Power grabs in Nevada Legislature depend on who’s doing the grabbing

Early in the 2015 session, a veteran Democratic lawmaker standing in line at the Caucus Deli in the legislative building confessed to me, “It sucks to be in the minority.”

The elections of 2014 resulted in an unlikely sweep for Nevada Republicans, even in districts in which gerrymandering and incumbency served to keep Democrats entrenched for years. Robbed of control of both houses of the Legislature, Democrats were powerless.

The rules of the Legislature give almost absolute power to the leaders of the majority party: They decide what legislation gets heard in committee, gets votes and comes to the floor. Losing power put Democrats in an unenviable position, especially for those who have tasted the fruits of majority rule.

That quote occurred to me on Monday, as the 2017 session of the Legislature kicked off with a fiery speech on the floor of the state Senate by new Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas. Ford repudiated the 2015 session under then-Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, and promised a new day.

But things hit the skids almost immediately, when Ford moved to adopt Senate Joint Resolution 1, the standing rules of the Senate. Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer objected that he didn’t even have a copy of the rules. (They hadn’t yet been posted on the Legislature’s excellent website, either.) When some Republicans got a look at the rules, they voted no.

Among the objections was the role of the lieutenant governor in casting tie-breaking votes. Democrats have 11 members, and Republican-turned-nonpartisan Sen. Patty Farley of Las Vegas is caucusing with them, which gives the party a 12-9 majority. But Ford wanted a rule to say Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison could not break a tie on a bill or a resolution. (Tie votes mean bills are lost.)

But as Republicans dive for their fainting couches, it’s worth remembering two important things. One, the rule Ford was advocating was exactly the same as the one adopted by the Senate in February 2015, at the start of the last session of the Legislature. Two, in May 2015, with less than a month to go in that session, Republicans under Roberson muscled through a new set of rules (with a legal opinion to back them up) that gave the lieutenant governor the right to break ties on any piece of legislation, essentially adding a 22nd senator in the rare case of an equally divided house. It was that rule Ford sought to repeal.

Yes, it sucks to be in the minority.

Other aspects of the rules also bothered Republicans, including the ability of the majority leader to approve committee expenses (say, to pay for travel of witnesses). The contested voice vote (won by Democrats) was a stark contrast to Ford’s admonition to Roberson to “show Nevadans that we can work together.”

Just as stark was Roberson’s eventual reply. Silent on the floor, Roberson later released a statement disparaging Ford’s “oddly partisan, rambling speech” and concluding with a zinger: “Senator Ford stated today that his first job was at Burger King, but in politics he doesn’t get to have everything his way.”

Actually, he does, at least with respect to running the Senate’s business. It’s worth recalling that in the 2015 session, there were many cases in which majority Republicans steamrolled through Democratic objections to pass legislation. The most memorable example came in the closing minutes of the session, when a bill to reorganize the Clark County School District that had been lingering in the Assembly for three months was introduced, considered and passed in the Senate in fewer than 90 minutes, over the shouted objections of angry Democrats.

It sucks to be in the minority, a lesson Ford learned all too well from his opposite number in 2015.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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