Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, April 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
CARSON CITY — Maybe it was the procedural hijinks that redirected a priority bill to a friendly committee. Maybe it was when he plopped a surprise mining tax proposal in the laps of lawmakers; Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson has been a thorn in the side of the Democratic majority since the start of the legislative session.
But his machinations are more than just Roberson playing the role of a feisty minority leader looking for ways to stick it to Democrats.
On several key issues, Roberson has struck a populist stance, working to infiltrate traditional Democratic strongholds on policies that aren’t strictly partisan but that strike a chord with a wide swath of voters.
Roberson’s populist move is in line with his strategy during the 2012 election year, in which he recruited middle-of-the-road candidates in an effort to win the majority back for Republicans. He fell one seat short — a race that was lost by just 301 votes.
Indeed, his legislative strategy this session may be crucial to his efforts to win re-election next year and possibly succeed in taking back the Senate.
Roberson’s district is almost evenly split, with Democrats having a slight registration lead over Republicans.
To win in the general election, Roberson will have to prove he doesn’t hew strictly to a partisan line in the Legislature — even as he runs the risk of alienating the base of his own party and provoking a primary challenge.
Here’s a look at five issues on which Roberson is working to steal political ground from Democrats:
Funding for English-language learners
The chief cheerleaders for early education and education for English-language learners have traditionally been Democrats, but Roberson entered the fray with a bill that would provide $40 million for ELL classes in Clark County for pre-kindergartners.
Roberson said this legislation is a solution that came out of talks with the Clark County School District.
“We have 52,000 kids in the Clark County School District who are sitting in classrooms and cannot understand what the teacher is saying,” Roberson said of his pre-K English instruction bill. “The Clark County School District and the Clark County Education Association, they both agree that what is critical right now is to try to get these 4-year-olds so that by the time they get to kindergarten, they’re in a position where they can succeed.”
Roberson isn’t the only Republican to call for more ELL funding. Gov. Brian Sandoval has included $30 million in his budget for English instruction. Roberson’s bill goes further.
He said his proposal wouldn’t necessarily require a tax increase because the Legislature can decide what its spending priorities are within the state’s existing revenue.
Democrats call the $40 million proposal a “drop in the bucket” toward what is needed to truly address the needs of young students learning English as a second language.
Roberson initially played it coy on the question of whether Nevada voters should be given a chance to repeal Nevada’s ban on gay marriage in the state constitution, refusing to state a position until last week.
When he finally chose to articulate his stance, he differentiated his personal view of marriage from his public policy standpoint — much like some conservative Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, have done recently.
“I have always believed that marriage is a religious union between a man and a woman, and I have never understood why government has a role in this relationship,” he said in a written statement. “I support giving the voters the option of repealing this provision of our state constitution to ensure that we do not restrict civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Democrats have clearly led the charge on marriage rights, but Roberson is rejecting a more traditional Republican stance on the issue.
In a headline-grabbing maneuver last month, Roberson gathered six of his fellow Senate Republicans and dropped a legislative bombshell.
Roberson not only wants to remove the mining industry’s tax protections from the constitution, he wants to tax gold and silver mines more and funnel that money to education.
It’s a page straight out of the Democrats’ playbook. Last session, Democrats led the clarion call to increase mining taxes — an issue that had become popular with voters, particularly in recession-struck Southern Nevada.
But Democrats went strangely mute on the issue after Sens. Steven Horsford and Sheila Leslie left the Legislature.
Roberson stepped into that vacuum and has taken ownership of the push to tax mining.
In one hearing, he ran roughshod over mining lobbyists arguing against the effort to eliminate the industry’s tax protections.
“I have a lot of respect for your intelligence; I’m just not sure you have a lot of respect for our intelligence,” Roberson told one mining lobbyist. “I think you have misled the committee. ... We’re just not convinced by your arguments.”
Democrats remained largely silent during the committee hearing but put out a glowing press release moments after the measure passed out of committee.
Democrats haven’t exactly been beating the drum to keep water rates low, but when Roberson presented his bill to give the Public Utilities Commission jurisdiction over the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s rate-making decisions, a traditionally Democratic constituency took to the microphone to support the cause.
“We need to make sure the collection is fair and the proposed new expenditure of funds is both justified and most effective,” said Howard Watts, of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, in support of Senate Bill 232.
Roberson also has a leading Democrat, Sen. David Parks, as a co-sponsor of the measure.
The move isn’t exactly emblematic of a fight for the little guy. Roberson’s measure was prompted by outrage from business owners who saw their rates skyrocket while the increase on residential customers was limited.
Still, the call for more government regulation is typically the domain of Democrats, not Republicans.
Driver's privilege cards
Republicans took a beating with Hispanic voters in the November election — the past two elections, really.
As a result, they’ve looked for ways to moderate their policy positions on issues important to the voting bloc, which will only grow in power.
Shortly after the election last year, Roberson voiced support for a state policy that allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to young immigrants brought to the country illegally.
And when Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis announced his intention to introduce legislation creating a driver’s privilege card for immigrants without legal status in the United States, Roberson quickly jumped on board.
“A lot of immigrants in Nevada are on the roads now, whether it’s to get back and forth to school or get children back and forth to school or to go to work,” Roberson said at the time. “The fact that these immigrants may be driving without a license or card and without insurance, I think we can do better than that as a state.”
Roberson ultimately signed on as a primary co-sponsor of Denis’ Senate Bill 303.