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February 23, 2019

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Criminal investigation, infighting underlie opening day in the Assembly

Legislature Opening Day

Lance Iversen / AP

Guests of Nevada Assembly members take photos of the lawmakers as they take the oath of office during the opening session of the Nevada Legislature on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, in Carson City.

Legislature Opening Day

Republican John Hambrick, left, greets Barbara Cegavske, Nevada Secretary of State, during the opening session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Hambrick was elected Assembly Speaker, which is the highest position in the lower house. Launch slideshow »

Plenty of warm gestures and other airs of bipartisanship wafted through the Nevada Legislature on Monday.

But the show of congeniality isn't likely to last in the world of the 78th Nevada Legislature.

All eyes were on the Legislature’s lower house on opening day. The Assembly has been in the national spotlight since the Nov. 4 election. The preponderance of drama in the chamber hinged on the political hierarchy. During the first-day pageantry, the statesmanship on display belied an extortion probe, infighting and split ideologies in the chamber.

Despite the controversy, Assembly lawmakers took a voice vote on electing Republican John Hambrick, a Las Vegas Republican, as its speaker — a hot-button issue since the Nov. 4 elections.

Without a whimper of dissent, Hambrick’s peers cemented his status as the Assembly leader.

That unanimous show of approval is a far cry from what’s swirling among Republican circles in the state.

Republican-sponsored political action committees, mailers and other recall efforts surfaced since the Nov. 4 election in an attempt to block Hambrick from taking the top spot.

The infighting stems from an ideological divide on tax hikes. Hambrick is seen as a moderate likely to push Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to bolster education funding by hiking business license fees and extending a $600 million tax package known as the sunsets.

Hambrick’s ideology has even spawned an extortion investigation led by Metro Police.

The department's criminal intelligence section said Assemblyman Chris Edwards reported to authorities he was "approached about changing his official vote” for Hambrick as the speaker.

Metro cast Edwards as the victim in the probe.

After winning the speakership Monday, Hambrick commented on the Metro investigation to the media.

He raised concerns that Edwards was wearing a wire during a caucus meeting but signaled his support for the Mesquite Republican. Edwards, a freshman lawmaker, won’t comment on the ongoing investigation but said it involves multiple people not located in his district. Both Edwards and Hambrick were targets of a recent mailer campaign that panned them as tax-raising Republicans.

This year marks the first time in 30 years that Republicans control both chambers. For a brief moment after the election, anti-tax conservatives had the reins of the Assembly. They lost control after the first person delegated to the speaker spot, Assemblyman Ira Hansen, backed away from the position after racially insensitive columns he wrote for the Sparks Tribune surfaced. Hansen was viewed as a conservative who would have thwarted proposed tax increases. Assemblywoman Michele Fiore carries the same anti-tax credo. She was slated as a majority leader and chairwoman of the chamber’s tax committee but lost those roles after reports that the IRS had filed more than $1 million in tax liens against her in the past two decades. Fiore says she now owes less than $100,000.

The first-day rhetoric of lawmakers politely evoked the dysfunction underlying the months since the election. The gathering was the first opportunity for Republicans to show solidarity in a session that’s already being defined by conflict.

Hambrick called for congeniality and addressed Sandoval’s tax hikes.

“We’ve heard the governor’s call,” he said. “We are going to sit down in committees. We are going to have a lot of hard work and discussion.”

Las Vegas Assemblyman Paul Anderson, the Republican majority leader, said the political divides have him “concerned.”

He implored his 41 Assembly colleagues to work in unison.

“Let us find solutions any way we can in places we may have been afraid to look before,” he said.

Legislative power plays and soap operas are nothing new to the Nevada Legislature, said Robert Uithoven, a Republican campaign strategist and lobbyist.

He said Democrats had their fair share of internal strife when they controlled the Legislature the last two sessions.

“It’s a natural thing in politics,” he said.

He said Assembly Republicans shouldn’t spend any more time quarreling internally.

The Assembly introduced 112 bills Monday. Uithoven said that was a step in the right direction.

“The Assembly proved today they can have an ordinary session and get to work,” he said.

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