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Coups, wiretaps and one elegant gambit

CARSON CITY

You know how it is with the Nevada Legislature: If it’s not an abortive attempted leadership coup, it’s a police investigation involving wiretaps.

And that’s just the Assembly, where things turned out to run quite smoothly on Day 1 of the 120-day (regulation) session. Assemblyman John Hambrick was elected speaker without a peep of protest from some conservatives who were angry at Hambrick’s pre-session demotion of Assemblywoman Michele Fiore as majority leader and chairwoman of the Assembly Taxation Committee. After that moment of drama passed, curious onlookers began filing out of the chamber. No crash at this NASCAR race.

Once the Assembly broke for lunch, however, the new speaker met a gaggle of press, and told them that one of his members had raised concerns in a caucus meeting that another member of the caucus might be wearing a wire, and that things said at meetings of Republican lawmakers should remain private and unrecorded. The concern came after reports surfaced that wiretaps were used in an ongoing Las Vegas police investigation of alleged extortion of Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas.

Hambrick told the press that he’d stressed to Edwards that taping fellow Republicans in caucus meetings was poor form, or words to that effect.

Meanwhile, down the hall at the north end of the building, the Senate was reviewing Assembly Concurrent Resolution 1, a document approved unanimously by the Assembly that contains the rules that govern the conduct of the two houses of the Legislature when they interact with each other.

Rule No. 13 provides for reapportionment and redistricting, something that’s usually only done after the decennial census. (The rule appeared in the 2011 session joint rules, for example, but was omitted in 2007, 2009 and 2013.) But there’s certainly no legal barrier that prevents Republicans from redrawing district lines if they wish, and many of them certainly do wish. In fact, the only way some Republicans elected in the “red wave” of 2014 can hope to keep their seats is by changing district lines to gain a partisan advantage.

It’s an elegant gambit on the part of Republicans, and it drew an unusual dissenting vote from every Democratic present in the Senate.

First, only the chairman of either house’s Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, or the majority or minority leaders, can introduce a redistricting bill. This blocks the more obstreperous members of the Assembly Republican caucus from, say, demanding bills be written and maps drawn that have little chance of passage. As a result, time and money are saved, and leaders retain control of the process.

Second, it serves as a Damoclean sword hanging over Democratic heads in both houses: If Democrats don’t play nice with Republicans, the GOP can bring a redistricting bill and threaten Democratic hegemony in the Legislature. And given the fact that Republicans enjoy a majority in both houses and control the governor’s mansion, it’s no idle threat. Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford says he’d certainly oppose a Republican bid to draw new district lines, but he surely knows he doesn’t have the votes to stop it from happening.

Third, it allows Republicans to enjoy a bit of payback: For years, Republicans have seen their bills ignored without being able to do anything about it. (To be sure, Democrats in the Senate refused to hear a Republican redistricting bill in 2011, saying the Republicans had not provided all the data to the public that was required under the rules.) Now, Republicans get to demonstrate that elections have consequences.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons not to redraw legislative districts. There’s no pressing need (it was just done in 2011, by a panel of independent special masters). It will cost money the state doesn’t have. And there’s a lack of reliable, good data down to the precinct level upon which to base a new plan, the way there is after a census is completed. Old maps drawn for 2011 are out of date by now.

But these are practical, not political, considerations. All that anybody needs to know here is that the Republicans can make good on the idea any time they want.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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