Wednesday, June 1, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
How ironic that the Clean Water Coalition decision could have so muddied the political and legal waters here, washing away what was previously taken for granted and flooding the Legislative Building with conspiracy theories, ugly recriminations and personal lawmaking.
In so doing, the state Supreme Court has highlighted everything wrong with Nevada politics: the incestuousness of the political world, the conflicts inherent with citizen legislators and the tyranny of a determined minority.
As of Tuesday afternoon, it seems that an accord between Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature can be consummated before next week, even as all of the assumptions have been upended.
The governor’s no-tax pledge, thanks to a potential $657 million hole theoretically created by the court decision, has been replaced with a some-more-taxes promise. Legislative Republicans, who have been good soldiers backing the governor’s budget, feel as if the general led them to a cliff and then retreated. The Assembly GOP, which for weeks has fretted that resolute Senate Republicans would hang them out on lifting tax sunsets, are now much more resolved to blow up the session.
To understand how the legislative “process” works, understand that three members of the Assembly Republican caucus — out of 63 — held up a deal on the budget to extract more concessions on construction-defect lawsuits reform. They are empowered to do this by a caucus of 16 lower house Republicans, who long ago signaled they would vote to lift the sunsets for certain reforms. Now that caucus stands solidly behind the three, all of whom stand to benefit in their business lives from the legislation.
So because Pat Hickey, Crescent Hardy and Ira Hansen have had bad experiences with trial lawyers, the session ground to a halt after a deal appeared nigh. Democrats, frustrated that they have given in other reform areas such as education and collective bargaining, now see the GOP minority as taking advantage of the court decision and the governor’s new budget to extract more.
This is what happens when citizens instead of professionals are allowed to make laws, a necessary or unnecessary evil of such a system, depending on your point of view. Those three are hardly the only lawmakers with conflicts — and this practice of raising them at the end of sessions to move deals along is common. In a system rife with public employees voting on budgets that directly affect their employers and salaries, these may seem like misdemeanors.
But for that trio, egged on by major players in the construction industry such as Norm Dianda and Bruce King, to hold up the session, with the assent of Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea and the rest of the Assembly GOP caucus, seems dangerous. Imagine the argument: We stopped a budget resolution, and reforms in education, collective bargaining and public benefits because of a law that could help our personal business.
That’s spin you can take to the bank — and out of politics.
The real question is whether Gov. Sunny can turn into Gov. Strongarm and use the power of his office and the goodwill he has amassed to change their minds. Sandoval does not want to lift the sunsets, but says he does not want to take the chance the decision could be interpreted to affect many items in his budget and not just the water agency’s $62 million.
That’s a reasonable position, although some Republicans think he should have given them time to breathe after the ruling instead of what they see as immediate capitulation to what the Democrats wanted — more money in the budget. Others see not black helicopters, but the undeniable fact that Democrats here contacted the high court to try to release the decision at a propitious time, as the Las Vegas Sun’s David McGrath Schwartz has reported.
Those contacts are hypocritically ironic at least — the Democrats asking the court to reverse a money grab they pushed for in 2009 and insisted was legal because it benefits them now. At worst, those inquiries show a nudge-and-wink attitude endemic to the Nevada political system, one that fuels suspicion even when none is warranted.
But the hand has been dealt, whether from the bottom of the deck or not, and only one player has an ace in the hole. This is Sandoval’s deal to make and this could be a defining moment of his first session.
The governor has defined this session with his no-tax pledge, his GOP woodshed and his unflappable determination. Now that he has surrendered to the court decision, he needs to take control of the endgame.
The waters have been muddied by the Assembly Republicans and their unclean hands. It’s time for Sandoval to clean it up.