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A new face in front, but conservatives still rule

Meet the new bosses, (almost) the same as the old bosses.

After stumbling badly out of the gate by installing Sparks Republican Ira Hansen as speaker, and then watching as Hansen was forced to step down after some of his more unfortunate writings came to light, Assembly Republicans regrouped this week.

But they didn’t back down.

After a majority installed the eminently likable Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, as speaker, a compromise candidate upon whom moderates and conservatives, veterans and newbies could apparently agree, the conservatives ran the table.

Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, was named majority leader. Hansen was named assistant majority leader. Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, who once said he’d reluctantly vote to bring back slavery if his constituents demanded it, was named majority whip.

A bid by Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, to take over from Hansen as speaker was abandoned; instead, Anderson will head the Assembly’s most important committee, Ways &Means, where all money issues are debated.

There’s still a lingering feeling among some Assembly Republicans that Hansen was forced to give up his position as speaker by pressure from the media (which widely reported his writings from an earlier career as a newspaper columnist and radio talk show host) and the establishment (Gov. Brian Sandoval ultimately told Hansen he needed to resign).

But if Hansen was defenestrated from the speaker’s podium, he’s still got plenty of influence. In addition to being the No. 3 man in the lower house, he’ll also head up the Judiciary Committee, an appointment sure to make the trial bar reach for the jumbo bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

Fiore — who in 2010 signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to never vote for a net increase in taxes — will head up the Taxation Committee. In an interview this week, she said she’d be willing to take a look at any tax package, but would focus on eliminating tax exemptions rather than raising new revenue.

It turns out, the most liberal (in relative terms) guy is Hambrick: He said in an interview Thursday that he’s supporting Sandoval’s education package, even if that means voting for taxes. Hambrick, too, signed the Americans for Tax Reform tax pledge, but says education reforms are more important. “I will support the tax increase if it goes to education,” Hambrick said, adding that he will insist on school vouchers, merit pay for good teachers and a requirement that kids be able to read by third grade or be held back. “If we can get all that, I’ll take the hit on the tax pledge,” he said.

Hambrick said he has encouraged the 12 new freshman Assembly members to take a good look at doing the same.

Meanwhile, Fiore says she’s ready to pursue some of the bills she couldn’t get through the Assembly when the Democrats were in charge, including a bill to allow licensed concealed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on the campuses of the Nevada System of Higher Education. (That bill died in the Assembly Judiciary Committee last session, although Fiore insisted she had the votes to get it to the Assembly floor.)

She also said she’d support repealing the blue-card gun registration program in Clark County, a goal that’s shared by Sheriff-elect Joe Lombardo. “We’re getting our gun rights back this session, period,” Fiore declared in an interview this week.

But hanging over the new Republican leadership is the promise and the specter of 1985, the last session Republicans ran the Assembly. The GOP lost control the next year and has been out of power ever since (except for one session in which they shared control with Democrats).

Hambrick says staying in charge depends on performance, and that his members will work hard to show they deserve to stay in charge. But Fiore is adamant that the chamber will stay red: “Our strategy began last night,” she said, the day after she was named majority leader. “We’re not going to repeat 1985. We’ve got the Assembly, and we’re keeping it.”

Steve Sebelius is a 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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