CARSON CITY — Sharp fault lines between Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate became even wider Monday as the Nevada Legislature began its 79th session.
Opening day is usually filled with pomp, ceremony and pledges to work together in a bipartisan spirit.
But that changed with the speech of Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas.
He drew the ire of Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson by saying the body will look at “extreme and unnecessary legislation” the GOP-led Legislature passed in 2015. Roberson called it “a caustic, political speech on Day One.”
It was against this backdrop that legislators started their 120-day stretch of lawmaking and debate over issues like a tax on recreational marijuana and funding for public education.
Jason Frierson, the state’s first African-American speaker of the Assembly, was installed as leader of the 42-member chamber.
His speech had a much more inclusive tone.
The Las Vegas Democrat came to power as his party regained control of both chambers of the Nevada Legislature in the 2016 election. In the Assembly, Democrats have a 27-15 majority, and Frierson was unanimously voted its leader.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison gaveled the Senate to order, and new state senators took the oath of office. Senate Democrats hold an 11-9-1 majority in the chamber.
In his opening comments, Ford urged senators to embrace the state’s diversity.
“Take a look around,” he said. “This is Nevada. This is America. Democrats, Republicans, an independent.”
Ford, the second African-American majority leader in the Nevada Senate, laid out an aggressive agenda for the Democratic caucus that includes raising the minimum wage, expanding voting opportunities, granting equal pay for women and providing affordable child care.
“We’ll take another look at last session’s extreme and unnecessary legislation that targeted the pocketbooks of working men and women by slashing wages for construction workers, limiting project-labor agreements and attacking collective bargaining rights,” Ford said.
That drew a rebuke from Roberson.
“I have never seen a majority leader give a caustic, political speech on Day One,” Roberson said afterward. “He is setting a very negative tone.”
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin, weighed in the prospect of rolling back legislation that passed in 2015.
“The governor believes it would be ill-advised to begin a new legislative session by trying to undo past progress, some of which was passed with bipartisan support,” she said in a statement. “He looks forward to watching the Legislature debate pressing issues like criminal justice reform, education funding, and workforce development and passing sound bipartisan measures aimed at improving the lives of Nevadans.”
Ford also said senators should respect decorum.
“We will not be combative. We will discuss and debate, but we will not destroy one another,” he said.
There were undercurrents of contention between the two parties even before the session began. Roberson last month threatened to stymie Democrats who took control in the November election and who opposed a GOP law last session establishing education savings accounts, a school voucher program.
Roberson said unless Democrats agree to ESAs, Republicans will vote against the state budget.
In the Asssembly, Frierson spoke of his roots growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Compton, California, before making his way to Reno on a football scholarship.
He thanked prior speakers, including Barbara Buckley, who became the first female speaker of the Assembly a decade ago.
“I embrace this opportunity and responsibility with the recognition that by breaking this ceiling, there is one less ‘first’ still to be achieved in Nevada’s history,” he said. “I do not take this role in Nevada’s history lightly. I fully recognize that in selecting me as speaker, our contribution to the richness of Nevada’s history means we send a message that Nevada embraces all who are committed to serving.”
Frierson said work remains to improve public education, even with a tax increase passed in 2015 to better fund schools.
“We still have kids falling behind, test scores that need improving and accountability in the classroom that must be part of the solution,” he said. “We still have underpaid and overworked teachers dipping into their own pockets to provide supplies and resources for the classroom. We still struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers, and struggle to provide adequate incentives for teachers to take on the most challenging at-risk schools. ”
The newly minted speaker was congratulated by his fellow legislators, including Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas.
“Regardless of your party affiliation, and after sometimes bruising campaigns, we are now required to put aside our partisan differences and instead to do what is best for all Nevadans,” Anderson told lawmakers.
About 200 prefiled bills were introduced in the Assembly or Senate on Monday.
The session ends at midnight June 5.