During her first Senate Revenue Committee meeting, freshman state Sen. Elizabeth Halseth listened carefully Tuesday as a staffer explained to the panel exactly how Nevada collects and spends its money.
The expert used a "revenue reference manual." At 194 pages, it's as thick as the Elko phone book and just as riveting.
"Sen. Halseth, there'll be a test on Thursday," joked Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, chairwoman of the committee.
Laugh if you like, but the learning curve will be steep for the historic number of freshman members of the Assembly and state Senate who have replaced half the 63-member Legislature at a time of unprecedented budget problems.
Despite the challenge, the freshman class of 2011 promises to be a powerful force. By force of sheer numbers, they will be the deciding factor in the battle between Republicans who don't want to raise taxes and Democrats who argue more revenue is needed to avoid cuts to education, social services and other programs.
"Normally, freshmen are told to look and listen, and don't talk too much. But it's not the same dynamic this time because of the enormous changeover," said Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian and former state archivist.
Their energy was palpable last week as the 76th session of the Legislature got under way. Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, ran from meeting to meeting, juggling briefing books and an open container of cream-colored coffee.
An excited Halseth blogged about the first question she got to ask at the revenue committee hearing: whether the payroll tax paid by private employers applied to public employers. (It doesn't.)
The next day in her office, the youngest female state senator in Nevada history still was pumped up about the exchange.
"You're looking at the smartest 28-year-old here," said Halseth, R-Las Vegas, throwing her arms up into the air.
"I'm just kidding. I just get so excited about being here."
Reflecting the polarizing election of 2010, the incoming Democrats are among the most liberal and the new Republicans are among the most conservative in the Legislature. Many of the new Democrats represent minorities and interests groups, such as unions and teachers, who might lose collective bargaining power and tenure protection if new Gov. Brian Sandoval and Republican legislators have their way.
"I definitely think we bring more diversity, and that brings a new perspective," said Las Vegas Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, a Democrat who is part of a Hispanic caucus that grew from two members to eight.
They bring a new perspective, and a bit of unpredictability.
"It will be interesting to see if they'll use their muscle with this sense of empowerment," Rocha said of the freshmen. "And it'll be interesting to see how leadership disciplines them if a freshman is seen as not playing the game."
31 New Lawmakers
The two chambers together contain 31 new players: 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
In the state Senate, Halseth and Leslie are among 11 new arrivals in the body where Democrats hold a one-vote edge, 11-10.
Halseth is among three newly elected Republicans, including Michael Roberson of Las Vegas and Ben Kieckhefer of Reno.
Leslie is one of seven Democrats who moved up from the Assembly because of 12-year term limits for each house.
Another addition is state Sen. Greg Brower, a former GOP assemblyman appointed to replace Sen. Bill Raggio. The moderate retired midterm after 38 years in the state Senate and following a conservative takeover of the GOP caucus he led for decades.
"Some of the freshmen looked a little shell-shocked the first day," Brower said. "But they'll get used to it."
On the Assembly side, the freshman class brings 20 newly minted lawmakers to the 42-member chamber. The last similar influx was 1995, when 17 new faces moved in, resulting in a 21-21 party split. That freshman class included Sandoval, who also served stints as attorney general, a gaming official and a federal judge.
"Look at all these pictures on the walls," said lobbyist Pete Ernaut, pointing to group photos hanging inside the Legislature, showing lawmakers from each session since Nevada's birth in 1864.
"You've got future governors and senators and congressmen here. You never know who'll be in each freshman class," said Ernaut, a Sandoval adviser who served with him in the Assembly.
Democrats enjoy a 28-16 advantage over Republicans in the Assembly, two votes shy of the supermajority Democrats had in the last session in 2009, which allowed them to largely ignore the GOP minority.
"We were irrelevant last time, and now we're relevant," said new Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno.
Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, agreed with that assessment.
"We will matter this time. At this point, I don't think there will be any new taxes. At this point," he added with emphasis, allowing room to negotiate.
Every crossover vote will count, with a two-thirds majority needed to pass a tax or override a veto from Sandoval, who campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes. To hit the two-thirds mark, Democrats would have to vote as a bloc and lure three Republicans in the state Senate and two in the Assembly.
"That's not going to happen," said Henderson Assemblyman Mark Sherwood, the only Republican freshman to get a GOP leadership position.
As minority whip, his job is to keep party members in line.
"The governor, he's got our back and we have his back," he said. "When he needs 16 votes, he'll get 16 votes."
Sandoval Watches Closely
Sandoval is counting on it. He would be politically wounded if GOP lawmakers were to defy him, leaving him open to attack as a weak leader when he is up for re-election in 2014 or if he makes a run for higher office. He has been acting as both promoter for his proposed $5.8 billion budget and enforcer, reaching out to every lawmaker by phone and in person.
