Making history

This week in the capital is one for the history books.

On Tuesday, lawmakers will debate erasing a limitation on mining taxes that’s been in the state constitution since Nevada became a state in 1864. They’ll debate erasing the discriminatory ban on gay marriage inserted by voters in the early part of the last decade. And they’ll hold a hearing on whether wayward Assemblyman Steven Brooks should be expelled from office.

Since miners wrote the state constitution, it’s not surprising they’d insert a provision protecting themselves from taxation. But the industry has had a virtual stranglehold on the state’s governance ever since, using lawyers and lobbyists to forestall any attempts to raise taxes. Carson City insiders have long understood that the industry’s advertising slogan — mining works for Nevada — is reversed.

But that’s all changed now, thanks in part to upstart Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who has called for a mining tax bill as an alternative to a 2 percent business margins tax proposed by the Nevada State Education Association. A Republican leader advocating higher taxes isn’t exactly unprecedented in Nevada history, however, and Roberson’s endgame is a traditional one: to protect the state’s business community.

For his plan to work, however, he’ll need to first get the constitutional cap on mining taxes on the ballot. Tuesday’s hearing is a big step toward that goal.

The ban on gay marriage was inserted into the constitution in 2000 and 2002, after religious conservative groups argued the U.S. Constitution’s full faith and credit clause would force Nevada to recognize gay marriages performed in other states. Voters overwhelmingly agreed.

But things have changed in the decade since. Nine states and the District of Columbia have embraced marriage equality for all, whether by court ruling, legislative change or at the ballot box. Two more states allow civil unions, marriage in everything but name. And four others — including Nevada — allow domestic partnerships that extend nearly all the benefits of marriage to gay couples.

The majority of states still don’t allow gay marriage. But history is not on their side. It’s possible two cases now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court may invalidate constitutional bans such as Nevada’s. But whether it comes by court ruling, or because younger voters are simply not as concerned about the issue, gay marriage someday will be allowed everywhere in America.

Brooks’ ouster from the Legislature is all but assured, and it could happen as soon as this week. His astounding transformation from legislative non-entity to the center of media scrutiny is virtually unprecedented in Nevada history, but the final chapter of the story is about to be written.

I’ve taken issue with how the Assembly has handled Brooks’ case, banning him from the building and ordering him to refrain from acting as a legislator, all before a hearing was held in his case. Even though Brooks is obviously struggling with serious personal issues, he’s still a duly-elected lawmaker.

But Brooks has gone a long way toward demonstrating he’s unable to do the job. He’s been charged with threatening Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, as well as domestic violence and resisting police officers. He’s been committed to a mental health facility. In interviews, he’s erratic, paranoid and rambling.

One of the ironies of the Brooks case is that the constitution does not specify the grounds under which a member of the Legislature may be expelled; it only says a two-thirds vote is required. That means the Assembly may decide for itself what grounds are sufficient to warrant expulsion, and the decision can’t be challenged.

But Brooks has seemingly gone out of his way to supply ample cause, which means that while he may not be remembered for anything he did as a lawmaker, he’ll still make the history books.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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