Cultural changes alter views at Nevada Legislature

Recognizing a cultural shift, some top Nevada Republican lawmakers have joined an effort to repeal the states’s decade-old constitutional language that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, taking the first step toward possibly legalizing gay marriage.

Republicans also are working with Democrats to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries a dozen years after the Legislature approved pot for such use. Three GOP members joined Sen. Tick Segerblom, a Las Vegas Democrat and a leading liberal voice, and two other Democrats on a field trip to Arizona to check out that state’s legal weed wares.

Another clear demonstration of the social shift happening in Carson City this session came March 21 when the Nevada Senate passed a bill 20-1 to add crimes against transgender people to a list of hate crimes. Six Republican senators who had voted against a similar bill two years ago voted for the 2013 measure.

Later, Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, the lone two-time no vote, said he should have approved this year’s Senate Bill 139. What changed his mind? Talking with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Patricia Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, the gay pastor who defeated former Sen. John Lee, a Democrat. Lee helped kill the bill in 2011 by crossing party lines.

“That, to me, is an example of the profound cultural shift we’re seeing in just a two-year period,” said Bob Fulkerson, state director and co-founder of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Whether it is for election reasons or people actually having a change of heart is debatable. I just think it shows that equality and civil rights don’t have to be partisan issues anymore.

“The shift has happened,” he added. “The people are leading and the leaders are following.”


What’s playing out in Nevada can be seen nationwide in the wake of a 2012 election that saw Republicans fail to win the White House or take over the U.S. Senate. Exit polls showed younger, minority voters overwhelmingly siding with President Barack Obama and his party, leaving the GOP behind.

The GOP’s newfound zeal for immigration reform is another fallout from the election as Hispanics neared one-fifth of the electorate in Nevada. This year, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, is pushing more English-language learning in schools. And he backs Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, in his bid to provide driver privilege cards to undocumented immigrants so they can buy car insurance.

Nevada has long had a live-and-let-live reputation, allowing brothels to operate since the 19th century and legalizing gambling in 1931, partly as a way to boost the economy and ride out the Great Depression. Nevada also became a mecca for quickie weddings and divorces, drawing even more visitors to the tourism-dependent state.

This year, the need to revive the economy played a role in Gov. Brian Sandoval signing an urgent bill to allow online gaming so that Nevada would remain competitive with other states such as New Jersey and Delaware.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the need to find new revenue sources could be partially behind some Republicans shifting stances on gay marriage and marijuana.

Nevada was built on catering to people whose desires might not be acceptable everywhere, Herzik said.

“We were into quickie marriage and quickie divorce, but we wouldn’t do it for gays? We lost an opportunity for income. ... Nevada is usually kind of out there on the borderline of the moral frontier,” Herzik said.


Changing attitudes among Nevada voters also could account for the shifting political stances, Herzik said.

A poll conducted earlier this year by the Retail Association of Nevada found that 54 percent of voters in Nevada want the constitutional ban on gay marriage repealed, while 43 percent want it to stay in place.

A New York Times analysis of states’ views nationwide showed a similar shift with more people accepting same-sex marriage. If that trend continues, a projection by Nate Silver of the Times showed that in Nevada some 59.2 percent would support a same-sex marriage ballot initiative by 2016 and 65.2 percent by 2020.

That’s quite a turnaround in popular views in just a decade. In 2000 and 2002, two-thirds of Nevada voters approved the “Protection of Marriage Act” defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

This session’s Senate Joint Resolution 13 to remove the constitutional language must be approved by lawmakers in 2013 and again during the 2015 legislative session before going to voters in 2016 for ratification. If the provision is repealed, lawmakers could then legalize same-sex marriage by passing a bill in 2017.

Legalizing gay marriage may be another tough fight, particularly since in 2009 Nevada lawmakers enacted domestic partnerships, extending some marriagelike rights to couples living together whether gay or not. Those rights included community property and the right to seek financial support after a breakup.

SJR13 has key support from Republican Senate Minority Leader Roberson.

“I have always believed that marriage is a religious union between a man and a woman, and I have never understood why government has a role in this relationship,” Roberson said in a statement. “However, given the fact that the government does license and sanction marriage in Nevada, it is difficult for me to justify differential treatment based upon sexual orientation.

“Although my personal definition of marriage has not changed, as both a practicing attorney and an elected representative of the state of Nevada, I cannot justify treating one group of individuals differently under the law than another,” he added.

His position is similar to that of Nevada’s Republican governor.

“My personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Sandoval said in a statement. “But as governor, I believe the people of Nevada should have the freedom to decide should this issue come before them for a vote.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, supported the resolution during a hearing last week. He said he believes voters will back the repeal and he questioned whether the state should dictate to any religious organization who can marry.

“The institution of marriage is something I take very, very seriously,” Kieckhefer said.

The resolution also got support from some in the gaming industry and from some religious leaders.

A few people spoke in opposition, including Richard Ziser, who represented Nevada Concerned Citizens and who was chairman of the committee that got the pro-heterosexual marriage act on the ballot in the first place. The conservative Republican later ran against U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., but lost badly.

Dan Burdish, a former executive director of the Nevada GOP who is openly gay, talked to Ziser after the hearing. Ziser told him “it’s going to be the end of the Republican Party” if the resolution passes, Burdish recalled.

“I said, ‘No, if Republicans don’t vote for this, it is going to be the end of the Republican Party,’ ” Burdish said.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, a Democrat who was in the Legislature from 1991 to 2006, said she has been pleasantly surprised watching the shifting on social issues in the Legislature.

“I think people are actually listening, and it’s blowing me away,” Giunchigliani said. “When the public has come to accept something, I think it gives them cover.”


Giunchigliani sponsored the law in 2001 that legalized medical marijuana after voters approved such a measure on the ballot in 1998 and 2000. Giunchigliani said she originally included dispensaries in her bill so patients could have access to marijuana but some lawmakers objected to having the state involved in regulating pot.

As a result, she used the Oregon model and the law allowed people to grow their own marijuana, up to seven plants. The system hasn’t worked, however, making it difficult for Nevada’s 3,645 medical marijuana card holders.

Segerblom has since taken up the cause, introducing Senate Bill 374 to create medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada. He led the bipartisan trip on March 22 to Arizona to visit a nonprofit dispensary.

Segerblom’s proposal would help create easy access to marijuana for medical purposes and would bring in revenue to the state from licensing dispensaries. The cost would be $20,000 for an initial permit. He also projected the number of people getting medical marijuana cards would increase by 10 times. It costs $150 a year for a card.

Segerblom also is sponsor of SJR13, the resolution that could lead to legalized gay marriage and millions of dollars more in revenue for the state and local entities that perform the ceremonies.

Asked about getting less GOP resistance these days, Segerblom said money and politics are in play.

“I think they are hiding behind increased revenues to justify their change, which is really because they see the voters support gay marriage, pot and other things which Republicans traditionally oppose,” Segerblom said.

During a Friday hearing on Segerblom’s bill, one of the Republicans who accompanied him to Arizona made clear that he wanted dispensaries to operate like pharmacies and not like the “Jerry Garcia lounge.”

“I didn’t vote for medical marijuana,” Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But I will, and I think other members of this committee from both parties will uphold the rule of law. There is a constitutional right to have this and to use this. Now let’s make it as safe as we possibly can.”

His comments signal there’s not yet broad support for Nevada lawmakers to legalize marijuana for recreational use as Colorado and Washington have done, although Assembly Bill 402 has been introduced to do just that.

Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.