CARSON CITY – The speeches on opening day of the Nevada Legislature are generally full of promise, hope and earnestness, regardless of the circumstances outside the walls of 401 S. Carson St.
And so it was on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford came out strongly for education.
"But if we leave the elections and partisanship aside, if we work as Nevadans to find real, meaningful, lasting solutions to the structural problems that continue to exist, if we build a balanced budget for our kids, their futures and the future of the state, we will position Nevada for success for generations to come," Horsford said. "I know that this governor, working with the leadership of this Legislature, in both parties across both chambers, can do it."
Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin encouraged his colleagues to "focus a little less on our ideologies and focus a little more on our shared realities." Assembly Speaker John Oceguera dreamed even bigger, calling for a bold agenda that seems to have little chance of success against the backdrop of a partisan divide, a $5.8 billion budget and a redistricting process that cannot help but pit Republican against Democrat.
"Make no mistake, in this session there will be difficult decisions. And we’ll be criticized for many of them," Oceguera said. "But it’s better to be criticized for doing our job, than criticized for failure to act. None of us can afford to be timid. We will disagree, but let each member of the Assembly vote for what we know is right, not just expedient."
Those, clearly, are the words of the first day, not the 120th day, when the weight of pragmatism usually collapses the early gossamer dreams of bipartisan cooperation. A legislative session, according to the wisdom of the voters, is limited to just four months, a compressed schedule that doesn’t tend to lend itself to big-picture, long-term solutions to chronic problems.
"Nevada has a long way to go before we’re healthy again, and unless we prepare for the future now, by improving education, diversifying our business base, and reforming our tax structure, we will have learned nothing from this experience," Oceguera added.
That’s a tall order. Education funding is being cut by at least $270 per student. The state is still almost entirely dependent on gambling and sales taxes to fill its general fund, and big changes (say, redistributing state and local allocations of property taxes money) don’t look likely.
But Oceguera was just getting started: "We have a big decision to make.
"Do we just patch things up for another two years? Or will take this opportunity to be bold — to make the fundamental changes needed to move our state forward by rebuilding and investing in Nevada? I believe we must reform government, we must find lasting solutions, not quick patches. In 120 days, we’ll know the answers to these questions."
Is it too cynical to think many of those answers seem apparent now? After all, what are the odds Republicans — from Gov. Brian Sandoval on down to Senate and Assembly leaders — will even consider taxes, having already declared their opposition? What are the odds Democrats will consider radical reforms, such as changes to collective bargaining for public employees, ending teacher tenure entirely, or reducing Public Employees’ Retirement System and Public Employees’ Benefit System benefits? And what are the odds members of either party would consider, say, ending the controversial business payroll tax and perhaps replacing it with a business income tax?
These things could happen, though it’s far from certain they will.
But isn’t it pretty to think so?
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column runs Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-387-5276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.