Last week, Sandoval called Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, after the freshman suggested in an interview on a local TV program that he was willing to listen to proposals to raise taxes, although he is currently opposed to the idea.
"I was just trying to sound open-minded, but the governor was concerned about whether I was with him or not," Hansen said. "I told him, 'I am behind you 100 percent.' The governor was elected with a mandate not to raise taxes. Unless I'm convinced otherwise, I'm not voting for any tax increases. I don't want people to think Ira Hansen is the guy who's going to raise taxes."
But it's the convincing otherwise that the governor and GOP leaders in the Legislature are worried about. Democrats have 120 days to make the case for raising new revenue, possibly from taxes, to restore some or all of Sandoval's proposed 6.4 percent cut in general fund spending over two years.
On the Assembly Taxation Committee, seven of the committee's 13 members are freshmen, with five Democrats and two Republicans.
The committee's first meeting Tuesday stretched to four hours to review the revenue book that their state Senate counterparts took half the time to discuss. The freshmen asked many questions, especially about the effects of Sandoval's diversions of funds from local governments to balance the state budget.
"We should concentrate on our priorities that we set as a group," said committee member Bustamante Adams. "It's like any athletic sport; you've got to work as a team and not try to be the only player out there."
Two Assembly freshmen aren't exactly new to the game.
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, served in the state Senate for 12 years. Termed out, she ran for the lower house instead. Her office now is next to Hansen's, the conservative Republican she calls her political opposite.
"We have some of the best conversations," Carlton said. "You always have to work with both sides of the aisle."
Reno Assemblyman Pat Hickey took that bipartisanship notion further. The Republican, who served in the Assembly before in 1996-98, launched a caucus for the big freshman class. It's a nonpartisan, non-issue group, he said. Hickey and two freshmen Democrats, Bustamante Adams and Jason Frierson of Las Vegas, are on the steering committee.
Hickey said the goal of the freshman Assembly caucus is to keep the dialogue civil .
"Everything is about relationships," Hickey said. "Maybe I'm a bit naive, but I think everyone recognizes that we're in this together and we have to get along even if we don't agree."
For now, politeness is trumping partisanship. Come May, when the tough tax and budget decisions must be made, frayed nerves may change the tone.
What's more, lawmakers will be battling over redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of every state Senate and Assembly district as well as the contours of four congressional seats. Nevada got a fourth U.S. House seat as its population grew to 2.7 million.
Redistricting is how freshman lawmakers and others could be punished by GOP and Democratic leaders looking to get rid of legislators who either haven't kept with the caucus or have crossed swords with the other side. A lawmaker's home can be drawn out of a district.
"That is the hammer," said John Pappageorge, a Nevada lobbyist since 1985.
Pappageorge said he still is trying to figure out what role the huge freshman class will play in 2011. He said lobbyists, will have to work harder to get new lawmakers on their side, gaining their trust by giving them good information.
The days of lobbyists and legislative leaders crafting all the deals behind the scenes and then forcing their caucuses to go along may be waning, he said. Most bargaining still will be done in private, he said, but emerging leaders among the freshman class will want to be part of the process. And they can help marshal the necessary votes from the troops.
"The days are gone when Bill Raggio would call me into his office and ask me to help corral some votes for him," Pappageorge said. "There's a different kind of leadership now. This is definitely an end of an era."
Term limits and Raggio's departure mark a turning point for the Legislature. It ends a period when powerful lawmakers stayed in office for decades, leading both houses with a strong voice, and a strong arm at times.
Raggio's longtime counterpart, former Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, D-Yerington, led the lower house for much of his 34 years in office between 1967 and 2001, serving in 18 regular sessions and four special sessions.
Both Raggio's and Dini's No. 1 legislative license plates have been permanently retired.
The current Democratic leaders of the two houses have very different styles.
Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, organized training for freshmen to encourage teamwork. This will be his only chance to lead the chamber because he is termed out, which could make it more difficult to keep his caucus in line.
"I try to be more inclusive," Oceguera said. "I think everyone should have a voice."
State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, leads mostly from the bully pulpit, through speeches, e-mailed missives and in public meetings, including at pre-session town halls.
Both Oceguera and Horsford have higher ambitions, possibly a run for Congress in 2012.
Horsford said he welcomes the freshmen, although he notes most in the state Senate have prior legislative experience.
"They bring new ways of thinking and aren't as entrenched in old ideas."
Asked if the high turnover will make it more difficult to control his caucus, Horsford said: "We don't try to control anybody in the Senate. That's not how we get things done."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.