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December 14, 2018

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Nevada lawmakers begin laying out priorities for Democrat-controlled Legislature

Nevada Legislature

Chris Kudialis

The Nevada State Legislature building is pictured on Friday, June 2, 2017.

Democrats are looking at gun reforms while Republicans are seeking common ground on education, Nevada lawmakers say as they prepare for the new legislative session.

Lawmakers are set to meet in February for the first time since they adjourned their biennial session in June 2017. Democrats this year took a supermajority in the Assembly and kept control of the Senate, as well as taking over the governor’s office, leaving a smaller number of Republicans to push for GOP priorities.

Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson said Nevada Democrats are looking at ways to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, as well as finding out what changes the Legislature could make to implement the state’s voter-approved gun background check law. The law seeks to close a loophole for background checks on private gun sales, but has gone unenforced without FBI cooperation.

“(There is) almost a mass shooting every week now,” Atkinson said. “There needs to be something done locally on bump stocks and extended magazines.”

Atkinson said Democrats are also discussing criminal justice reform, a priority for the last session. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said he wants to take another look at record sealing for certain marijuana convictions, one of the 41 bills vetoed last session by outgoing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

In his veto message, the governor cited two other record-sealing bills signed into law in 2017 and said he didn’t see the need for a separate bill on marijuana. Frierson said legislators need to discuss the fact that people have been incarcerated or are being prevented from getting jobs due to convictions for amounts of marijuana that are now legal under state law.

“We have an obligation to look at that,” Frierson said.

A report expected from the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice will help determine other criminal justice bills, Frierson said.

Sandoval’s vetoes last session are topped only by former Gov. Jim Gibbons and his 48 vetoes in 2009. Republicans referenced those bills on the campaign trail, saying the Republican governor was a check on the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Atkinson said Democrats are looking at the vetoes and considering which bills may be reintroduced in 2019.

Bipartisanship will be vital, especially in the Assembly where Democrats have a supermajority, said newly elected Assemblyman Tom Roberts. The co-deputy minority leader took over the seat held by Republican Paul Anderson, who left the Legislature to become executive director at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“In a super minority, it’s the only way you can get good legislative policy passed,” said Roberts, a former legislative liaison for Metro Police.

Education

Republicans have long pushed to fund Education Savings Accounts, an issue Democrats are unlikely to budge on given their majority and a Democrat in the governor’s office. Sisolak campaigned on not taking money away from public schools, a central argument against funding programs like ESA’s.

Under a Republican governor, some members of the GOP wanted any budget vetoed and a special session called if ESAs went unfunded in 2017. Republican Sen. Joe Hardy said Republicans would like to get ESAs funded, but that they would somehow need to win over Democrats on the concept.

“The majority in the Democratic world will have to see some rationale that makes it more palatable to them than it did in the past,” he said.

Lawmakers reached a compromise to make a one-time infusion of millions of dollars into Opportunity Scholarships, which students can apply for if their families have an income level no higher than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Frierson said that level of support for the program will not be maintained this session, but that lawmakers will be mindful of those who were able to enroll in the program due to the temporary boost in funding.

“Nobody has proposed to repeal the Opportunity Scholarship structure in and of itself, but because it was a one-time allocation, how much is going to be allocated moving forward is going to be part of the legislative process,” Frierson said.

Atkinson said Democrats have not shown interest in funding ESAs in the past, and he doesn’t see that changing this session. The party is looking at legislation that would implement a weighted funding formula in the state. Last session, lawmakers passed a temporary weighted formula.

Democratic Sen. Mo Denis is working on a weighted funding formula bill for the 2019 session, Atkinson said. Lawmakers will also discuss making sure the portion of marijuana tax money going into the rainy day fund goes toward funding education.

“There’s an appetite in our caucus to make sure we pursue that,” Atkinson said of a weighted funding formula. “The tax revenue from recreational marijuana, which was going to the rainy day fund, there will be quite a bit of discussion on that and trying to see how we fund education with those monies as well.”

