Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, said at the start of the legislative session that reforming the law governing how homeowners can sue for construction defects was at the top of his agenda.
But first he had to find a Democratic committee chairman who’d even be willing to entertain the idea.
In a legislative sleight of hand late Monday, Roberson succeeded in quietly slipping a duplicate of his construction defects bill into an unrelated measure that will be heard by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, whose chairman has said he’d be willing to give the issue a hearing.
Roberson is trying to rebalance the law in favor of homebuilders, who have long contended it favors trial lawyers by entitling litigating attorneys to lawyers' fees and by so broadly defining a construction defect that the cases are difficult for a builder to defend against.
His move Tuesday may have been a brilliant maneuver that prolonged the life of a measure the Democratic majority isn’t too keen on, or it may have so antagonized Democrats — who failed to see Roberson’s move coming and are mad about it — that it only further set back the Republican’s effort.
“I’m just exercising my rights as a lawmaker,” Roberson said, deflecting questions about whether he sought a friendlier venue for his bill. “I just introduced a bill and it was referred to the appropriate committee.”
Earlier this session, Democratic leadership agreed the Senate Judiciary Committee would hear all construction defect legislation.
And that’s just what happened in February. Roberson’s original construction defect bill, Senate Bill 161, was sent to the Judiciary Committee, where it is awaiting a hearing.
The problem for proponents of construction defect reform is Judiciary Chairman Sen. Tick Segerblom, a lawyer himself, has been vocal about his antipathy for the bill, which he essentially labeled as dead on arrival.
“As far as making it worse for homeowners? That’s not going to happen,” Segerblom told the Las Vegas Sun last month. “The Republicans’ goals? That’s just not going to happen.”
Rather than simply tilting the construction defects law away from trial lawyers and toward builders, Segerblom contends Roberson’s measure would make it more difficult for homeowners saddled with a new house full of construction problems to seek redress.
On the other hand, Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, the chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, has said he believes the bill deserves a fair hearing.
“I’m not taking a position on the issue, I just think it should get a hearing,” Atkinson said.
To get his measure in front of Atkinson, Roberson deftly timed his move, waiting until the deadline for bill introductions — usually a frenzied day in which lawmakers are consumed with ensuring their bills make it out of drafting.
On Tuesday, more than 100 bills were introduced in both houses, meaning lawmakers were not scouring the details of each measure — a fact Roberson was counting on.
Roberson drafted duplicate construction defect language and attached it to Senate Bill 411, a measure dealing with licensing mortgage lenders that was headed to the Commerce and Labor Committee.
Anyone who simply read the top line of Senate Bill 411 would see it as a mortgage lending bill and not construction defects.
In the final moments of a late-night Senate floor session Monday, the secretary read aloud a summary of Senate Bill 411 — including the mention of construction defects — and the Senate voted en masse to introduce it and refer it to Commerce and Labor.
Republicans sat on pins and needles wondering whether Democrats would notice their move.
Democrats did not. Not a single objection was raised.
“I made a mistake: I did not even read it,” Atkinson said later.
“I didn’t know it was happening,” Segerblom admitted.
Now, two construction defect bills exist: One belonging to Atkinson, who admits he’s more open-minded to the idea; and one belonging to Segerblom, who reiterated Tuesday he’s not of the mind to give the bill a hearing.
The question, however, is whether Roberson’s ploy will work.
On Tuesday, Atkinson pleaded ignorance when asked if he knew what Roberson was up to. He said he knew a portion of a construction defects bill was coming his way, but he didn’t know the entire measure would be hidden inside the mortgage lending bill.
And he said he has no intention of stealing the issue away from Segerblom.
“Sen. Segerblom has told me he will give it a fair hearing and we owe it to him to allow him to do that,” Atkinson said. “I wouldn’t disrespect Tick or the caucus by having a subsequent hearing on the same bill.”
But Segerblom has in no way agreed to even hold a hearing on the bill.
“It probably never hurts to try to get your bill in two different places, but I’m not sure it will make a difference to the outcome,” Segerblom said. “I don’t know if we’ll hear it. We’ve got 60 or more bills to hear and if there’s nothing new in there to change the world, I don’t know why we would hear it.”
In the past two sessions, lawmakers have killed construction defect reform bills. In 2009, a compromise measure — sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Terry Care — made it through the Senate, but it died in the Assembly.
It’s Care’s bill that Roberson is seeking to revive. But Segerblom considers the door closed on that measure.
If Segerblom doesn’t give the bill a hearing, would Atkinson? He equivocated a bit with his answer.
“At this current moment I have no appetite to hear the bill,” Atkinson said, smiling wryly when asked if he reserved the right to change his mind later.
Lobbyists on both sides of the issue are staying away from the political fight, worried about further antagonizing either chairman. Representatives for the building industry declined to comment.
One veteran lobbyist who has a peripheral interest in the effort described construction defects reform as being like “World War I."
“It’s trench warfare,” he said. “Each move you jump up a few trenches and then you get knocked back. I’m not sure whether this will move it up or back.”
Representatives for the trial lawyers aren’t too worried about it. While they were happy to have the bill in Segerblom’s committee, they see the Democrats’ irritation over Roberson’s ploy as anything but a setback.
As one lobbyist opposing Roberson’s construction defect effort said: “I’m just going to stand back and watch the implosion.”