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The horsemen (and horsewomen) of sine die mean the end is near in Carson City — LIVE BLOG

Updated June 3, 2019 - 7:27 pm

This blog about the closing days of the Nevada Legislature will be continuously updated between now and the close of the session, expected at midnight on Monday. Newer items appear at the top, while older posts appear below. Send comments, suggestions or observations to Review-Journal Politics and Government Editor Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

7:30 p.m., June 3, 2019 (the final day)

CARSON CITY — It’s End Times, Carson City style.

Toward the end of every legislative session, you look for the Signs of Sine Die. The passage of the budget bills. The semi-heartfelt farewells to term-limited or otherwise-departing lawmakers. The committee meetings that stretch well past sunset. The “legislative days” that straddle the line separating regular human days.

Like hostages in an especially long drama, the denizens of the legislative building are at the mercy of lawmakers and their whims for 119 calendar days. But on the final day, time is finally on their side. Once midnight strikes, the session must end, no matter what business is waiting to be transacted.

And, like the Revelation of St. John, you look for the Horsemen and Horsewomen of Sine Die, the appearance of whom in the legislative building’s hallways herald not a fiery doom, but the blissful release from the grips of 120 days of wrangling over budgets, amendments, bill language and esoteric principles of the constitution.

Among the Horsemen and Horsewomen:

  • Brenda Erdoes, the legislative counsel. A very powerful but little-seen figure in the legislative building, Erdoes not only supervises all of the lawyers in the building, but she gives legal advice to lawmakers of both parties. When she’s seen in the hallway, usually toting a stack of papers, you can sense the end is near.
  • Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive officer of R&R Partners, the Las Vegas-based advertising agency. Vassiliadis is one of the building’s top lobbyists, and his professed aversion to hanging out in the legislative building means he usually shows up at the end, when deals need to be finalized or problems that require a soft touch erupt.
  • Legislative fiscal staff: Under appreciated budget wizards, they, like Erodes, are essential to the legislative building’s function. They’re the people who crunch the numbers for lawmakers, the numbers that allow them to balance the budgets and spend the money for the next two years. While slide rules have been replaced with spreadsheets, the math done on them is the same. And when they are shuttling back and forth between offices, things are getting close to finishing.
  • Jeremy Aguero: The principal of Applied Analysis, Aguero is the go-to guy for research and consulting on big legislative policy measures (think taxes or, this year, the re-write of the state’s 52-year-old school spending plan). Aguero answers questions all session long, but he’s helped close down big bills more than once in Carson City.
  • The governor’s staff: Separation of powers — and astute politics — require the executive to keep a respectful distance from the legislative branch of government. (In Carson City, the Capitol building where the governor keeps his office is separated from the legislative headquarters by a grove of trees, a fence and an expansive courtyard.) But coordination between lawmakers and the governor is essential at the end, when he has to indicate what he will, or will not, sign. So gubernatorial staffers visiting leadership offices is a sign things are coming to a close.
  • The custodial staff: The legislative building is one of the cleanest government buildings anywhere, thanks to the unseen staff of janitors who don’t come out until after most people have left. But on the last day, they show up when tons of people are still around, waiting to watch the closing ceremonies. Somebody has to recycle all the dead bills, unadopted amendments and — Lord have mercy — half-empty pizza boxes in the unkempt press room.

1:40 p.m., June 3, 2019 (the final day)

CARSON CITY — It’s the kind of drama that often attends the end of a legislative session. An overflowing press box. A gallery full of lobbyists, watching intently and typing on phones. Lawmakers raising their voices in impassioned speeches.

Nevada Legislature: You can still bring the drama.

It happened on the Senate floor just after noon today. An amendment to Senate Bill 551 was under debate (no, not the one I posted about earlier; that amendment was rescinded in an even-later night, behind-the-bar meeting). The bill as amended would, among other things, repeal a scheduled decrease in the state’s payroll tax. And it was clearly indicated that it required a two-thirds vote, in part because of that extension.

(That came despite the fact that the Legislative Counsel Bureau had earlier opined that a two-thirds vote was not necessary to extend an expiring tax.)

Democrats spoke in favor, Republicans against. The GOP said they’d been told by legislative staffers that there was an extra $100 million in the budget this session, which made the taxes unnecessary. But Democrats said those were one-time funds, unsuitable for funding an ongoing expense such as education.

“We must do everything that we can to put funding toward education,” said Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, the majority leader and author of the bill and its amendment. She added later: “To me, this is a choice for corporate tax breaks or funding education.”

Sen. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, compared the bill to stuffing a turkey with so much pork, it was coming out the poor bird’s beak. (Porkey? Tuork?)

The question was called. A roll-call vote was held, 13 in favor (all Democrats) and eight against (all Republicans). The amendment was approved by voice vote.

Then, a vote on the bill in the main. Same roll-call, same vote. The bill had failed to get two-thirds (that would require 14 votes, but not a single Republican defected.)

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, moved to reconsider the bill. Another party-line vote, followed by a brief recess, one that actually was brief, especially by legislative standards.)

