Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The tedious and sometimes politically explosive process of crafting the state budget will dominate both legislative houses and headlines over the next 120 days.
But as lawmakers slog through the decisions about what to fund, expect a number of socially contentious issues to pull at their attention.
From gun control to gay marriage, lawmakers will become embroiled in a slew of difficult issues that will attract more attention from constituents than will the state budget, but legislative leaders in both houses and in both parties say the debates over such social issues won't distract from their priorities: the budget, education and economic development.
While the side issues will have their day before the hearing committees, “we have more important things than that,” said Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas. “The budget and Medicaid expansion and funding education, that’s far more important than those other debates.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, declined to even address the issues or answer questions about his stance on them.
“I’m focused on budget, economic development (and) education issues right now,” Roberson said. “There will be plenty of time to discuss other issues during the session.”
Here’s a look at the top five social issues that will generate heated debate.
The mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six teachers dead, sparked a heated national debate about gun control that will spill over to the state level.
Nevada has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the nation.
Some lawmakers want them more restrictive; others, less so.
Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, said she will reintroduce legislation to allow concealed-weapon permit holders to carry guns on Nevada’s college and university campuses. That bill failed last session after heated debate on both sides of the issue.
Fiore is also co-sponsoring legislation to enact the so-called “castle doctrine,” expanding the definition of justifiable homicide.
Also in the mix is a bill sponsored by Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, that would further restrict access to guns by the mentally ill.
Horne is proposing legislation that would require statewide gun registration, prohibit the possession of armor-piercing ammunition, and enact an excise tax on guns and ammo that would fund mental health treatment in Nevada. Horne also wants to close the so-called gun show loophole, requiring private sellers to obtain a background check on their customers.
Driving privileges for undocumented immigrants
In an unlikely bipartisan scenario, both Democratic and Republican leaders rushed to outdo each other in proposed legislation aimed at attracting Nevada’s expanding Hispanic voting bloc.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, beat Republicans to the punch on the driving question and introduced legislation that would create a driving privilege card for undocumented immigrants. The card could not be used as official identification but would allow immigrants who came to the country illegally to legally drive and obtain liability insurance.
Roberson voiced strong support for the measure.
But it’s been a hot-button issue for voters, and some of the more conservative Republicans in the Legislature aren’t on board with the legislation.
The death penalty
Last session, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a bill to study Nevada’s death penalty. That bill was a compromise among those who wanted the death penalty abolished and those who didn’t want to go quite that far.
This session, Sandoval has proposed spending nearly $700,000 to build a new execution chamber at the state prison in Ely. The old chamber was abandoned when officials closed the state prison in Carson City last year.
The funding proposal has already sparked heated protests from Democrats.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. “(Sandoval) vetoed my bill last time to study the death penalty. That will be the first order of business. After that, we’ll see where it goes. But I don’t see any appetite to fund that death chamber.”
Last session, lawmakers stopped short of seeking a repeal of the constitutional amendment approved by voters to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Some activists were concerned a failure before voters a second time would cripple the effort to establish marriage rights for gays and lesbians in the future.
Instead, in a razor-thin vote after heated debate, they enacted a historic domestic partnership law.
But the public opinion tide is shifting on gay marriage.
In 2001, the year before Nevada voters approved the marriage question with 67 percent of the vote, 57 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life. Today, 48 percent of Americans favor it.
President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have both migrated in support of gay marriage rights.
Segerblom and Assemblyman Elliott Anderson, D-Las Vegas, have sponsored a measure that would put the question back before voters in 2016. The Legislature would have to pass the measure twice, and the governor has no veto power over resolutions.
“When it comes to gay marriage, the move in the country has been 180 degrees from where it was four years ago,” Segerblom said. “It’s hard to believe, but that’s the reality.”
Medical marijuana dispensaries
In 2000, Nevada voters legalized marijuana use for medical conditions and instructed the state to create a dispensary system. Lawmakers have failed to do so, meaning patients can legally possess marijuana but have no legal means of obtaining it.
Segerblom tried to address the issue last session, but the debate came too late in the session and failed.
This session, Segerblom is trying again.
Segerblom said he has support from some Republican legislators who have a libertarian streak.
“On medical marijuana, the far left and the far right are coming together; it’s just the middle not being there,” Segerblom said.
Not all Republicans are on board.
“Not at this time,” Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, responded when asked whether he would support Segerblom’s measure. “I will happily participate in the discussion about the pros and cons of legalization, which is what the real intention of the sponsor is all about.”