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Northern Nevada’s chokehold on legislative clout goes South

CARSON CITY — Term limits and redistricting are about to end Northern Nevada’s decades-long stranglehold on key leadership posts in the Legislature.

Because the top leaders shape each legislative session, that should mean more power for Southern Nevada.

After redistricting, Clark County will have almost three of every four legislative seats. And in the 2013 session, for the first time, term limits will be in full effect in both houses and will strip the seniority that has kept Northern Nevada law­makers in key roles.

Numerous legislative sources say three of the top four legislative leaders at the next session likely will be Las Vegans.

Democrat Mo Denis and Republican Michael Roberson should lead the state Senate, while Marcus Conklin may be named Assembly speaker by his Democratic colleagues.

The only Northern Nevadan with a key leadership post could be Pat Hickey, of Reno, as Assembly minority leader.

The state Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker decide the agendas of their houses. They name committee members and chairs, and can introduce the bills they want and can block bills from coming to votes.

The minority leaders advise them which of their members should serve on specific committees.

All four leaders convene private party caucuses at which they discuss their positions before bills are passed or rejected.

For most of the last 30 years, state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, was either the Senate majority leader or minority leader while Joe Dini, D-Yerington, was Assembly speaker. Northern and rural Nevadans also routinely have captured the Assembly minority leadership post.

People like Raggio and Dini became leaders not only because of their brains and organizational abilities, but because of seniority.

Raggio served 38 years in the state Senate before his resignation last January. Dini accumulated 36 years in the Assembly before he retired in 2002.

While voters in their Northern Nevada districts kept re-electing them, Southern Nevada voters defeated legislators like John Vergiels, a one-time Assembly speaker and one-time state Senate majority leader, ending his opportunity to hold leadership posts indefinitely.

FADING POWER IN THE NORTH

Former Assemblyman Bob Price, D-North Las Vegas, sees Southern Nevada taxpayers benefiting because of the fading power of Washoe County and rural legislators.

"It certainly will be of benefit to Clark County if, because of term limits and redistricting, all the leaders are not from the North," said Price, who now lives in Sparks.

As a legislator in 1991, Price was one of the primary advocates for the "fair share" legislation that blocked Washoe County from siphoning off nearly $10 million a year in sales taxes generated in Clark County and rural counties.

During that memorable session, legislators also moved to reduce pay disparities between low-paid professors at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, versus their counterparts at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The big difference that session was Vergiels, not Raggio, led the Senate, while Jim McGaughney, a Republican from Las Vegas, was Assembly minority leader, not a Northern Nevadan. It was one of two sessions in the last 30 years when a Las Vegas Democrat led the Senate while at the same time a Las Vegas Republican had a key leadership post in the other house. They worked together to override objections from Reno and some parts of rural Nevada.

PUBLIC WORKS HEADING SOUTH?

Fred Lokken, a Web college and political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, sees Clark County getting the lion’s share of public works projects in coming years because of its dominance of the Legislature. He expects there even will be some talk of moving the Capitol to Las Vegas, but he doubts that occurs because of the infrastructure investments made in Carson City.

He also doubts in today’s Southern Nevada-dominated government that the state Transportation Board would have approved $500 million to construct Inter­state 580 between Reno and Washoe Valley, north of Carson City. Right of way for the project was purchased back in the 1980s. The new freeway, which opens in June, will carry 25,000 vehicles a day. That’s comparable to Craig Road, just east of Rancho Drive in Las Vegas, which carries 27,000 vehicles a day. Portions of Interstate 15 carry more than 250,000 vehicles a day.

"I see major public works projects going to Clark County," Lokken said. "It is what a democracy is supposed to be. Government is supposed to serve the people, and the people are in the South. Clark County generates most of the revenue for the state. We have had powerful incumbents in the North."

Public works projects are especially significant now because they create jobs and all parts of the state are suffering from high unemployment, he said.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at UNR, said the Northern advantage already has ended.

"When Raggio left that was the end of it. There will have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances before a Northern Nevadan gets a key post," he said.

"Northerners will say that is not fair, while Southerners will say it is time we rebalanced the scale."

TERM LIMITS CHANGE LANDSCAPE

Term limits mean legislators no longer can serve more than 12 years in each house. That will end the ability of Washoe County and rural Nevada voters to keep electing the same people until they become legislative leaders or committee chairs because of their seniority.

Roberson can thank term limits, at least in part, for his expected ascension to Republican leader of the state Senate. Roberson was elected last year, so he is still a freshman senator.

But term limits have knocked out Fallon’s Mike McGinness and Tuscarora’s Dean Rhoads, Republicans who could have stood in his way to gaining a leadership post.

Figuring out the future Assembly leadership team is more problematic. Conklin, D-Las Vegas, now the majority leader, likely will become the speaker, although he may face challenges from fellow Democrats William Horne of Las Vegas and Debbie Smith of Sparks.

Smith now is a long shot. Only four of the current 26 Democratic Assembly members are from outside of Clark County.

But 20 years ago Smith would have been the favored candidate for speaker, according to Herzik. But because of Southern Nevada’s dominance, he doubts she has any chance.

Hickey could be the sole Northern Nevadan with a key leadership post. Nine of the current Republican Assembly members are from rural Nevada and seven from Clark County.

REDISTRICTING HASTENS SHIFT SOUTH

In addition to term limits, Southern Nevada has a greater chance to dominate the Legislature over the next decade because of redistricting.

Because of Clark County’s huge growth compared to the rest of the state over the last 10 years, one state Senate seat and one Assembly seat shifted from the North into Clark County under the redistricting maps drawn up by District Judge James T. Russell and his three special masters.

Now 15 of the 21 state Senate seats and 30 of the 42 Assembly seats are entirely in Clark County. One state Senate seat and one Assembly seat also are partly in Clark County.

Under the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court one-man, one-vote decision, election districts must be drawn as equal in population as possible. Since Clark County has almost 73 percent of the state’s population, then almost 73 percent of the seats in the Legislature should be in that county.

Before the Supreme Court decision, the state Senate was dominated by rural senators. Each of the 17 counties had one senator.

So, even in 1965 when Clark County had more than half of the state population, its state senator, B. Mahlon Brown, had his county’s sole Senate vote, the same as Harvey Humphrey in sparsely populated Esmeralda County.

Lokken said Clark County’s road to dominance could be thwarted by warfare in its own delegation.

A battle between Southern Nevadans over who becomes speaker, for example, could cause a rift in the delegation and lead to the selection of a Northern Nevadan.

"That remains the wild card," Lokken said. "In the North, members even can work across aisles. That hasn’t been the case always in Clark County."

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

 

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