Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2019

Currently: 74° — Complete forecast

How are Republican leaders faring with Nevada’s Democratic power shift?


Ryan Tarinelli / AP

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, minority floor leader, at podium, speaks to fellow Republican lawmakers, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, as they voice their objections to a bill requiring background checks on gun sales and transfers between private parties, at the Nevada legislature in Carson City.

CARSON CITY—It’s hard to cut it any other way—2018 was a bad year for Nevada Republicans.

As a result of the midterm elections, the party holds little influence in either chamber of the state Legislature, has only one member in Nevada’s Washington delegation and can boast holding only one statewide elective position.

Assembly Republicans find themselves in a superminority for the first time since 1993. Senate Republicans narrowly avoided superminority status—emphasis on narrowly. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, won the race for Senate District 20 by 24 votes, effectively stopping Democrats from being able to ignore the other party entirely until the next legislative elections.

To be blunt: In Nevada, Republicans are at a major disadvantage at the statehouse.

It’s not stopping them from legislating, though. They’ve raised protests at some Democratic-backed bills and utilized an important tool in their arsenal—public opinion.

“That’s all I hear from my constituents is complaints about the way the Legislature is going,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler, R-Minden. “They’re also smart enough to know that we can fight and fight and fight, but we’re in the minority.”

The party outlined its priorities for the session in late February. Wheeler said the goals of the two parties weren’t always in conflict, but the GOP caucus was prepared for any pushback on Republican priorities.

“I never expect trouble on bills, but I always plan for it,” Wheeler said.

Republicans’ minority status also hasn’t stopped them from filing bills or taking public positions on typically right-leaning issues such as school choice or gun rights. Wheeler is open about the struggles Republicans face in getting their issues through the legislative process but stresses that Republican lawmakers still represent about a million Nevadans.

Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas and deputy minority whip-south, said increasing opportunity scholarship grants—essentially funding available for children to attend private schools—was a priority, and he expressed frustration with what he sees as a lack of Democratic interest in the issue. He touted the importance of the program in helping low-income families.

“On the one hand, they say we don’t want a cookie-cutter approach, and then on the [other] hand, they don’t want to give you noncookie-cutter approaches,” Edwards said.

Nevada is one of 14 states where Democrats control the legislature, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Twenty-two states are in Republican hands, and the remainder are split.

Here’s how the majority/minority system works.

Bills can be passed on a simple majority, but overriding vetoes, raising taxes or scheduling a referendum on a constitutional amendment require a supermajority.

If one party controls two-thirds of a chamber, it has a supermajority and does not require input from the other party for the actions above. Both chambers, though, must have supermajorities if the above actions are going to be approved without any help from the other party.

And, of course, this is moot if there are internal party disagreements.

The Pickard race was not the only close race—there were narrow wins on the Democratic side as well. Connie Munk, D-Las Vegas, and Shea Backus, D-Las Vegas, both won their Assembly races by less than 150 votes.

This isn’t the first time the state has had a Legislature dominated by one party—both chambers have been held by both parties at varying times in the past 30 years. In the 2015 session, Republicans controlled both chambers and the governor’s mansion, as Democrats now do.

Wheeler, whose district is more vast and rural than those represented by Washoe or Clark County legislators, casts himself as close to his constituents. He can’t go through Walmart, he said, without being stopped by multiple people with concerns about what’s going on in Carson City. Rural communities, he said, are plugged in more than people think—he touts Douglas County’s massive voter turnout rate: 94 percent in 2016.

There are more people in Clark County than all the 16 other Nevada counties combined, meaning Clark has an incredibly large influence on the makeup of the Legislature.

“It makes for interesting politics,” Wheeler said.

In the past, Wheeler said, lawmakers have been able to work with the different sides so bills that work for Las Vegas don’t hurt the rural counties. He said he hadn’t experienced that yet this session, but he remained hopeful.

“I think historically there’s always been—not a divide, divide’s not the right word but—a little bit of a tug-of-war between the North and the South, but we’ve always, always been able to talk about it,” Wheeler said.

This physical connection to constituents’ concerns mirrors one of Republicans’ most powerful weapons this session: public input.

Let’s step back a bit to the passage of Senate Bill 143—which mandates background checks on those purchasing guns in the state. Pushed through in one week in February after voters approved an initiative calling for checks in 2016, the bill received pushback from Republican lawmakers.

And the public.

More than 1,200 people logged comments against the bill online. Four hundred wrote in favor of the bill’s passage. It was a comprehensive effort to drum up public comment against the bill—the National Rifle Association called for Nevadans to contact committee members and other legislators to oppose the bill, and Republican lawmakers raised the cry once the bill had been formally filed.

Passage of the bill came after a nearly daylong committee hearing. The call had been heard. Wheeler and his office stressed that residents of rural communities left their responsibilities that day to come speak.

“[Nevada] is a good testing ground for some of these national agendas like the background check bill, like the abortion bill that’s coming out, the cap-and-trade bill we heard,” he said.

Edwards said the method by which the background check bill was introduced and sped through the Legislature made him wary of future attempts at bipartisanship, but that Republican bills have been making it to committee hearings, which is a good sign.

“It’s kind of a see-saw—there’s a lot of talk of bipartisanship, but it kind of is like ‘trust but verify,’ ” Edwards said.

Wheeler said the way Democrats handled the background check bill, essentially keeping its language secret from Republicans before its introduction, was damaging to any sense of bipartisanship.

He said it’s early, though, and not many bills have been brought to a vote. “We’re hearing a lot about bipartisanship, and how they would like to include us and a whole lot of different things, but we haven’t seen any action on that yet,” Wheeler said.

Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, said she felt that all members of the Democratic caucus were open to good ideas, regardless of where they originated.

“From my perspective, we’ve had a good deal of action,” she said, noting that bills had been filed this session with bipartisan sponsorship.

Edwards called for increased bipartisanship—and spoke similarly to Benitez-Thompson, saying that parties don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.

“If the Democrats are interested in having good policy, which should be their focus, then they need to realize that they don’t have all the good ideas,” Edwards said. “And they should look to the Republicans to see what good ideas we come up with, and for the sake of the state, pass them and get them signed by the governor. That would be a good indication of, ‘Are they going to be not just bipartisan, but are they going to be faithful to the people of the state who put them here?’ ”

So, is there a plan to get out of the superminority? Of course.

“But I’m not going to give it to you,” Wheeler said. “Yeah, we don’t like the superminority.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.