforms are incremental and not necessarily game changing. They are a start. But lawmakers are still reforming a system that is so poorly funded that Clark County may have to lay off 1,000 teachers and increase class sizes while social service agencies will still have to turn away too many in need.

Democrats only were able to pass half of the additional revenue they wanted. Their plan to broaden the tax base, as thoughtful as it is, was quickly entombed because of their foolish delay in introducing it. And so the problem that has existed for decades remains: A tax structure built on a singularly narrow base, more prone to peaks and valleys and always hit harder during economic downturns.

So now what?

The worst of all possible solutions: An attempt to put the tax plan on the ballot, with major industries who want to broaden the base willing to spend millions to sell it and others surely salivating at funding the other, sound-bite (“no new taxes”) side. And so we will have a 2012 conflagration, with voters buffeted with an expensive, demagogic campaign.

Lawmakers who botched the management of their tax plan now want to abdicate their responsibility and ignore the very underpinnings of a republic — representative government. Why not put every tough issue on the ballot and let the people decide?

This is a collective failure, again because of fear. Fear of the no-new-tax crowd, a vocal minority that all polling indicates does not represent the majority of Nevadans.

Making this situation worse is that the 77th session will convene without seasoned lawmakers, continuing the decimation term limits have wrought. Three leaders of the 2011 session are likely to be gone in 2013 because of term limits (Speaker John Oceguera, Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness) or ambition (Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford). Only Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, the Eurekan who radiates common sense, is likely to remain — and he might face a challenge from the South.

There are some superb legislators who could ascend — Assemblywomen Debbie Smith and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, for instance. But this pattern is growing all too familiar — a fundamentally broken process that does not promote deliberation by an increasingly green crop of lawmakers who have increasingly difficult issues to decide.

I’d like to be optimistic that this will change. But with talk of abdicating responsibility to go directly to the ballot on the most pressing question for this state and with term limits shredding the legislative ranks, I fear the bipartisanship and cooperation were an aberration and, alas, not a harbinger.

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