A full-time Legislature – without a vote

Do Nevada voters want a nearly full-time Legislature? Lawmakers certainly think so. The 2013 session has seen state legislators continue their push for more power, more money and more time to pass more laws and exert more control over our lives.

The electorate has some culpability in emboldening lawmakers. Last year, voters watered down the state’s checks and balances by giving lawmakers the power to call themselves into special session, provided the Assembly and Senate have two-thirds support among their members to address a specific issue. Previously, only the governor had the power to call the Legislature into special session.

That’s one way around the Nevada Constitution’s 120-day cap on biennial sessions, approved by voters in 1998 specifically to slow the erosion of our freedoms and prevent the Legislature from putting new burdens on businesses and individuals. Lawmakers have responded to the four-month limit by trying to jam more and more legislation through the same narrow window of time — more than 1,000 bills were introduced this year alone. Does anyone believe we need that many new laws and rules?

So instead of prioritizing their policy goals and sticking with the business of funding essential state services — perhaps by reducing the number of bills that lawmakers can introduce — lawmakers want more time together. Senate Joint Resolution 8 would change the Nevada Constitution’s biennial session cap of 120 calendar days into 120 working days, enabling lawmakers to meet for 90 days in odd-numbered years and 30 days in even-numbered years without counting weekends or holidays toward those limits. The net gain for lawmakers would be a roughly six-week session in even-numbered years — a boon for lobbyists, a bust for their petrified clients.

The resolution also eliminates the constitution’s restriction that lawmakers only be paid for the first 60 days of a regular session, paving the way for a pay increase.

SJR 8 passed the Senate three weeks ago on an 11-10 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. To take effect, it must pass the Assembly this year, the full Legislature in 2015 and a vote of the people in 2016. There’s still time for the public to beat back this bad idea.

But lawmakers aren’t waiting around to see how that proposal fares. They’ve come up with a way to keep working every year — a way they now say needs no legislative vote whatsoever.

The plan was outlined in Assembly Bill 578 from the 2011 session. Currently, lawmakers meet infrequently during the 20 months between regular sessions as part of special interim committees, which have limited authority and largely focus on studies. AB 578 sought to create nine joint standing committees for the interim period, allowing lawmakers to carry over committee membership from regular sessions, giving them budgets for travel and per diem expenses, and enabling more frequent meetings, where they could hear testimony and propose legislation. In other words, it would turn 120-day regular sessions into drawn-out, two-year affairs.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the bill, pointing out that Nevadans “have long provided for limited legislative sessions,” and that AB 578 “takes Nevada precipitously close to annual sessions of its legislative body, or at the very least to full-time service by its members.”

AB 578 resurfaced in Carson City last week, not as a bill, but as part of an informational discussion before the Joint Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. During that meeting, Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, also pitched a companion measure, copied from Oregon, that would have all joint standing committees meet simultaneously in Carson City between regular sessions for at least three days each quarter. Such a step would create de facto regular mini-sessions of the Legislature.

He said lawmakers had the power to enact these substantial changes to state government simply by rewriting their own rules. He had the backing of Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes. And Sen. Segerblom wants these rules rewritten in addition to the passage of SJR 8.

Sen. Segerblom said the steps are necessary because term limits and the two-thirds supermajority requirement for tax increases have diminished the power the legislative branch, and that more frequent meetings would enable lawmakers “to hit the ground running” in regular sessions and be more functional in the interim.

But voters don’t want the Legislature “to hit the ground running.” They don’t want lawmakers to have 20 months between biennial sessions to lay the groundwork for expanded government and regulatory powers. And just because lawmakers want more power doesn’t mean they have unlimited authority to give it to themselves. If the Legislature makes itself a full-time body without the involvement of the governor or voters — without even passing a bill — it would constitute an overreach of the highest order.

Lawmakers are showing exactly why voters put a 120-day handcuff on regular sessions in the first place. No annual sessions. No quarterly sessions. No committee work between sessions. And absolutely no expansion of legislative service without properly amending the state constitution.

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