But when everyone came back, there was a new amendment, No. 1120. And this one had a couple of interesting provisions: First, it would extend the payroll tax, just as the previous version had. But thie version did not require a two-thirds vote. And, in a move designed to strike at the heart of certain Republican senators, it also erased from the law the Education Savings Account program, which would have allowed the state’s portion of per-pupil funding to be used at private schools. (The program had not had any money put into it since the Nevada Supreme Court found its funding scheme unconstitutional.)

It was a bold and highly aggressive move, one designed to draw at least one Republican to vote to save the beloved ESA program. But even the father of ESAs —state Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas — said he’d remain opposed, at that hour, and in 11 hours from then (when, not coincidentially, the session will come to a close.)

“I think the people of Nevada should be respected,” boomed Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Sparks. And by that he meant respecting the voters who approved the two-thirds requirement in the first place.

Another call for the question. Another party-line roll call vote. Another voice vote amending the bill. And then final passage, same as before: 13 Democrats in favor, eight Republicans against. The bill was approved (albeit with less than two thirds, which clouds its future if an anticipated lawsuit is eventually filed.)

The bill now heads to the Assembly, where we can expect more of the same drama.

11:10 a.m., June 3, 2019 (the final day)

CARSON CITY — It’s late on a Sunday night here in the capital. Notwithstanding the hour, however, the Senate Finance Committee is working through a long list of bills. On Monday, the 2019 session will end, and lawmakers are rushing to get bills to the floor.

Appearing before the committee is Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, to present an amendment to her bill, Senate Bill 551.

Only one problem: Senate Bill 551 is not on the Finance Committee’s posted agenda.

Oh, there’s another problem, too: The amendment (No. 6101) isn’t on the agenda, either. Or on NELIS, the bill-tracking section of the Nevada Legislature’s excellent website.

Copies of the amendment — unironically called a “mock up” — were passed out in the committee room, for anyone still there as the clock stretched toward midnight. It was 35 pages of stricken out and underlined text in various bright colors, some light reading for lawmakers at the end of a long day.

To be fair, Cannizzaro explained the contents of the amendment out loud. But if you wanted to read it for yourself, and you just happened to be watching the meeting on the internet, you were out of luck.

And nearly 12 hours later, if you searched the NELIS the system for the amendment, you were still out of luck. The most recent meeting listed for Senate Bill 551 was June 2, complete with an agenda (that didn’t show the bill) and a motion to amend and pass as amended (without the amendment).

Understand, no laws were broken: The Legislature is not subject to the state’s Open Meeting Law, and during the final days of the session, following those rules could actually thwart the lawmaking process. But if a document is printed and ready to be handed out to the public, how hard is it to post it on the internet also? In fact, lobbyists who don’t supply their supporting materials 24 hours in advance run afoul of committee rules.

The internet is a great tool for citizens to keep track of what their government is up to, but their ability to do so is only as good as the agency is at keeping material up to date. And for those citizens who don’t have the time, money or desire to travel to the seat of government and stay up late, well, SB 551’s new amendment is still a mystery.

Oh, by the way, here’s what the amendment actually does, courtesy of reporters who were actually there.

* * *

Quote of the weekend: “I don’t mind if you screw me, but could you at least do it during daylight hours?” — A lobbyist, who must necessarily remain anonymous, regarding the last-minute, end-of-session legislative shenanigans.

4:20 p.m. June 2, 2019

CARSON CITY — Nevada’s part-time, citizen Legislature takes a lot of knocks.

Conflicts abound. It’s difficult for regular people in private-sector employment to find a job that lets them take at least four full months off every other year. The salary is low, and you get what you pay for, or so the saying goes.

But sometimes, it works out well to have somebody who’s been there, done that and got the T-shirt working on laws. That experience can avoid simple mistakes and add considerably to the effectiveness of legislation.

Take Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, for example.

In his career, Kieckhefer has worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, covering the Nevada Legislature. He’s also worked as a spokesman for then-Gov. Jim Gibbons, and as the public information officer for the state Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, Kieckhefer is the director of client relations for the McDonald Carano law firm.

That experience, first as an ink-stained wretch and then as a government flack, helped Kieckhefer craft an important amendment to Senate Bill 287, a bill to reform the public records act.

Originally, the bill would have allowed for civil penalties assessed against government agencies that were shown to have improperly withheld public records ranging all the way up to $250,000. That hefty figure grew out of frustration on the part of reporters with public agencies that simply refused to comply with legitimate requests for records, and even engaged in lengthy court fights to obtain those records.

I’ve known reporters who’ve been presented with five-figure bills just so an agency could search for a record, much less make copies of it! (SB287 would also limit fees to those costs directly associated with copying a record, excluding labor and staff time.)

But public agencies raised legitimate points in reply. Some people (usually not reporters) make sweeping or frivolous requests of government agencies, taking up valuable staff time. Some make requests for documents designed more to vex a public agency than to hold one accountable. Some people even make requests that are fulfilled, but then never drop by to pick up their copies.

