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Ex-Nevada Assemblyman Bob Price leaves colorful legislative legacy

Updated January 9, 2019 - 7:04 pm

CARSON CITY — It can truthfully be said that Bob Price’s legacy in the Nevada Assembly includes tax-cutting, extraterrestrials, brothels, a near-fatal heart attack, an office squatter named Merlin, guitar sing-a-longs in chambers, extra pay for harried staffers, government transparency and ethics, equal rights and constitutional protections.

The word “character” might not be big enough to describe him.

Price, a longtime Democratic assemblyman from North Las Vegas who had faced health challenges after contracting an infection during a 2015 hospital stay, died of a heart attack Friday at his home in Sparks, his wife, Nancy, confirmed Tuesday. He was 82 and had moved to Sparks after leaving the Legislature in 2002.

Price, who was born in DeLand, Florida, on May 23, 1936, arrived in Nevada in 1955. An electrician by trade and union business manager who had worked at the Nevada Nuclear Test site, he served 28 years in the Assembly from 1974 to 2002. He was one of just 11 people to serve that long in a legislative career that spanned 14 regular and three special sessions.

“I think that I would like to be remembered as a friendly person who was interested in what was going on in our community and tried my best to do what I could to be of any assistance,” he said in a 2008 interview conducted as part of a Legislature oral history project. “I always felt it was important to try — and this is not unusual among politicians — to get along with folks and to learn what the various subject matters were and to try and get your two cents in. I really have enjoyed that.”

‘Bigger than life’

Price chaired a half dozen Assembly committees during his time in office and was the longtime chair of the Committee on Taxation and a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Equanimity, not to mention a sense of humor and whimsy, were his hallmarks.

“Bob was just bigger than life — he was happy, smiling, he’d be out campaigning and walking door-to-door and if somebody needed help with something, he’d stop and help them fix it,” said Tom Collins, a Democratic assemblyman in the 1990s who, while serving as a Clark County commissioner, worked to have a Las Vegas park and community center named for Price in 2007.

“I felt like a lot of people that have known Bob forever needed to see his name on something,” said Collins, who also once unsuccessfully challenged Price for Assembly. They later served together after redistricting put them in separate districts, and the two lawmakers and their wives shared a rented house in Carson City during sessions.

“He was very smart, very serious. He knew the process. He knew how to get things done there,” Collins said. “He was probably one of the best people that Nevada was fortunate to ever get to know.”

Price sponsored, supported and/or helped win passage of significant legislation, including eliminating the state’s grocery tax, which was abolished by referendum in 1984 after back-to-back Legislatures endorsed the move in 1981 and 1983.

But he is also remembered for working to pass legislation to rename Nevada State Route 375 the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” in recognition of frequent area UFO sightings and the road’s proximity to the Test site and secretive Area 51 Air Force facility.

It took some effort for the idea to catch on with lawmakers, some of whom considered it frivolous. But Price and other backers saw its marketing potential.

“It was an interesting fight,” his wife recalled Tuesday, “First, it was called the Alien Highway. But they didn’t want it mixed up as immigrants coming across the highway.”

When the naming did go through, in April 1996, actors from the film “Independence Day,” set for release that July, came to the dedication ceremony in the tiny town of Rachel. Price attended as well, wearing a Darth Vader mask.

Price for a time also gave over part of his legislative office to a “lobbyist” who went by the name of Merlin and thought himself an extraterrestrial.

“I let him share my office because he had quite a bit of stuff. He was a very nice and well-liked young man — just a little bit of a character,” Price said.

‘Price Days’

Among more serious-minded legislative pursuits, Price worked to win paid days off for legislative staffers to compensate them for long extra hours worked at the end of every session — which came to be known as “Price Days.”

Those frantic, end-of-session scrambles also saw him press consistently to change from biannual to annual legislative sessions. At the prodding at his wife, then a citizen lobbyist, he also worked to make proposed legislation available for public review.

And Price supported contemporary causes of the day, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, recalling in 2008 that he had been “very opposed to issues that limit women’s rights because of the organizations that I’d worked with and also having been married to a politician.” Married three times, his second wife, Brenda, had served on the North Las Vegas City Council.

Nancy Price, who served as a University of Nevada regent and also a chief master sergeant in the Nevada Air National Guard, met Price in 1982 when she was doing on opposition research for a friend who was running against him for Assembly. They married March 3, 1984 in a ceremony attended by then-Gov. Richard Bryan and the chairmen of both major parties.

“I was a Republican at the time, and we had the wedding at his house, and when people came, it was, are you a Republican or Democrat,” Nancy Price said. “We had a tug of war, and we put a tape down the backyard, which was the party line, and it was, who was going to pull who over the party line.”

Their honeymoon was spent at a special session of the Legislature called by the governor, who, Price said, had earlier agreed to the Assemblyman’s request to schedule the session around his wedding.

Price also supported creation of the state film office, strengthening reporting requirements for lobbyists and protections for reporters, and doing away with other sales taxes, such as the tax on college textbooks.

But in 1997, when a freshmen lawmaker proposed legislation to outlaw prostitution, Price studied the issue and came to see how much tax income brothels provide to counties. That led him to lead a “fact-finding tour” for lawmakers at the Mustang Ranch in Storey County, outside Carson City.

Strumming and legislating

“It’s a little bit hard to choose one particular bill because over the years, I was very happy with and proud of different ones that I had been involved in,” Price said in 2008. “I was very happy that we were able to take the sales tax off of food. I was happy and proud of that.”

In fact, Price seemed to delight in legislative service, and had strong faith in the power of government to effect positive change. He belonged to the National Conference of State Legislatures for many years, interacting with lawmakers from around the country, and served on the Council of State Governments.

When a change in prevailing attitudes on raising taxes in the Legislature forced him out of his Taxation Committee chairmanship, he was given a consolation assignment heading a committee on constitutional amendments. A self-taught constitutional sage, he listed constitutional history, music, legislative procedure as hobbies in his official biography.

“He was fun-loving,” Nancy Price said. “But he was serious about the work he did.”

Near the end of legislative sessions, when lawmakers often would have to wait for bills to be printed before they could vote on them, Price would break out his guitar on the floor of the chamber. He had hosted his own country music show in Las Vegas in the 1950s, when Las Vegas had only one television station.

Health became an issue in the late 1990s. In 1998, he suffered a heart attack in the Reno airport and literally dropped dead but was revived by a woman who had lost her father the same way.

“Leave it to Bob, a pretty girl came over and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Nancy Price joked. He subsequently underwent a triple bypass surgery.

Price lost the 2002 Democratic primary for his seat, prompting he and his wife to move to Sparks, where she had lived before they married. He broke a hip in 2015 and in the hospital contracted MRSA. Though he survived the infection, it ultimately left him bedridden, and he lived with diabetes and a pacemaker. In spite of those challenges, his wife said he was happy with his life and seemed to be doing well right up to his death at home Friday.

“I was sure he was going to outlive me,” she said.

Besides his wife, Price’s survivors include a sister, Edna Schwenk of Erie, Pa.; two daughters, Teresa Price and Cherie Price-Steiner, both of Las Vegas; a son, William Price of New Orleans, and a stepson, David Bogan of Sparks. Another daughter, Amber Price, and stepson, Thomas Horner, died earlier.

Two memorial remembrances have been scheduled, one in Las Vegas on Jan. 19, from 2-5 p.m. at the recreation center that bears his name, at 2100 Bonnie Lane. A memorial luncheon at the Legislature in Carson City is also scheduled for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14.

Contact Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-0661. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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