Nevada Legislature: Halfway done with a lot to do

CARSON CITY — State legislators will reach the 60th day, or halfway point, of the 2013 legislative session on Thursday.

Their accomplishments? The list is rather slim.

They have passed four bills into law, one of them to ensure they are paid their $146.29 per day salaries.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has signed a bill authorizing online gaming, a bill that provides a new consolidated tax formula for distributing state taxes to local governments, and a bill enacting new rules for high school students who want to serve on the 21-member Nevada Youth Legislature.

And on Thursday the Assembly kicked Assemblyman Steven Brooks, D-North Las Vegas, out of office.

That’s about it.

But Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton and Senate Finance Chairwoman Debbie Smith all are confident they will complete the necessary work to pass hundreds of bills and a balanced state budget and adjourn on June 3, the final day of the session.

“We are still talking,” said Denis, D-Las Vegas, about the Democrat-Republican relationship, a situation that did not exist in the partisan bickering in the 2011 session.

Denis and Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, often kid around on the Senate floor.

That ability to communicate will be important in May when the inevitable debate on whether to tax more will be conducted.

Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said her committee already has started to approve less controversial state agency budgets, a step that puts them a little ahead of the last session.

Smith noted that there are all new legislative leaders and committee chairs in 2013, and yet bill introductions and approvals are almost the same as in 2011. The Assembly also is on target, she added, despite the problems caused by the Brooks saga. Smith’s housemate in Carson City is Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who said she was threatened by Brooks in January.

“The emotional stress has been terrible,” Smith said. “It has been an incredible distraction on the Assembly in light of all the work that must be done.”

MANY BILLS WILL DIE APRIL 12

Legislators have introduced 1,024 bills, including 447 in the past two weeks. That is an important number to remember, because most of those bills face an April 12 deadline to be heard and passed out of their committees or, under legislative rules, they are dead this session.

Expect hundreds of bills — but no bills judged to be essential — to die unheard in committee.

The deadline largely is a way for committee chairs to weed out unnecessary bills without embarrassing legislators, letting them die rather than killing them through a vote. As an example, Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, one session let a resolution to establish a state lottery die without a vote. That way voters could not determine who supported or opposed the popular proposal.

At that same first-house deadline in the 2011 session, 312 bills died. Typically about half of the bills that are introduced each legislative session become law. As of April Fools Day in 2011, Sandoval had signed nine bills into law, while 1,059 had been introduced in the Legislature.

Before that session ended, 500 were signed into law. Sandoval also vetoed 28 bills. So far in 2013, he has vetoed no bills.

Many committees have only four or six more meetings before the deadline. It will be virtually impossible for committee chairs to schedule, hear and act on 30 more bills unless they order evening meetings.

“The staff is working 80- to 90-hour weeks already,” Carlton told her committee in a Thursday meeting designed to inform freshmen of what lies ahead. “There are no snow days now. You have to get things done. We have no makeup time available. I understand your apprehension. I had it myself last session, my first time on this committee.”

Denis noted that some bills are exempt from the deadline. Those are the ones that the Legislature’s fiscal analysts determine have a “fiscal note.” That means they will cost money to implement.

SANDOVAL BILLS EXEMPT

Among bills with fiscal notes are the series of bills introduced for Sandoval. One would authorize spending $5 million of state funds to beef up the budget for the Millennium Scholarship.

This fund provides $10,000 college scholarships for qualified Nevada high school graduates. It has teetered on the verge of insolvency for several years. With the $5 million infusion, Sandoval anticipates it will have sufficient funds through 2017.

Sandoval also is proposing to exempt businesses from the modified business 1.17 percent payroll tax if they donate funds to pay for scholarships for qualified students. The catch is only that a combined total of $5 million in exemptions will be given.

Denis and Kirkpatrick have the authority to exempt bills from the deadline and to introduce new bills in emergencies. But Denis said no emergency bills are lurking out there as far as he knows.

Still to be introduced in the coming months are the five bills — public schools funding, federal and state appropriations, salary and capital projects — needed to close the session.

In the past, some leaders have forced passage of special bills at the end of sessions by withholding support of the funding bill. At one session, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, balked at supporting final approval until his colleagues passed a bill allowing elementary schools to spank unruly children. He got his way.

Because of term limits and the unexpected defeat of Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, in November’s election, the leaders of both the Senate and Assembly are new this session.

And no longer is there the institutional memory of term-limited Sens. Dean Rhoads, Valerie Wiener, Mike Schneider or Mike McGinness, who retired last year with a combined 94 years of legislative services.

The Senate has no one like 10-term Raggio, who died last year. He served 39 years in the Senate. The Assembly lacks an assemblyman like John Marvel, who died last week at age 86. He served 28 years in the Assembly before his defeat in 2006.

Raggio, in particular, excelled at wearing down opponents so they would reach agreement needed to adjourn sessions. The conservative Republican sacrificed his political career when he voted for an $833 million tax increase that ended the 2003 session after a six-week partisan logjam.

What the Legislature does have are 15 freshmen who have yet to experience the grueling end-of-session chaos when lawmakers must compromise and work three or more weeks without weekend breaks. Occasionally they work all night.

Denis said the committees will work extra hours beginning today as they return from spending Easter with their families.

“They knew this was coming, and they have been working to schedule time,” he said. “I think they are ready to do whatever work they need to do.”

Legislators have a good reason to speed up their production. Those $146.29-per-day salaries end Thursday. Over the years, many legislators have enjoyed pointing out that they are working for free once the second half of the session begins.

But that is only partially true. They still will be paid a $152-a-day living allowance. None need to stand outside the local Costco with a sign asking for financial help.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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