Kieckhefer said he’s struggled to get public records from agencies as a reporter, but he’s seen the other side, too: Gibbons was subjected to public-records requests during his tenure for texts sent via his state-issued cell phone to women not his wife. And Kieckhefer worked for one of the most high-profile state departments, and knows how government agencies view public records requests.

That experience led him – and fellow Sen. Melanie Schieble, D-Las Vegas, herself an employee of the Clark County district attorney’s office, which has faced its own issues responding to public records requests in the past – to be able to craft an amendment that allowed the bill to advance and pass the Senate unanimously today.

Instead of those hefty fines, the new schedule starts at $1,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation and $10,000 for third and subsequent violations. The money will go to the State Library, Archives and Public Records Department, to be set aside for improving the public’s access to public records.

It’s not to say that another lawmaker wouldn’t or couldn’t have come up with a similar compromise. (The bill itself was sponsored by Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, a retired public employee.) But it was an example of how two citizen legislators’ experience outside of the legislative building helped them craft a compromise that sprung a stalled bill from committee purgatory to Senate passage.

2:04 p.m. June 2, 2019

CARSON CITY — This is the time at the biennial legislative session when things get punchy.

Tempers flare. Jaws drop. Strange things start to happen, usually at odd hours.

The rules? There are no rules. Even the passage of time feels suspended in the legislative building. Sessions that were supposed to start at 11 a.m. actually begin closer to 7 p.m. Time has no meaning at 401 S. Carson Street, as if we’re all comfortably ensconced within the gravity well of a hyper-dense star.

The words “dumpster fire” have been uttered. More than once.

Although every session is unique, more than a few lobbyists have noted this session is different from previous ones. Less personal, more formal somehow. There are a few reasons for it.

The large number of new people. The 2019 Legislature is notable for a large number of freshman lawmakers in both houses. More than a century of legislative experience departed after the 2017 gavel fell. Some lawmakers ran for higher office. Some didn’t seek re-election. Some took jobs outside of politics. And the lost experience can’t be replaced, at least not very quickly.

In the Assembly, 12 members are newly elected, and an additional four were appointed to fill vacancies. In the state Senate, eight of the 21 members are new, and three were appointed to fill vacancies. But of the new senators, five have previous experience in the Assembly so they’re not truly freshmen.

The scandals: Since the session began, two lawmakers have resigned (Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, after agreeing to plead guilty to federal charges related to misuse of campaign funds and Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, after being accused of sexual harassment.) Atkinson’s resignation thrust Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, into the role of Senate leader, a meteoric rise after being elected in 2016 and serving in just one regular session. Cannizzaro — who survived an unsuccessful recall attempt — is the first woman to hold the post.

The tragedies: The Assembly lost a member with the sudden death of Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, whose seat remains vacant. Thompson was chairman of the Assembly’s Education Committee. Lawmakers remembered him on Friday with a concurrent resolution and the planting of two purple rose bushes outside the Assembly chamber in his memory. In addition, the Assembly has been down another member, as Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, has battled health issues for most of the session. (Hambrick is back in the capital for the close of the session, however, and has become a minor celebrity in the hallways.)

The fire: Up the road from the legislative building, Carson City institution Adele’s Cafe and Bar sits closed and boarded up, the victim of an April fire. Long a preferred watering hole for lawmakers, lobbyists and even the press, its closure — Adele’s won’t reopen until long after the session is over — has scattered legislative denizens to the four winds, and its loss has been the talk of many people in the hallways of the legislative building. No matter what happened in the legislative building, Adele’s was a respite, a community gathering place, and something of a town square for participants in the legislative process.

The new rules: In 2015, then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson succeeded in passing reforms that strictly limit what lobbyists can do when interacting with elected officials. Lawmakers no longer allow lobbyists to buy meals or drinks, and even make small gestures — say, bringing a cup of coffee to a legislative committee secretary.

The upshot of those rules is that there is far less socializing among lobbyists and lawmakers, who are rarely glimpsed at Carson City restaurants and watering holes in the company of lobbyists. Although the rules were designed to promote ethical behavior and limit the perception of improper influence, they also have stymied the legislative process, as much business was accomplished during those out-of-the-building sessions.

A couple of veteran lobbyists say lawmakers mostly work in the legislative building now, where meetings are set and canceled. The best way to buttonhole a lawmaker is to stalk them in the halls and hope for a few minutes of time, they said.

On the other hand, a veteran lobbyist said he’s seen things a lot worse, even under the old rules. The relative inexperience of some members has led to the “hostage taking” of certain bills, which has upset some lobbyists whose legislation is caught in the middle of intramural fights.

But, this lobbyist said, that will change as lawmakers gain more experience. (Although that doesn’t help matters now, as the 2019 session draws to a close.)

Now, all eyes are turning to the closure of the session, a carefully choreographed ballot of bills that must pass, in a certain order and at a certain time, in order to enable lawmakers to complete the session on time by midnight Monday. Of the three players in that drama — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, Cannizzaro and freshman Gov. Steve Sisolak — only Frierson has closed down a legislative session. But at least at this point, it appears things are on pace to end when the clocks strike midnight — even in a place where time has lost its meaning.

This blog has been updated. A previous version incorrectly said Nevada has annual legislative sessions.

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