Gov. Brian Sandoval put finishing touches on the 2011 legislative session Friday with a final flourish of bill signings, including putting his signature on controversial smoking, cellphone and tax bills that could come with a political price for lawmakers and the governor.
On the final day for the governor to approve or kill bills from the recently concluded legislative session, Sandoval signed 79 bills into law and vetoed nine. He allowed one bill to become law without a signature.
Among bills Sandoval signed were measures to relax a statewide smoking ban voters approved in 2006 and make it illegal to text or talk on hand-held mobile phones while driving. Another delays by two years the expiration, or sunset, dates on about $620 million in taxes.
Those three were among the most debated of about 1,000 bills introduced in the session and, depending on how they play with voters, could come back to haunt Sandoval and lawmakers who approved them.
"When you start reversing public votes ... there is often a backlash," said Eric Herzik, political science professor at University of Nevada, Reno, of the bill allowing restaurant-style food service in taverns that allow smoking. "The public vote was pretty clear. They wanted smoking restrictions."
The smoking measure, contained in Assembly Bill 571, was pushed by the Nevada Tavern Owners Association.
The tavern owners argued voters didn't mean to include food-serving bars in a ban that covered restaurants, grocery stores, convenience marts and other public places while exempting casino floors and alcohol-only bars.
So they pushed a change that, they say, would result in taverns that cut food service under the ban to reopen their kitchens and bring back laid-off food servers.
"To make the gaming revenue, we had to maintain the smoking," said Jimmy Minchey, owner of Five Star Tavern in North Las Vegas and two other bars. "Cutting the food was the lesser of two evils."
With the restrictions loosened, Minchey and others can revive scaled-back food service, which means hiring cooks and servers who otherwise would be out of work.
"Once the permit is issued that we can now handle food again, we'll be able to make offers to those employees immediately," he said.
Critics say Sandoval and the tavern owners violated the will of the public.
Michael Hackett, a lobbyist for the Nevada Medical Association and the American Cancer Society, pointed to a 2009 poll that showed 72 percent of people statewide supported the restrictions, including 23 percent who said they should be stronger.
Hackett also said it puts Nevada on the wrong side of a national trend to reduce or eliminate smoking to improve public health.
"We think it is a step backward," Hackett said.
"And it is a step backward at a time when a lot of other states are moving in the opposite direction."
AB571 passed the Assembly 23-19 and the Senate 13-8. It goes into effect immediately.
The ban contained in Senate Bill 140 on using hand-held mobile phones to talk or text while driving was another divisive measure that could have mixed results for lawmakers and the governor.
It passed 24-17 in the Assembly and 12-9 in the Senate. Starting Jan. 1, drivers face up to a $50 fine the first time they're caught. Penalties escalate to $250 and a potential driver's license suspension by the third offense.
Drivers can stay within the law if they use hands-free devices to communicate in the car.
Rick Cross of Henderson commutes 17 miles daily to central Las Vegas on Interstate 15 and says he welcomes the new restrictions.
"I've seen too much on the freeway with people who probably shouldn't be driving much less holding a cellphone to their ear while doing it," said Cross, 53.
Cross, a network administrator and longtime technology enthusiast, said there are plenty of hands-free devices available for people who want to talk while driving.
"There is no reason for people to be holding a phone to their ear while driving," Cross said during an interview. "I'm driving right now. Both hands are on the wheel. My eyes are on the highway."
Public enthusiasm might wane, though, once police start handing out tickets.
And it could be bad for lawmakers and the governor if voters sour on the cellphone ban.
"Even people who complain about people using the cellphone probably use it themselves while driving," Herzik said. Sandoval and lawmakers "will get compliments now. They will get complaints as this gets enforced."
Another controversial measure Sandoval signed into law Friday was Assembly Bill 561, which delayed by two years the sunset date on a portion of sales, payroll and car registration taxes worth about $620 million.
Sandoval and Republican lawmakers had promised to let the taxes die on their scheduled July 1 execution date. But the levies got a last-minute pardon thanks to a May 26 decision from the state Supreme Court that blasted a hole in Sandoval's proposed budget 12 days before the conclusion of the 120-day legislative session.
The court ruled against a decision by former Gov. Jim Gibbons and legislators in 2010 to grab for the state $62 million from the Clean Water Coalition.
Sandoval, a lawyer and former federal judge, took a broad interpretation of the ruling and estimated it could put at risk more than $650 million in his proposed 2011-13 budget.
It passed 36-6 in the Assembly and 15-6 in the Senate, with 10 Assembly and four Senate Republicans joining Democrats to forge the two-thirds majority needed to approve tax increase bills.
Republican legislators have the most to lose politically for supporting AB561 because, unlike Sandoval, some could be vulnerable to credible primary challenges in the next election cycle.
"It was clearly going back on a promise that I made, but at the same time, I stand by the vote," said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, who voted with Democrats.
"A broader promise I made was I was going to do what I felt was in the best interest of the state."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.