The 2013 Legislature ended the way most sessions do: With an unnecessary, entirely predictable special session to finish the work left undone by the constitutional midnight deadline.
Since 1998, when voters approved a 120-day limitation on the time lawmakers can meet, there have been eight regular sessions. Five of those have been followed by special sessions, often of only a few hours to conclude unfinished business.
You know things have gone off the rails when lawmakers rush around the chamber to desperately speak with each other and with lobbyists. You know things have gone off the rails when conference committees have yet to meet with just 13 minutes to go before the clock strikes midnight. And you definitely know things have gone off the rails when the final gavel falls and people find themselves in the hallway debating parliamentary procedure to determine whether an important bill has passed or failed.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick certainly knew, remarking sarcastically from the speaker’s rostrum toward the end of Monday evening, “of course, this is how I dreamed of ending.” Although she worked hard to become only the second woman to head the Assembly in state history, she seemed ready to give it up in the final moments of the 2013 session.
“If any of you want to live my dream, come on,” she said, to knowing laughter from exhausted lawmakers.
Frustration is understandable: In the days leading up to the deadline, lawmakers spent hours praising departing colleagues, time that could — and probably should — have been used to debate and pass legislation. (I confess to having a hand in another time-honored time waster, Third House, a send up of the Legislature starring members of the capital press corps that dates to Mark Twain. At least that performance was funny.)
But there’s simply no excuse for allowing a critical bill to raise the Clark County sales tax to pay for more police officers to wait until (literally) the 11th hour, and then fail because of disagreements between the Assembly and Senate on the final form of the bill. That move left a phalanx of stunned police lobbyists in the hallway shaking their heads and wondering if a session’s worth of work — including by Clark County’s top cop, Sheriff Doug Gillespie — was for naught. (The tax bill, and four others, were passed in a brief special session Tuesday morning called by Gov. Brian Sandoval after discussions with legislative leaders.)
It’s not as if lawmakers haven’t figured out that things always get hectic toward the end. They’ve instituted deadlines by which bills must pass out of committees, and from one house to another, designed to move legislation and root out bills with little support.
But more could be done. Say, a deadline of 48 hours before the final day to introduce new bills, and a final deadline of 24 hours before the final day to finish work on conference committee reports, leaving the 120th day to finish up final work on amendments. If there’s to be harrowing, last-minute rushes to pass last-minute bills, there should be room for a margin of error. (A bill passed even a few seconds after the midnight deadline could be challenged as void under the constitution, after all.)
And it’s not as if lawmakers can’t act with haste when necessary. The volume of work done in the final days is impressive.
And don’t forget Assembly Bill 114, passed and signed into law on a single day back in February.
But regardless of how it ended, the 2013 Legislature had some fairly significant accomplishments. I’ll talk about those, and some key players, in this space later this week.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.