Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Legislature 2013:

Despite their majority, Democrats trumped by Sandoval on budget but pleased overall with session


Cathleen Allison / AP

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, second from right, talks with lawmakers, from left, Sens. Aaron Ford and Barbara Cegavske, Assembly members Jason Frierson, Pat Hickey and William Horne and Sen. Ruben Kihuen after the end of the 77th Legislative session in Carson City, Nev., on Monday, June 3, 2013.

After handing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval a budget that funds nearly all of his priorities, some in the Democratic majority consoled themselves with one mantra: This is the most progressive Legislature in history.

Indeed, Democrats, who control both houses, pushed a number of liberal bills through the Legislature this session on issues lawmakers have largely been loath to broach before.

The gay marriage ban may be on its way to a voters repeal in 2016. Voters can decide whether to take mining’s tax protections out of the constitution in 2014. Immigrants here illegally will be able to get a driver’s authorization card in 2015.

A bill to require background checks on private party gun sales is on its way to Sandoval. Another measure would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to open in Nevada next year. And if fracking takes off in rural Nevada, a bill exists to regulate the controversial practice.

“It really is a sea change,” said Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who pushed many of the bills on the progressive agenda. “Last session, we couldn’t even get a hearing on marijuana.”

But the policy bills belie a major concession by Democrats, who caved in the final weeks of the legislative session to the reality that without a two-thirds majority, the Republican minority, backed by a Republican governor rules the day on the budget.

The two-year $6.6 billion spending plan approved by the Legislature is almost entirely what Sandoval proposed in January, with the exception of some changes to the higher education funding formula and the elimination of the pay cut for state employees.

The spending is backed by yet another set of “temporary” tax increases — $1.2 billion worth of revenue that will expire in two years, landing the governor and Legislature back at the same budget crossroads again in 2015.

The big tax increase ideas broached by Democrats at the start of the session — services tax, payroll tax, fun tax — died a quick death.

The majority’s last grasp at tax reform was a bill to create an interim committee to study the implementation of a “commerce tax” — an idea that quickly won ridicule since Nevada’s wobbly tax structure has been studied repeatedly for decades with largely the same result.

And a last-minute effort to pass a long-fought Democratic priority — capping emergency room costs for out-of-network insurance patients — failed because Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse had to rush to her gravely ill husband’s bedside, leaving the Senate at a 10-10 split.

But Democratic lawmakers don’t view the session as a failure.

Democratic leaders hammered the message that school districts needed more funding for education — namely for class-size reduction, English language learner programs and full-day kindergarten.

While Sandoval stopped short of funding those priorities to the level Democrats wanted, he directed most of the new money found over the past four months to those areas.

Democrats also patched together funding to eliminate a 2.5 percent salary cut that has plagued state employees since 2009, though six days of furloughs have been reinstated.

And Democratic lawmakers stood in the way of Sandoval’s priority project — a tax credit for businesses that contribute to a scholarship fund to give low-income students money to attend private school.

Still, even many of the smaller policy bills pushed through by Democrats face uncertain fates.

Sandoval will almost certainly veto the bill requiring gun sale background checks. The governor also has final say on the medical marijuana dispensaries — a measure he has not taken a position on yet.

Other measures will be decided by voters. Senate Joint Resolution 15, which would repeal mining’s tax rate from the constitution, will be on the ballot in 2014.

And the measure to repeal the gay marriage ban from the constitution must be passed by the Legislature again in 2015, before voters would get it in 2016.

Its passage this year, however, represents a significant shift from just four years ago, when a measure to create domestic partnerships faced intense opposition and barely passed.

Democratic leaders in the Assembly both said they don’t measure the success of the session in terms of a progressive agenda.

“I don’t look at it that way,” Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, “We got a lot of stuff done. We see how Nevada is changing and address their needs.”

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