Sanctuary policies

The Democratic caucus has not discussed proposing a sanctuary bill that would in any way seek to limit or ban local and state agencies from participating in federal immigration enforcement, Atkinson said.

Republicans on the campaign trail this year talked about the threat of sanctuary policies under Democrats, referencing a so-called sanctuary bill introduced last session that failed to move forward under Democratic leadership.

“That has not been discussed in our caucus,” Atkinson said of the possibility of a sanctuary bill.

Renewable energy

A bill will be introduced again this session seeking to raise the renewable makeup of the state’s energy consumption, Atkinson said.

Roberts and Hardy said Republicans are open to discussions on requiring more energy consumed in the state to come from renewable sources. A higher RPS was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor in 2017, who cited uncertainty under the Energy Choice Initiative.

This year, 59 percent of voters approved a ballot measure raising the RPS to 50 percent renewables by 2030. Voters would need to approve it again in 2020.

“It’s going to be up for discussion this session,” Roberts said. “I’d be definitely willing to look at it because it seems that our constituents want it.”

Atkinson said his bill may have the same standard as the ballot initiative that passed this year, which would need to be approved again in 2020 before it can become law. He said it may be higher, possibly calling for 100 percent renewables by 2050.

“I plan on doing something this session,” Atkinson said. “I don’t know if we need to wait for the initiative to pass again.”

Recalls

After unsuccessful attempts to recall three female senators, two Democrats and one independent who caucused with Democrats, Atkinson said lawmakers may consider changing the law to require a reason to be declared by those pursuing a recall.

Atkinson said that as of now, recalls can be filed without any reason given. This can lead to an abuse of the process, he said.

“You’ve got to have a reason, I think that’s step one,” Atkinson said. “Those will have to be discussions during the session.”

Redistricting

The 2020 Census will set the state up for reapportionment and redistricting in 2021. Some states pursued independent redistricting commissions this year to put the process in the hands of a bipartisan or nonpartisan body rather than lawmakers who belong to the major parties.

Nevada is not one of those states pursuing an independent commission. A court had to intervene in 2011 after the governor and Legislature reached a deadlock on proposed maps.

Experts say Democrats are just as capable of gerrymandering, or unfairly drawing districts to ensure a majority of voters for their party, as Republicans. The GOP has been able to draw maps in many states that mean Democrats have to earn more votes than in the past to pick up a seat.

While not as much of an issue in Nevada due to its court-drawn maps, an AP analysis shows the Assembly favors Democrats more than any other lower chamber in the country. Democrats clinched a supermajority in that chamber this year.

Atkinson said it would “take a lot” for Democrats to lose control of the Legislature come 2021, and that the party is not considering putting the reapportionment process in the hands of an independent commission.

“I don’t think you’ll see any appetite from the Democrats to give up our control and authority over the maps at this point,” he said. “I don’t see that we would get enough votes from our members to change that.”

Health care

Hardy said that people are interested in access to affordable health care and that lawmakers should discuss bracing for possible federal cuts to Medicaid. Sandoval was the first Republican governor to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, extending insurance to roughly 200,000 residents.

Frierson pointed to the so-called Sprinklecare bill introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle last session. The bill would have created a Medicaid buy-in option for people if they pay the full cost of their coverage, and was vetoed by the governor. Sandoval said the bill “raises more questions than it answers” in an already uncertain insurance market.

Frierson said the state has to be prepared for potential cuts to Medicaid, while also recognizing the limited resources available to the state.

“We’re struggling to be able to provide adequate services and we are going to have to find a way to address that so we can keep doctors in Nevada but also so that we can continue to provide sorely needed services,” Frierson said.

First elected to the Assembly in 2002, Hardy said the GOP is focusing on priorities that can gain bipartisan support.

“The Republican Senate caucus is pretty well unified in trying to recognize that we need to be for things that are workable and good, and not just be against things,” Hardy said.

Frierson said he is not interested in making 2019 a referendum on 2017.

“I don’t think that this is going to be a reason to just wage war just because we can,” Frierson said. “We’re here to govern responsibly.”