Tough choices await new lawmakers

CARSON CITY — The 2011 Legislature won’t convene for another 13 months, but already it is clear that a lot of raw rookies will be deciding how the state makes up a potential $2.4 billion spending gap and reapportions the 63 legislative districts.

As it stands now, a minimum of 17 of the 42 Assembly members will be first-termers. And at least eight of the 21 senators will be newcomers — although some of them likely will be Assembly members moving over to the Senate.

“The next session is lining up to be the worst on record, and nearly half of the Legislature will be there for the first time,” said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political science professor. “It makes you feel confident, doesn’t it?”

Aside from the known changes, history shows at least a couple of upsets of incumbents are likely in next year’s general election.

Herzik said the decision in 2011 whether to raise taxes or cut spending at a time when the state may still be in a recession won’t be easy for any legislator, let alone a rookie.

He said reapportionment — the redrawing of legislative district boundaries to reflect the 2010 Census — is the “most partisan of all issues.”

Both Democrats and Republicans will be seeking an advantage for their party through reapportionment. How they draw the districts could determine which party wins seats for 10 years.

Republicans still complain that Democrats, the majority at the 2001 Legislature, gerrymandered Assembly districts to ensure re-election for their party for the next decade. Democrats now hold a 28-14 membership lead in the Assembly. They hold a 12-9 edge in the Senate.

Both parties will want to ensure the districts are drawn so they will have a registration majority.

Barring a radical registration shift in the next few months, Republicans will remain Nevada’s No. 2 party, putting them at a disadvantage in reapportionment hearings.

According to the latest secretary of state records, Democrats hold an 80,000 registered voter advantage, down about 20,000 from the November 2008 election totals.

The main reason for the 40 percent turnover in the Legislature is that the constitutional amendment regarding term limits finally kicks in. Voters in 1996 passed an amendment that limits the time a legislator can serve to 12 years in each chamber.

For that reason, 17 legislators, including Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, won’t be serving at all — or at least in the same chamber — in what promises to be a contentious session.

In all, 10 Assembly members and seven senators cannot run for their current seat in 2010 because of term limits.

On top of that, seven Assembly members and two senators are giving up their seats to run for other offices, or are retiring from political life.

Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, already has resigned, and Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, probably will not seek re-election.

If Gov. Jim Gibbons decides to call the Legislature into session in coming months, the Clark County Commission must name Hardy’s replacement.

Sources say former county commissioner Bruce Woodbury, a Republican whose daughter Melissa serves in the Assembly, wants Hardy’s seat, if only for a brief special session.

Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, has announced he will run in 2010 for a Clark County commission seat. If he wins, then the commission after the November election must name his replacement for the 2011 session.

One of the most contentious primaries next June could come in Clark County, where veteran Assemblyman Chad Christensen, R-Las Vegas, has decided to challenge Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas.

Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Las Vegas, is confident that Republicans will pick up at least a couple of seats in the 2010 election.

“A lot depends on what happens with the economy during the next 11 months,” he said. “If the economy is stagnant and jobs are down, it will be bad for Nevada, but help us in the election. The Democrats in Congress aren’t helping themselves.”

Stewart counts on Republicans gaining at least two seats in the Assembly, but needs more so his party fares better in redrawing legislative district boundaries.

“The Assembly is now out of whack because of reapportionment” in 2001, he said.

Stewart said his district now has more than 90,000 residents, while city districts in Las Vegas have only 15,000.

That is because outlying districts in Clark County made big population gains in the last decade, while urban ones did not.

Under a U.S. Supreme Court decision, districts must be drawn so they are as equal in population as possible.

Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, the likely speaker in 2011, isn’t conceding the Democrats will lose any seats.

“Certainly what happens nationally filters down to the state,” said Oceguera, D-Las Vegas. “We encouraged our legislators to be involved in their districts, to respond to their constituents. People say, ‘I am tried of all politicians, but I like mine. He is always available.'”

Of the seven Assembly members who may run for Senate seats, Oceguera noted only two are Democrats. To him, that means Republicans are more vulnerable to losing Assembly seats.

He also mentioned that seats like the one held by Republican Melissa Woodbury are in districts with a Democratic voter registration advantage.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, however, pointed out Parnell holds a seat in a Republican-majority district that could be won by a Republican like former Secretary of State Cheryl Lau in 2010.

Herzik forsees Democrats gaining at least one seat in the Senate in 2010.

According to him, Republicans aren’t doing themselves any favors by engaging in contentious primaries like the Christensen-Nolan Senate race and one in Reno between Assemblyman Ty Cobb and Ben Kieckhefer, a former Reno newsman who now serves as spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The primary battles could open the door to Democrat victories in November, he said.

In contrast, Herzik said most open seats now held by Democrats are in safe Democrat districts.

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

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