Progress in the Nevada Legislature, whatever the cause, is notoriously incremental. Seismic shifts in policy are the rare exception, not the rule.
The same rule applies to the political narrative surrounding the Legislature. Every session starts with low expectations among the cynics, who without fail become prophets. And every session ends with a typical storyline from the tax-consuming special interests: It’s the Republicans’ fault that we didn’t get more funding. It’s those darn Republican obstructionists. And that horrible two-thirds supermajority requirement.
But the narrative is different this year. Yes, there’s a lot of grumbling in the Democratic Party base, but the frustration is not directed at the GOP. Loyal lefties are irate with the Democratic leadership, which talked big and did little in Carson City.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, promised a session-long discussion and negotiation over tax increases to provide a large, immediate injection of funds into schools. Then they played their biennial game of “hide the ball,” choosing not to involve Republicans in the creation of their tax plans before unveiling them — at the end of the session. More importantly, they offered no compromise support for Republican legislation in exchange for GOP votes for tax increases.
Everyone knew the math before the start of the 2013 session. To achieve the two-thirds supermajority threshold required for tax increases, Democrats needed a single Republican vote in the Assembly and three in the Senate. To make the task even easier, Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, did everything but wear a sign that said “Will raise taxes in exchange for money-saving reforms.” And Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, crossed some of his own Republicans in championing a ballot question to raise taxes on mining.
As I wrote all the way back on Dec. 16, Republican votes for tax increases were there: “They’ve always been there. The extremist, wacko GOP has provided the deciding votes for tax increases in 2003, 2009 and 2011. No doubt they’ll do the same in 2013. And they’ll be open to new taxes, too — for a price.”
But Democrats never launched a serious play to buy those votes in a policy trade.
“It was the same old, same old. It was very frustrating for me, personally,” Roberson said Friday. “Folks in the Democratic leadership are incapable of cutting a deal or understanding how to cut a deal. They didn’t reach out at all in this session. We were ready and willing to compromise, and we got stiff-armed every time.
“At least, last session, (Senate Majority Leader) Steven Horsford and (Assembly Speaker) John Oceguera wanted to strike a compromise in some areas. I never thought the bar could get lower than that session, but it did this year.”
Teachers unions are particularly unhappy with Democrats. Kirkpatrick and Denis refused to vote on the Nevada State Education Association’s margins tax initiative, effectively punting it onto the 2014 ballot. And the Clark County Education Association, sensing that Democrats were doing everything possible to not get more money for schools, launched a late-session campaign urging a bipartisan solution. Republicans were on board. Democrats weren’t.
What’s most amazing about Democrats’ failure to compromise, however, is that Republican votes for tax increases, as usual, would have come pretty cheap. Democrats were never going to get behind pension, collective bargaining or prevailing wage reform. But they could have picked off the necessary GOP votes by offering construction defect reform and a couple of minor education reforms — Gov. Brian Sandoval’s opportunity scholarship plan, state support for Teach for America recruits — for a reasonable pile of new spending money. But the attorneys who collect guaranteed fees while shaking down builders are reliable Democratic Party donors.
“I believed them. Early on, I believed the hype from Speaker Kirkpatrick and Senator Denis about this session being different,” Roberson added.
Denis didn’t return messages left on his home phone and cellphone.
The vote-counting math won’t change substantially in 2015. There simply is no realistic path for Senate Democrats to pick up the three seats they need to capture a 14-7, two-thirds majority. Only three competitive Senate seats are on the ballot in 2014: Roberson’s District 20; Las Vegas Democrat Justin Jones’ District 9; and the District 8 seat being vacated by Las Vegas Republican Barbara Cegavske because of term limits. Every other 2014 race involves a bulletproof incumbent. Roberson has a path to an 11-10 Republican majority in 2015.
Maybe that’s what it will take to get a grand bargain through Carson City. The narrative is shifting.
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall,” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.