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September 21, 2019

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State government:

Lawmakers have their plates full as they head into their 2019 session

Nevada legislature

Tom R. Smedes / AP

Gov. Steve Sisolak delivers his first State of the State Address on Jan. 16, 2019, at the Legislature in Carson City. On Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, the Legislature gets down to the business of governing when it begins its 80th session.

With Nevada lawmakers from both parties vowing to work across the aisle, the state may seem like an oasis amid the nation’s crippling political polarization.

But now, it’s time to find out whether that vision of bipartisanship is just a mirage.

On Monday, the 2019 session of the Nevada Legislature will get underway.

With Democrats in control of the governor’s office for the first time in 20 years, and with majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, the state certainly won’t be afflicted with the partisan dysfunction that has fractured Washington, D.C.

But that doesn’t mean there will be no tensions. The 2018 election didn’t erase stark philosophical differences between the parties over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, immigration, gun safety and gender equality. What’s more, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of legislative sessions can — and often does — create interparty fissures on such issues.

As lawmakers prepare to gavel in, here’s a look at what may be in store over the next four months in Carson City.

The Nevada Legislature meets every other year for 120 days. Most other states meet annually. What disadvantages does that present for lawmakers?

Several, but the upshot is that meeting for four months out of every 24 offers precious little time to address such complex challenges as improving the state’s struggling public education system, overhauling the mental health system and establishing comprehensive energy policies. It also makes the state less nimble in responding to annual changes in federal law.

And with all due respect to Nevada’s lawmakers, let’s not forget that they’re part-time legislators and that many have limited experience and expertise in complicated policy areas.

Granted, work can get done in interim committees, but that approach puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the leaders of those committees.

How about the advantages?

Well, Libertarians and tea party types love it — they think there are too many laws to begin with.

What are the Democrats’ priorities?

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s road map, which he laid out in his State of the State address, includes putting more money into public schools, defending the Affordable Care Act, raising the minimum wage and increasing gun safety through such means as expanding background checks and banning bump stocks.

What about for Republicans? What would signal a successful session for the state GOP?

A key target is Sisolak’s plan to maintain two taxes that were scheduled to sunset or be reduced this year. Those taxes — a modified business tax and a governmental services tax — are critical elements of the governor’s budget, so Republicans will get a win if they can throw enough sand in the gears to jam them up. They’re hitting the ground running on that front, sparring with Sisolak over his claim that his budget contains no new taxes. Sisolak says he’s right in making the claim — he’s simply retaining existing taxes.

During the campaign, Sisolak characterized himself as a moderate in the mold of former Gov. Brian Sandoval, who worked across the aisle on a number of key issues. That might give the Republicans leverage on some of their pet issues, like school vouchers. Democrats hate the state’s version of vouchers — Education Savings Accounts — which they see as a drain on public schools. But if there’s a move to cut ESA funding this year, don’t think Republicans won’t frequently and loudly remind Sisolak that he pledged to work with them.

Sisolak campaigned on his desires to improve Nevada’s public school education system, which is considered one of the nation’s worst. What should we expect?

More funding, including a 3 percent increase in compensation for teachers. Meanwhile, everybody will be watching to see if there’s enough political will to do a wholesale revamping of the state’s K-12 funding formula. Several top Democrats are pushing to replace the current formula — which was adopted in 1967 and everybody agrees is long overdue for retirement — with what’s known as a weighted model. Under that approach, funding is done on a per-student basis, with students who have special needs or need specialized educational services like English language learning getting a higher proportion of state funds.

Also on education: Private school families are asking for more funding to the school choice program, whose Opportunity Scholarships were used last year by more than 2,000 Nevada children. During the last session, $20 million was allocated for families with limited incomes. Sisolak has said he may not fund these scholarships moving forward. Any insight?

See above. This is a poster issue for Republicans, who may be able to sell it to Sisolak as a win-win — the GOP gets to tell its base that it saved ESAs, and Sisolak is able to use it as an example of his bipartisanship.

Sisolak hasn’t hid his intentions to improve school security, making it one of the cornerstones of his campaign. What kind of progress is in the works?

He’s expected to embrace several recommendations made by a task force created by Sandoval. That group issued a report calling for such improvements as the creation of a fund dedicated to improving school security, boosting mental health services in schools, adding counselors and requiring all schools to develop a crisis response plan.

Sisolak’s proposed two-year budget of $889 million includes a 3 percent raise for teachers and state workers that would cost $240 million. Any hurdles in getting this accomplished?

Probably not. Anything can happen — including a fracture in the Democratic Party about how far to go with extra funding — but that doesn’t seem likely.

Legal marijuana sales have exceeded expectations. Lawmakers plan to tweak its distribution formula for weed sales tax. What should we expect? More to schools?

Yep. Marijuana revenue currently goes not just to schools but to the state’s rainy day fund, to local governments and toward administration. Sisolak has vowed to push more revenue into schools. Sandoval, on his way out of office, offered a budget blueprint to Sisolak in which the revenue currently going to the rainy day fund would be diverted to education. Sisolak is expected to push some form of that.

Sisolak plans to create a Cannabis Compliance Board to regulate the thriving legal weed sales industry. Why is this important? What are the board’s priorities?

If Nevada had collected a dollar for every time someone made the groaner joke about how marijuana was a “growth” industry that needed to be regulated effectively, it wouldn’t need marijuana revenue. But there’s truth behind the hokey humor.

