YERINGTON – After a legislative career that included a record eight terms as Assembly speaker, Joe Dini says he knows a sure-fire way for legislators to avoid partisanship in the session that begins Feb. 4 and leave Carson City in June not hating each other.
"They need to have a couple of highballs together," said 83-year-old Dini as he sat in the living room in his home in the small town of Yerington, 68 miles southeast of Carson City.
"They need to put aside their differences and work for the good of the state, take care of issues for the average people," he said. "They need to come up with a plan for the future of the state."
His wife, Mournye Landing Dini, isn’t quite as earthy as her Democratic husband in discussing the key to promoting harmony at the Legislature, rocked since the 2003 session by partisan battles and bickering over taxes. She said there was a lot more togetherness in the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s because after lawmakers finished their daily business, they went out to dinner together and became friends.
She should know. Landing Dini served 32 years as a secretary in the Assembly, the last 22 as the chief clerk. In that job, she stood directly in front of Dini in the Assembly chambers. After the deaths of their respective spouses, they married. Their marriage has lasted 17 years.
Today Dini, who has suffered numerous health problems, struggles to get around with a cane. He seldom gets out of town and wishes they could travel more. He was able on Jan. 16 to attend Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address in Carson City, where he received a standing ovation from legislators. But a trip to baseball’s spring training in Phoenix last year led to a three-week stay in an Arizona hospital. He lost 40 pounds and needed kidney dialysis treatment until July.
"I feel all right, but I cannot walk," he said.
Although Dini says he doesn’t keep up with the Legislature, he has a good idea of the partisanship that has reigned since he retired in 2002 after a record 36 years as an Assembly member.
In his long career, Assembly members frequently would hold recesses and head across the street to the seedy Jack’s Bar, which is now shuttered. Over drinks and playing pool, he says they became friendly, resolved differences and passed good bills. He remembers when they worked out an agreement on a transportation bill, drew up amendments on Jack’s napkins and passed the bill later that night.
Some after-hour meetings didn’t yield legislative victories, though. As a beginning legislator in the 1967 session, Dini remembers being asked out to dinner and drinks by a group of eight rural Republican legislators. When he started talking politics, he was told to shut up because they didn’t talk politics once they left the Legislature.
He noted that in the early 1990s he and then-Assembly Minority Leader Lou Bergevin, R-Gardnerville, had agreed on a plan to tax services such as haircuts and beauty shop visits. Bergevin was supposed to deliver the support of 10 Republicans while Dini would come up with the Democrats needed to pass the bill. At the last minute, Bergevin said Republicans balked at the plan.
Approval of that bill might have made a lot of difference for today’s state government since the economy is largely service-based with only about one-third of services subject to the state sales tax. The proposal to tax services is expected to be brought up again at this year’s session.
Dini didn’t hold it against Bergevin. He even delivered the eulogy at his Republican friend’s funeral in 1998.
POWER SHARING IN 1995
The best example of the lower level of partisanship in Dini’s era was the 1995 session when Democrats and Republicans each had 21 members in the Assembly. Dini shared the speakership with then-Assemblyman Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville.
"Everybody said the session would be a disaster, but we worked together. That is not happening today and it is really sad," said Hettrick, now executive director of the Nevada Dairy Commission. "We sent out a letter to everyone and said we can come out looking worthless or we can accomplish something. People were more friendly with each other than now. You no longer have friends on the other side of the aisle."
Hettrick also remembers when as a freshman in 1993 he spoke with Dini about supporting one of his bills.
"Joe looked at me and said, ‘I hate it, but if you have the votes, go for it.’ He didn’t play games with it. Today they would kill it or not even hold a hearing on it. It’s my way or no way."
"That was the finest session in the history of the state," said former Assemblyman Pete Ernaut, R-Reno, then the Assembly co-majority leader and now a political consultant aligned with Sandoval. "We were forced to work together and we did."
A check back to 1995, however, shows it was a time when the state had a robust economy, no moves were made to increase taxes, and state government used surpluses to build a rainy day fund.
Dini credits "my lieutenants" – Democrats Richard Perkins and Barbara Buckley, along with Lindsey Jydstrup, the director of the Assembly Democratic Caucus – with making his career look better than it really was. Perkins and Buckley later became speakers.
Trouble appears to lie ahead at this year’s Legislature unless the parties can reach compromises.
In the 2013 session, there likely will be a Democratic move to increase business taxes along the line of the 2 percent business margins tax plan advocated by the Nevada State Education Association. But without four votes from Republicans, the plan is dead.
Dini believes there is no chance that the tax will pass. He said the recession is the longest and worst to strike Nevada in his lifetime and won’t be ending anytime soon. Many businesses in his town have shut down and more will close if the Legislature imposes more taxes on businesses.
"Everyone is afraid of a new tax," he said.
DEMOCRATIC PLAN COSTLY
But the tax battle is about to begin again. Democrats announced a plan to expand full-day kindergarten and preschool education, and reduce class sizes without offering a way to pay for the improvements. State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, did not call for higher taxes, but emphasized he hopes Sandoval and Republican legislators will listen to why education changes are necessary and eventually look at available revenue.
In his State of the State address, the governor proposed expanding full-day kindergarten and spending more for public schools.
Denis said both Democrats and Republicans have pledged to get along, even though they differ on major issues. He noted that he and Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, along with state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, for months have been attending business meetings and functions together to talk about the Legislature.
One example of the divisiveness that can strike the Legislature came in 2011 when Senate Democratic leaders sniped at Roberson. State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and veteran Sen. Michael Schneider, both D-Las Vegas, tried to diminish Roberson by calling him "the rookie senator." Although a political newcomer, Roberson, a fiery speaker, did not hesitate in challenging their views during floor sessions.
Dini, who "sometimes" supports President Barack Obama, calls himself a "moderate" Democrat, a rarity in rural Nevada where Republicans hold a 2-to-1 advantage in many counties.
Gone is the time when rural Nevada had as many Democratic legislators as Republicans and most of them held leadership posts. Thirty and 40 years ago, Dini said, Democrats were more moderate and won because they were war veterans.
Even though he served a record 36 years as an Assembly member, Dini receives a legislative pension of just $700 a month. His wife gets a much higher pension because of her long career as a full-time employee.
She has two children, and Dini, four sons. His son George is Yerington mayor. Two of the sons run Dini’s Lucky Club, a small casino and restaurant that has been a family business for generations.
Joe Dini ran the business for 55 years.
Dini hopes to visit the Legislature in the spring when lawmakers hold their old-timers day.
"My legs are plugged up now, but I want to make it there," he said.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.