Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Legislators’ few hits offset by embarrassing misses


Cathleen Allison / AP

Nevada Sens. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, top, and Greg Brower, R-Reno work during a break on the Senate floor at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., on Sunday, June 2, 2013. Lawmakers continue working long hours as the final, end-of-session deadline of midnight Monday approaches.

Click to enlarge photo

J. Patrick Coolican

I’ve been accused of being a Kenyan-born, Muslim socialist. The truth is, however, my aims are far more moderate — for Nevada to be a little more like Massachusetts, though of course retaining our cherished ideal of ready access to guns, booze and the craps table.

Why Massachusetts?

The birthplace of the revolution has had some of the best schools in the nation for years and — thanks to Mitt Romney — near-universal health insurance, too. It’s a high-tax state (the horror!) and in another way basically a mirror of Nevada — at the top of the good lists and the bottom of the bad lists. More college graduates, fewer criminals.

If you don’t like Massachusetts, there’s always Maryland, Iowa or Colorado.

Insofar as Nevada’s Democratic majority shares this modest goal of mine, how did they perform during the recently ended legislative session?

On the social issues — beginning the long process to approve gay marriage, establishing medical marijuana dispensaries, allowing driving privilege cards for undocumented immigrants, and a modest gun control measure to require background checks of all private firearm sales — they did fine. They mostly followed public opinion, and particularly that of the Democratic base, but in any event, they got the job done.

There was one social issue where they Legislature completely failed. They blew an opportunity to begin doing something about our mental health care crisis.

One of their own members, Assemblyman Steven Brooks, allegedly threatened Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and was briefly institutionalized before winding up in a California jail. At the same time, Nevada was accused of dumping patients on other states in a series of embarrassing media reports. After that, University Medical Center reported being overrun with patients in crisis.

If not now, when?

The Legislature should have held high-profile hearings — both in Carson City and here in Las Vegas — calling experts as well as those directly affected by our epidemic of untreated mental illness, which includes patients and their families, police and health care providers.

On tax and spending issues, the Legislature was similarly ineffective.

Legislators did pass Senate Joint Resolution 15 for the second consecutive session, which means in 2014 voters will decide whether to remove the mining industry’s enshrined place in the state constitution and eventually raise the tax on gold, the state’s undertaxed, nonrenewable resource. It’s not clear the Legislature would have acted without a motivating shove from Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, the Henderson Republican who became the mining industry’s toughest foe. But whatever. They got there in the end.

That won’t yield revenue for years, if ever, however.

Not only did Democratic leaders fail to secure any meaningful new money for education, their efforts were amateurish.

They came into the session with no evident plan. They knew they needed Republican votes to overcome an expected veto from Gov. Brian Sandoval.

When the Republican Roberson offered a plan to tax mining, the Democrats, for whatever reason, ignored his entreaty.

Then, with just weeks left in the session, the Assembly and Senate released dueling plans that didn’t raise enough money while failing to address the other key flaws in our tax system, which relies too heavily on tourism and is one of the most regressive in the nation, meaning it taxes the poor at much higher rates than the rest.

The roll-out of the Assembly plan to tax fun activities such as movies — paired with a spectacularly ill-timed trip to the Legislature by Nic Cage to argue for tax cuts for movie productions — was so bad that it almost seemed intentional, some sort of three-card monte that I wasn’t following.

The Legislature only meets 120 days every other year. Legislators need to use the moment to build a policy narrative that over time will yield results.

Think of Ted Kennedy or our own former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley. They could hold a highly publicized hearing to drum up support or outrage, craft a policy and then work their colleagues of both parties — with the press and the public as the wind at their backs — to pass legislation, be it Kennedy expanding health care and deregulating the trucking industry, or Buckley cracking down on health insurers or payday lenders.

Finally, while I acknowledge I was viewing it from afar, the whole process looked as screwy as usual, a bunch of headless poultry running about, or college kids cramming for the exam, up all night, missing the deadline.

If you’re the party that believes government is an important tool for social progress and you’re asking the voters to put their faith in that idea, it helps if you don’t embarrass yourselves, and us.

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