What a year it’s been!
If you’re a fan of taxes, it was a bad year, since none passed. If you’re a fan of the rule of law, you were frustrated by an Old West-style standoff in the wilds near Bunkerville. If you like academic freedom, you saw it take a beating. If you hate term limits, you saw them expanded in a new way by a high-profile court ruling.
But, if you’re a Republican, there was plenty of good news on Election Day. If you’re in favor of getting health care treatment for the mentally ill, you also had some good news this year. And if you’re one of the lawyers, lobbyists, consultants or regular citizens who are involved with medical marijuana, well, you’re probably going to be rich. Someday.
Here’s a look back at some of the stories that made this year so crazy. I’ll be on vacation for the rest of 2014, so I will see you when I return in the new year. Until then, thanks for reading.
• Taxes are bad, mmm’kay. It didn’t matter whether it was a 2 percent margins tax on business (the Education Initiative) or a a 0.15-percentage-point sales tax increase (More Cops), nobody wanted to approve a new tax in 2014. Voters rejected the Education Initiative by a whopping 79 percent to 21 percent margin, and the Clark County Commission repeatedly rejected approving the legislatively authorized sales tax for police despite concerns about rising crime rates.
Lesson learned: Anti-tax rhetoric is easy and goes down smooth, but voters will eventually have to come to grips with a simple reality: You get want you pay for, or go without what you don’t pay for. Public safety and education are two of the most important things government is supposed to do, and saying no to properly funding those services will have consequences later on.
• Cliven Bundy versus United States of America. Cliven Bundy believed in America until he didn’t: He availed himself of the federal court system to argue he shouldn’t have to pay grazing fees for his cows on federal land. But when he lost all his claims and the Bureau of Land Management moved to seize his cattle, Bundy called for a range war and surrounded himself with gun-toting militia types who faced off with the feds until the government backed off.
Lesson learned: “The battle lines have now been drawn. The anti-government movement has come to believe, due to the failed tactics of the BLM, that their guns trump the authority of federal law enforcement — a flat contradiction to the notion of a nation of laws.” — from a July report on the Bundy standoff written by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
• Be careful who your friends are. When the Bundy situation first developed, many otherwise intelligent political leaders criticized the BLM and sided with Bundy. The smarter ones backed off when they saw the potential for violence, but some still say Bundy was the victim in this case, rather than a garden variety welfare cowboy. And when Bundy started giving racist lectures based on his knowledge of “the Negro,” his support in the political class all but evaporated.
Lesson learned: Carrying water for a guy who demands the sheriff disarm federal law enforcement officers and tells his followers that God wanted them to destroy federal property? What could go wrong?
• Where’s all the good news? Speaking at a year-end event sponsored by the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky lamented the media so infrequently focus on the district’s good news. Instead, media chose to focus on: a disparity between national and state tests showing the district performing more poorly than thought; the district’s artificially inflated graduation rate based on how to account for certain students who left regular classes; a cheating scandal that ended with the district shrugging its shoulders without ever really getting to the truth; a trustee who inserted herself into a contract matter, prompting the district to buy her out of legal liability at public expense; a bullying scandal that resulted in a little girl’s suicide; an adult English-language program that was allegedly robbed blind by employees; a sex education curriculum developed behind closed doors that blew up in public.
Lesson learned: Wait, what was the good news, again? Skorkowsky is trying to fix things; of that there’s no doubt. But you can’t blame the media for these problems, which have to be repaired before the district can gain back credibility with the public.
• Common sense versus academic freedom. The state teachers union hires the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV to study the Education Initiative, and that study shows — unsurprisingly — that the more teachers you hire with the money, the larger the jobs and economic impact will be. But that message is not something opponents of the tax wanted to hear, and they flooded interim UNLV President Don Snyder with complaints, and even threats to withhold donations as a result of the study. Snyder caved immediately, saying the study should be reviewed and that it doesn’t represent UNLV’s “position” on the tax. And Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich famously said that he understands academic freedom, but that he likes a little common sense.
Lesson learned: Common sense means don’t offend big donors with your research.
• Common sense, got that? The new president of UNLV, Len Jessup, showed he was on the same page as Klaich when he said this in his interview with the search committee: “Academic freedom is very important and something that needs to be preserved and protected fundamentally. You’ve got to find a balance between that and the new model for American public higher education, [which] is more partnerships externally, and you’ve got to be responsible to those external partners. So that’s the tension that any university leader faces.”
Lesson learned: Yes, that is my finger on the scale balancing academic freedom and partnerships with those “external partners.” What of it?
• Medical marijuana clown show. How hard is it — after nearly 15 years of ignoring the state constitution — to come up with a sensible way to issue permits to medical marijuana facilities? Here, let me take a stab at it: First, anybody who wants a license applies to the state, where staffers conduct through background checks, evaluate criteria and issue approvals or denials. Second, those who get state certification apply to local governments for a business license, zoning approval and the like. Third, open your doors and start selling medicine.
