Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2018

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The success and failure of the Nevada Legislature’s four new leaders


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Clockwise from top left, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas.

For the first time in recent history, four party leaders who had never experienced a leadership position ran the Nevada Legislature.

After term limits and higher political ambitions emptied the Legislature of its seasoned lawmakers, the Assembly and Senate were left in the hands of new caucus leaders, who had political responsibilities as well as the job of procedurally running the session.

Each had successes and failures at both tasks.

The most obvious breakdown: Lawmakers missed the midnight deadline after failing to manage the clock and broker political compromises on the last outstanding issues.

On the positive side, Democrats stuck together on enough big-ticket policy issues — guns, medical marijuana, marriage equality — to push through a progressive agenda.

And Republicans stayed united enough to block a significant tax increase and hand Gov. Brian Sandoval his $6.6 billion budget largely intact.

The Sun spent the past week interviewing lawmakers and lobbyists, asking them to assess the strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures of the Legislature’s four leaders during their inaugural session.

Here are the results:

    • Nevada Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, talks with Assembly Republicans, from left, Randy Kirner, Pat Hickey and Cresent Hardy on the Assembly floor at the Legislative Building Carson City on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Kirkpatrick unveiled some of the details Wednesday of her long-awaited bill revamping Nevada's live entertainment tax.

      Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick — Democrat

      Strength: Kirkpatrick came into the 2013 session known as a hard-working policy wonk who eschewed traditional political lines and, for the most part, embraced transparency. She largely continued in the mold, explaining the process at every turn to new lawmakers, allowing Republicans hearings on bills that typically hadn’t seen the light of day and holding committee hearings even when a time crunch made them difficult to do.

      “She was great to work with,” said Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks. “She went out of her way to be bipartisan. When there were difficulties, we tried to work through them.”

      Weakness: Sources almost universally had the same word to describe Kirkpatrick’s weakness: micromanager.

      In an unprecedented move for a speaker, Kirkpatrick required all committee bills receive her approval in advance. She tried too hard to work the details of every major policy, both in the Assembly and the Senate, instead of delegating to strong lieutenants in the caucus. As a result, she made promises she couldn’t keep and at times lost the bird’s-eye view of managing the session on a macro level.

      “You can’t keep your finger on every bill in the building and have it go well,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “No human being has that capability.”

      Success: She held her caucus together through some tough votes — including the gun and energy bills — largely through inclusiveness rather than threats.

      Failure: Kirkpatrick was unable to drive support for her signature issue: a revamped live entertainment tax. Even after dramatically scaling back her “fun tax” proposal, she was unable to get the bill out of committee.

    • Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey — Republican

      Strength: Hickey is known as a quiet-spoken, friendly fellow who had the definition of "hubris" posted on the wall behind his desk as a kind of warning against how to approach being a lawmaker.

      “He really bought into the bipartisan call that the speaker made in the opening of the session and tried hard to work in that direction,” veteran lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis said.

      Hickey also worked as a loyal lieutenant for Gov. Brian Sandoval, keeping his caucus mostly united behind the Republican’s budget approach.

      Weakness: Hickey’s strength may also be described as his weakness, particularly when it came to keeping happy a diverse caucus with a cohort of deeply conservative firebrands. Not all of his caucus liked the fact that Sandoval didn’t come out more strongly for their priorities, including prevailing wage and construction defect litigation reform.

      Others found his cozy relationship with Kirkpatrick to be troubling rather than productive.

      “I think Pat Hickey is in for trouble,” one lobbyist said.

      Success: If Democrats in the Assembly needed a two-thirds vote to pass a major tax increase, they had to convince just one Republican within their ranks. That didn’t happen, in part, because Hickey helped hold the more moderate lawmakers in his caucus behind the governor.

      Failure: Hickey’s caucus laid out several priorities at the beginning of session, including reforms to construction defect litigation laws, how prevailing wage is charged on public works projects and changes to employee retirement benefits. They got nowhere on any of them.

    • Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, answers media questions at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., on Monday, May 13, 2013. Senate Democrats are proposing a hike in the payroll taxes for large corporations and mining companies to raise money for education priorities. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

      Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis — Democrat

      Strength: In a session where stress and personality conflicts provoked many outbursts, Denis was the calming influence. As such, he earned near total loyalty from his caucus, with some members even giving him political cover on issues that could have cost him some base support.

      “It was really nice having a leader who was calm and didn’t take the bait so many times,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

      Denis also played to the strengths of his caucus, giving freshmen and seasoned lawmakers alike the freedom to distinguish themselves.

      “If you look at the rising stars of the new Legislature, a vast majority of them are senators,” one lobbyist said. “A lot of that reflects on Mo Denis letting their strengths be their strengths.”

      “Mo is almost the anti-Marilyn,” another lobbyist said. “If she is the consummate micromanager, he is the consummate delegator.”

      Weakness: Vassiliadis put it simply: “He’s got to get better at frankly being more cunning.”

      Denis is not a political animal and likely lost leverage points with Republicans by not playing the political game.

      Others said the mild-mannered Denis took too long to make a decision, missing opportunities and bogging down the process as a result.

      “In our world, you have to make decisions and be committed to that decision,” one lawmaker said.

      Success: A raft of progressive legislation made it through the Senate this year, including some that may have conflicted with Denis’ more conservative side. They included gun background checks, marriage equality and driver cards for immigrants here illegally.

      Failure: Despite working hard to build support, Denis and his caucus failed to move a proposed payroll tax hike, withdrawing the proposal almost immediately after making it.

    • Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson — Republican

      Strengths: Roberson was the most interesting lawmaker to watch during the session. He was never afraid to play around with process to try and eke out a win for the minority. He surprised Democrats and Republicans at nearly every turn and seemed to be the most creative thinker in the bunch.

      Roberson also was quick with exquisitely timed tongue-lashings on the Senate floor and seemed adept at exploiting the weaknesses of his Democratic counterparts.

      “Democrats didn’t seem to have a clear plan on what to do when they got here,” one Republican lawmaker said. “And that gave Roberson the opportunity to drive the debate. And he’s done that this session.”

      Weakness: Often, Roberson came off as both a bull in a china shop and a bully. His most generous critics described him as having almost genius ideas but no fully thought-out game plan to execute them.

      “He’s like a Ferrari with a couple of pistons not going off like they should,” one lobbyist said.

      His harshest critics called him a turncoat who abandoned his no-new-taxes mantra from last session and adopted a too liberal approach that alienated 40 percent of his caucus.

      “He was terrible,” one Republican lawmaker said.

      Success: In a move that surprised many, Roberson displayed restraint when the husband of Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse fell gravely ill. When she left to care for him, the Senate was thrown into a 10-10 partisan split with Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki as the tie-breaker.

      “He could’ve wreaked havoc in that place. He could’ve stopped anything,” Vassiliadis said.

      Roberson also was praised for his approach to bringing the early-morning special session to a quick close.

      Failure: At the beginning of the session, Roberson stated his primary objective was to pass reforms to the state’s law governing how construction defects are litigated. Not only did he fail to get his own bill through, he killed what had emerged as a compromise bill that had earned Republican support in the Assembly.

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