Legislature's best of the best

I knew from the start state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, was going to be a good lawmaker. You could tell from his campaign: earnest, respectful and policy-driven.

But Hutchison exceeded my expectations in his freshman legislative session. He defied the conventional image of a conservative Republican, embracing taxes when he thought they were appropriate. He joined with liberal state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, to advance the idea of medical marijuana dispensaries, because the constitution says the state should do so. His legal background proved invaluable on the Judiciary Committee, and his thoughtful questions in committees were focused and illuminating. Hutchison has to be considered the top freshman in the 2013 Nevada Legislature.

That’s not to ignore other freshmen, however. Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, cut to the heart of more than one issue with his incisive questioning. (His cross-examination of anti-government activist Janine Hansen on the issue of sex education was beautiful to behold.)

Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, somehow kept her cool even in the face of outrageously ridiculous comments before her Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. Her testimony on bills pointed to her background as a minister. (If you ever want to get a real education about the actual “biblical definition of marriage,” ask Spearman.) When people of faith tested mine, Spearman reminded me that religion doesn’t mean you have to be a political conservative.

And Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, on issue after issue, showed the incredible courage of his convictions. Although he’s arguably the most vulnerable lawmaker in the entire Legislature (he was elected to fill an unexpired term), he led on issues such as gun control and gay marriage. The residents of Senate District 9 have a stalwart senator, and they’d do well to send him back for a full term next year.

Segerblom was technically a freshman, but his Assembly experience helped him guide marijuana dispensaries and that gay marriage resolution to passage. He’s the progressives’ indispensable man in the Senate.

And, of course, no list of standout senators would be complete without Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. He confounded legislators, lobbyists and the press, and even angered members of his own party. But he had ideas and a strategy, which set him apart among legislative leaders this session.

Certainly, Roberson was more visible than his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. Denis seriously flubbed the tax issue, waiting until way too late in the session to introduce an increased payroll tax, then withdrawing that in favor of an interim “commerce tax” committee, a weak-sauce idea that went exactly nowhere. (But it must be said that Denis’ leadership style — low-key, slow, patient building of consensus — paid off in the form of a bill to grant driver authorization cards to illegal immigrants.)

Over in the Assembly, Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, was more aggressive with her tax plan, derided as the “family fun tax” for its levy on bowling, movies and miniature golf, among other amusements. In Kirkpatrick’s defense, her goal was to close the copious and often unjustified loopholes that currently exist in the live entertainment tax. But even after its introduction met a wall of negative publicity, Kirkpatrick stood by her work, defending it in two difficult hearings. Don’t be surprised if she’s back next session doing the same. And her efforts during the interim on the redistribution of the consolidated tax to local governments were quietly effective.

Another Assembly standout: Republican Ira Hansen of Sparks. His often-incendiary comments occasionally contained nuggets of sensibility. But it was his late-session advocacy against an establishment-backed fuel-switch bill sought by NV Energy that, while unsuccessful, once again contributed to the 2013 session’s incongruous image of Republicans advocating for the little guy while Democrats sided with big corporations.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.