But no. Instead, local governments did their thing, the state did its thing, and predictable chaos resulted, which means marijuana patients who’ve waited 15 years to legally buy their medicine have to wait a little bit longer. It’s possible there was a worse way to go about this whole thing, but it’s difficult to understand what that might be.
Lesson learned: In Nevada, the final outcome is always worse than even the worst cynic’s imagination.
• Quickly rising and falling tides make for choppy seas. In the primary, Republican conservatives ran against moderates and almost all of them lost. It looked like the moderate wing of the GOP was finally going to take power. But in the general, things went the other way: Republicans won more seats than even they ever dreamed possible. But that brought in some conservatives nobody dreamed would ever be in power.
Of course, these are Nevada conservatives. It turns out, Speaker-for-a-Minute Ira Hansen had written some incredibly offensive things in the pages of the Sparks Tribune as well as on his official state letterhead, so he had to step down. And Majority Leader-then-not-then-again-then-not-again Michele Fiore couldn’t head up the Taxation Committee because she had tax liens on file for about $1 million. Conservatives see moderates plotting with Democrats for a tax increase, but everybody else is wondering just what is going to happen in the 2015 session as the red wave that swept the ballot in November finally crashes.
Lesson learned: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!
• Nevada is a get-it-done kind of state. Maybe, someday, 20 or 30 years from now, somebody will look back and say the deal to bring Tesla Motors to Nevada was a stroke of political and legal genius. Or maybe they’ll still be trying to rent out a giant, abandoned battery factory. The fact is, we won’t know, and we have to evaluate the Tesla deal in the here and now. And the bottom line is, the factory will ostensibly attract thousands of new residents to Northern Nevada, while not paying any of the taxes that go to support those residents for at least 10 years. It will get a free road built right to its front door, and strain the water rights for the Reno-Tahoe Industrial Center. And nobody can say the Nevada Legislature did a through job vetting the idea, since the primary legislation that facilitated the project was approved in a single day.
Lesson learned: Supporters of Tesla said if you’re going to play, you’ve got to go all in. But not enough people questioned whether it’s a good idea to play in the first place.
• Term limits: The gift that keeps on giving. A temper tantrum of the 1990s, term limits have vexed Nevada since they were approved, and kept certain members of the trial bar employed trying to figure out what they really mean. But 2014’s Lorton v. Jones case — which said part-time local government officials are limited to 12 years on city councils, whether they’re serving as a member of the council or as mayor — stunned almost everybody. In addition to upending Reno’s mayoral race, the case gave Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen a bit of a scare, since he’s served longer than term limits would seem to allow. But in the end, the activists who tried to sue their way into office — Reno’s Eddie Lorton and Henderson’s Rick Workman — remain private citizens, and plenty of elected officials around Nevada are recalculating their newly limited political careers.
Lesson learned: Only a fool ever tries to guess what the Nevada Supreme Court will do.
• Well, what do you know? The state of Nevada was short hospital beds for mentally ill patients. The mentally ill would crowd emergency rooms, sometimes closing them to other patients. The state is working to open more beds, but in the meantime, a real crisis was looming. Then, the state got permission from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to raise the daily reimbursement rate for treating mentally ill people from $460 per day to $944 per day. And, wouldn’t you know it, suddenly private hospitals were interested in offering care to mentally ill people. It’s a miracle.
Lesson learned: If raising reimbursement rates for treating mentally ill people increases access to care, maybe raising reimbursement rates in other critical areas would increase access to care, too? Why, that’s just crazy enough to work!
• The biggest loser. Attorney Jacob Hafter accused a Las Vegas judge of being anti-Semitic because she declined to change a long-scheduled trial in her courtroom. (Full disclosure: That judge, Valorie Vega, is married to my friend and Review-Journal colleague Howard Stutz.) And apparently, it wasn’t the first time Hafter played that card. But then a funny thing happened. Hafter lost. The trial went on as scheduled. And then Hafter lost a race for judge (by the largest margin on the judicial ballot).
Lesson learned: Maybe people dislike Hafter not because of his religion, but dislike him personally?
• In memoriam: Finally, this year, Las Vegas lost some fine people in 2014, people who made this community a better place to live and without whom we are all worse off. Here’s just a few of their names. May they rest in peace, and may we find a way to live up to their examples in the new year:
Bob Faiss, pioneer gaming law attorney at Lionel, Sawyer & Collins
Jim Rogers, hard-charging former owner of KSNV Channel 3 and former chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education
Sarann Knight Preddy, businesswoman and civil rights icon
Bernie Anderson, Joe Hogan, Pete Livermore,former members of Nevada’s Legislature
Victor Chaltiel, businessman and 2011 candidate for mayor of Las Vegas
Alyn Beck, Igor Soldo, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers, murdered in the line of duty
Linda Lera-Randle El, longtime advocate for Las Vegas’s homeless population
J.J. Jackson, attorney, lobbyist and former state public defender
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs here at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.