Friday, March 4, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
It looked like a slam dunk for Democrats: Get a jobs bill done during the early weeks of the legislative session — proof they were taking swift action to aid out-of-work Nevadans.
The plan was simple: Repurpose a bill that failed by the skin of its teeth last session, strip it of its more controversial elements and push it through.
It almost worked.
Assemblywomen Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, dusted off their bill from last session that would give contractors a bidding preference on public works jobs for employing Nevadans and using Nevada suppliers for materials.
If they could get Assembly Bill 144 passed quickly, it would apply to several school and road projects going to bid soon in Northern and Southern Nevada.
The bill sailed out of the Assembly with bipartisan support. Only one Republican voted against the Democrats’ signature legislation.
In the Senate, however, it has become mired in a years-long struggle by black activists to create public policy aimed at opening up the construction industry to black contractors and workers.
The bill isn’t dead, but the Assembly Democrats’ hope of getting it to the governor quickly have faded.
“It’s unfortunate because this bill is meant to put all Nevadans back to work,” Kirkpatrick said. “I worked for a year and a half on that bill.”
Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the committee working on the bill, said his intent isn’t to hold up the bill. “Believe me, I know the longer we hold this bill, the longer people will be unemployed,” he said.
But he said he isn’t going to rush a bill while ignoring constituencies that are part of Democrats’ base of support.
“These are people who helped a lot of us get into office — they’re out there knocking on doors and working for us,” he said. “The least we could do is listen to them.”
During the bill’s first committee hearing, black activists testified against it, persuading Kihuen to hold it so minority leaders could work with Kirkpatrick on an amendment.
Yvette Williams, chairwoman of the Clark County Black Caucus, which is working on an amendment, said she sympathizes with the desire to quickly address unemployment.
“We’re not working, either,” she said. “But we weren’t working even in the boom days. Our frustration is this is something we’ve been dealing with all along, not just since the economy went down.”
Williams said some studies indicate the construction workforce is only 1 percent black. A recent study by the Nevada Transportation Department found only 1 percent of Nevada firms able to do transportation work are owned by blacks.
“That’s a huge gap in employment,” Williams said.
In 2009, Kirkpatrick’s bill included language giving preference to minority firms. She said that language was partly responsible for its demise. (The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Jim Gibbons. The Legislature fell short by one vote in an attempt to override the veto.)
“It had the minorities, it had the veterans, it regulated purchasing,” Kirkpatrick said. “It had all of that in there. We had to narrow it down (to get it through).”
Williams doesn’t think her organization is asking for much, just a mechanism to track how many minorities and women get state and local government public works contracts.
“We’re not asking for quotas or a bidding preference,” she said.
But some Democrats think even that would be enough to sink the bill.