As the industry expands and becomes more complex, Sisolak wants Nevada to oversee it effectively to ensure it’s being taxed correctly, licensed fairly and monitored adequately so that operators are working above board. His administration likens it to the gaming industry in saying that Nevada should create the “gold standard” for oversight of legal marijuana. As part of its work, the panel is expected to explore banking solutions for dispensaries, which currently operate on a cash-only basis due to the federal prohibition on marijuana, and consider enabling the establishment of consumption lounges that are currently barred by state law. Current statutes limit the use of marijuana products to private residences.

What are some of Sisolak’s health care initiatives, especially with the state’s plan to expand Medicaid benefits?

His sort of centerpiece plan is to assemble what he’s calling the Patient Protection Commission, a group of doctors, health care providers, patients and policymakers that would have 100 days to make legislative recommendations on reforms. They’ll be looking at how to lower health care costs, improve access and foster innovations. He’s also called for expansion of children’s health insurance programs and creating a drug purchase coalition that could negotiate for lower prices.

He’s made mental health reform a key focus of emphasis, saying the state needs to provide more services in schools and do something about the problem of using jails and prisons as de facto mental health treatment centers. That would suggest he’s interested in either creating state treatment centers or repurposing other facilities.

What’s on the horizon as far as energy policy?

Sisolak has positioned himself as a strong supporter of the “50 by ’30” 2018 ballot measure to require Nevada energy providers to use renewable sources for at least 50 percent of the power they supply to consumers by 2030.

But that one’s pretty easy — there’s a fairly good chance the market would have taken care of that on its own.

What’s much, much thornier is how lawmakers will respond to the defeat of the Energy Choice Initiative, which would have allowed consumers to shop for an energy company in the same way they pick an internet service provider or cable TV provider.

Although the ballot measure went down, there’s still strong demand among consumers for choice — some voters supported the spirit of the measure but felt it was flawed. Meanwhile, as solar generation and storage battery technology continues to become less expensive, there’s growing interest in things like community solar, in which groups of homeowners purchase solar systems that serve them collectively.

That being the case, will lawmakers start working on creating a legislative structure to open up the market?

That’s a major question as the session begins.

Sandoval vetoed a near-record number of bills in the 2017 session, including one that would have required businesses to provide paid sick leave. Will the Democratic Legislature renew its effort to provide this for Nevada workers?

Count on it. Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, has filed a bill draft request on the issue, and Sisolak is on record saying he’d support legislation requiring that businesses provide a “certain amount” of leave. But how much is a “certain amount?” That’s where things could get tricky.

And what about the effort to increase the minimum wage for Nevadans? Sandoval vetoed that also.

In his State of the State address, Sisolak called for an increase but didn’t put a number on it. In the campaign, he said he’d support a bump to $10 from the current $7.25. In a recent interview published by The Nevada Independent, he put the number at $12 but said that increase would have to happen over several years.

Sisolak, when he was on the Clark County Commission, often complained about the county being hamstrung by state-mandated caps slowing increases on property taxes. Will we see him trying to get lawmakers to remove those caps, and what would those ramifications be?

This was a sensitive issue for Sisolak during the campaign, when his Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, tried to convince voters that Sisolak would jack up their property tax rates. Sisolak avoided the issue during the campaign, and he’s continued to do so heading into the session.

But would he block legislative action to remove the caps? Stay tuned.

There’s still grumbling that lawmakers sold out Nevada in the deal for the Raiders Stadium, and that the $750 million in public funding that was approved for the stadium would be better spent on public schools or other state functions. Is there any momentum to revisit that issue?

Maybe, but the grumblers would appear to be in the same position as the Saints fans who are mad about that pass interference no-call near the end of the NFC Championship Game last month. In other words, there’s not much they can do about it at this point. That’s especially the case given that Sisolak expended some political capital in coming out as a strong supporter of the stadium deal early on at a time when most leaders were taking a wait-and-see approach.

What is the new governor’s appetite for light rail in Las Vegas? How about the Legislature?

Lawmakers passed a package of bills that green-lighted the Regional Transportation Commission to develop light rail in 2017, and there’s no reason to believe the Legislature would reverse course or slow momentum this year. As for Sisolak, this one’s a wait-and-see. He’s been quiet on the issue as governor, but he expressed skepticism about light rail on the Strip as a county commissioner.

Any chance the Legislature dips its feet into higher education governance and makes changes to the composition of the board of regents?

Definitely. As a former member of the Nevada Board of Regents, Sisolak is well aware of the concerns about oversight of the state’s colleges by the regents and the Nevada System of Higher Education. The dual fiascoes last year at UNLV — the departure of former President Len Jessup and the resulting implosion of funding for a new building for the UNLV School of Medicine — have put more attention on those concerns. A measure to restructure the board passed in 2017. If it passes again this year, it will go before voters in 2020.

How does Sisolak plan to continue Nevada’s fight against controversial plutonium shipments to Nevada and the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository? How does he see the prospect of keeping the Yucca Mountain facility closed?

Apparently pretty good, because he pledged during his inauguration address that “Not one ounce of nuclear waste will ever reach Yucca Mountain while I’m governor.” Nevada leaders have been able to stiff-arm the feds on Yucca Mountain by maintaining tight formation against it both at home and in Washington, and pushing back in court or in halls of government against any movement to resurrect it. That opposition will continue, as was shown last week when alarm bells went off in Carson City and D.C. over the revelation that the Department of Energy had secretly shipped plutonium to Nevada last year.