In a few days, the 79th Nevada Legislative Session will open. This session may prove to be quite pivotal, as Governor Brian Sandoval (R) looks to cement his legacy. The Democrats who are retaking control of the Legislature look to undo some of the legacy of the previous Republican-controlled Legislature.
What’s about to happen in Carson City this year, and why should you care about it? Let’s break it all down below the fold.
Already, we see fault lines develop in Carson City. Governor Sandoval seems to be eyeing some changes to higher education while he also attempts to save one of the most controversial aspects of his 2015 “Education Session” agenda: Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s). ESA’s are the artfully designed private school voucher program that was nonetheless struck down by the Nevada Supreme Court last year. Even though the Court struck down the mechanism by which the voucher system was set up in 2015, it allowed for a redesign. Sandoval and conservative education “reformers” want to fix ESA’s, while progressives and other public education advocates would rather just ditch ESA’s and direct more public funds to public schools instead.
Then we have Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) refusing to enforce Question 1, the ballot initiative Nevada voters narrowly approved last November to expand background checks for gun purchases. Even though the Attorney General is tasked with enforcing state law, Laxalt instead is looking for ways to undermine it and ignore Nevada voters who passed it.
The US Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionality of common sense gun safety regulations like background checks, so what’s his issue? It can’t be “political”… Can it?
Meanwhile, newly emboldened Nevada Democrats seek not just to undo some right-wing “reforms” passed in 2015, but also present the State of Nevada as a more hopeful, progressive alternative to the federal government under President Donald J. Trump on everything from immigrant civil rights to renewable energy.
Will Nevada continue to build upon recent advances in LGBTQI* equality? Will Nevada reverse course on the 2015 net metering decision that resulted in a drop in solar power investment? Will Nevada implement the expanded background checks program voters approved last November? Will Nevada address the student debt crisis and raise the minimum wage?
These are just a few of the many policy decisions that could be made in Carson City this spring.
Amidst the ideological and policy tugs-of-war, there’s the 900-pound gorilla in the room that no one can afford to ignore: the budget. The State of Nevada is currently staring down a potential $200-400 million budget deficit over the next biennium (or two-year fiscal period). How will the Governor and the Legislature fill the hole? Governor Sandoval has promised no cuts that will hit state public servants, even as his office has requested state agencies cut their proposed 2018-19 budgets by 5%. Where might this signal be leading us?
And is there a risk of the hole growing larger? President-elect Trump & Congressional Republicans have been working to attempt a quick repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA, or Obamacare), a program that not only allows some 400,000 Nevadans to have health insurance, but also provides more funding for Medicaid and other health care programs. Repealing the ACA could result in not just several hundred thousand Nevadans losing health care access, but also the state losing critical federal funds that help balance the state budget. Democrats are signaling their intent to fight back, but even Governor Sandoval might not be all too keen on blowing a bigger hole in the state budget.
In case that’s not thorny enough, Trump’s pick for Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) holds an anything-but-friendly record on the recreational marijuana that Nevada voters approved for legalization last November. Like health care, the State of Nevada is at risk of losing critical revenue the state government could very much use if the federal government blocks recreational marijuana legalization in states like Nevada. This is another thorny issue worth keeping an eye on.
Two years ago, I witnessed the time-honored tradition of “horse trading.” Particularly towards the end of the session, legislators “trade” votes on bills & amendments to ink out a final budget deal and adjourn sine die in a relatively timely manner. There are already rumors percolating about “horse trading” beginning extra early this year.
Will Governor Sandoval & Democratic leaders work out some “grand bargain” to ensure this session goes smoothly, as was largely the case in 2015? Are we in for another epic budget showdown akin to 2011? Or will this just end up with mostly the status quo (as occurred in 2013)? Or will we witness something else?
While there were various fumbles and stumbles during the 78th Session of the Nevada Legislature, we ultimately saw a historic bipartisan agreement in June 2015 to restore decades’ worth of underfunding of public schools, health care programs, and other critical public infrastructure that our state needs to simply function (let alone grow and diversify our economy). This upcoming session, the Legislature and the Governor still have some unfinished business in fully funding public education and needed health care services. On top of that, there’s much work to be done in implementing both of the ballot initiatives (marijuana legalization and #gunsense background checks) and passing other legislation that might help some people. Who would have thought?
Theoretically, anything is possible when the 79th Session of the Nevada Legislature convenes in Carson City on February 6. But what’s probable? All we know at present is that they have plenty of big decisions to make. It’s now up to them to begin deciding (and up to us to track their decisions on NELIS for the next four months).