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Five (other) big issues for the 2015 Nevada Legislature

In case you haven’t heard, taxes are going to be big once the 2015 Legislature convenes on Monday.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has called for increase in the business license fee (which carries the delicious acronym “BLT”), switching to a progressive fee depending on a company’s gross receipts. He’s also proposed continuing a package of temporary taxes.

But there are plenty of other things the Legislature will have to deal with in its compressed, four-month session as it sets policy for the state for the coming two years. Here’s a look at five of those pressing issues, and maybe a few more:

1. Construction defect reform: For years, Republicans have sought to overhaul the rules regarding when and how homeowners can sue construction companies or home-repair contractors for allegedly shoddy work. But Democrats successfully kept most of those bills at bay. Now that Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, things will be different.

For one, Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, is chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee (where construction defect bills will be heard). Hansen is a plumbing contractor, and has long been an advocate of a “right to repair” bill in which contractors get a chance to make a defective repair right before being sued.

For another, state Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, is preparing a comprehensive tort reform package for introduction in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, said a recent breakfast forum sponsored by the Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce that Nevada’s litigious legal environment is “a hidden tax on business.” So the question is not whether the law will be reformed, but how. And how will Democrats — who count trial lawyers among their key constituencies — react to the proposals, now that Republicans have the votes to pass them even in the face of Democratic opposition.

2. Organized labor reform: Danny Thompson, the head of Nevada’s AFL-CIO, just today announced that working families are under attack by Republican lawmakers. And organized labor reforms long sought by the GOP are what he meant. Now that Republicans are in charge, this will be a prime focus. Ideas include changes to binding arbitration rules (or perhaps the elimination of it entirely), changes to the Public Employees Retirement System pension system and clearly defining a “fiscal emergency,” as well as outlining how collective bargaining contracts are to be handled in such circumstances, are going to be the subject of legislation in the 2015 session.

Once again, Democrats will find themselves playing defense, as labor unions are among the most reliable of their political base. But with a sympathetic Republican governor, they may not be able to muster the votes to stop some of the more moderate ideas. The real question: What will moderate Republicans and Sandoval do if, for example, a bill to simply end government-worker collective bargaining makes it out of the legislative building?

3. Education reform: Public schools in Nevada don’t have a very good reputation, but the prescriptions to fix them are as varied as the membership in the Legislature. Sandoval set the tone early in his State of the State address, promising to add more than $780 million to K-12 schools alone. But the Republican governor also called for reforms, and that’s where some of the biggest political battles will take place.

School choice will be an oft-debated topic during the session, including vouchers, scholarships and an expansion of the laws governing charter schools. While the state’s constitution prohibits state funds from being used for sectarian education, some conservatives believe that provision can be evaded by giving money directly to parents and allowing them to choose a private, even a parochial school, without offending the constitution.

Not only that, but reforms to rules governing teachers may be in the works, including further restricting (or even eliminating) teacher tenure. Those efforts will be staunchly opposed by Democrats, one of whom once declared teachers to be the “backbone” of the party, without whose support it would be “defunct.”

4. Voter ID: Republicans have repeatedly tried to get a simple law passed in Nevada that would require a drivers license or state identification card in order to vote, but they’ve been just as repeatedly thwarted by Democrats. In fact, the Democratic antipathy to the idea even led lawmakers in the 2013 session to reject a proposal by then-Secretary of State Ross Miller that would have used DMV photos at polling places, but would not have disenfranchised any voter who didn’t have a photo ID. Their stated reason: Too costly.

But now, with Republicans in control of the Legislature and with the foremost advocate of voter ID, former state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, in the secretary of state’s office, voter ID is at the forefront of the agenda. But instead of Miller’s proposal — the only voter ID at the time that didn’t draw the condemnation of Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School — it appears Republicans will try to enact a straight-up voter ID requirement over Democratic objections and, inevitably, a lawsuit.

5. Marijuana: Once a neglected topic in Carson City (who else misses Assemblywoman-turned-Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani?!), marijuana is now the cause of the moment. Not only will the Legislature have to address problems that have cropped up with the licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries, but lawmakers will also be compelled to deal with a voter-approved initiative to legalize recreational marijuana outright. (If they approve the measure in the first 40 days, it could become law right away; if not, it goes to the 2016 ballot for voters to decide.)

Although he’s now in the minority, nobody knows more about the issue than state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who will no doubt play a prominent role on the issue (when he’s not crossing swords with Republicans over labor and tort reforms).

6. And lots of other stuff: With more than 1,000 bills expected to be introduced (to say nothing of resolutions!), every subject under the desert sun will get some attention. Among the other issues are guns, especially where they may be carried concealed and whether a background check should be required for sales between two private parties. Economic development, including rules about which companies should get state incentives and how much they should pay their employees before they can get tax breaks from the state, is another one. The development of a UNLV medical school is another hot topic, one that Northern Nevada lawmakers will monitor with interest (since the only existing medical school in Nevada now is based at the University of Nevada Reno). And funding for treatment of mental health services will be an issue, spurred by negative publicity over the state’s handling of some patients who were bused to other states instead of receiving care here.

Oh, and my personal favorite: Wineries! Las Vegas may have a platoon of master sommeliers working at the various high-end restaurants in town, but there are precious few places where grapes are cultivated, fermented and bottled, to say nothing of handed out to the public in on-premises samples! Don’t make Las Vegans and Renoites schlep all the way to Napa Valley, Legislature!

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