Republican combos deny Democrats bills they want

Toward the middle of Thursday’s long Assembly Government Affairs Committee hearing on a bill to build schools but not pay prevailing wages for school construction, Minority Leader Marilyn Kirkpatrick said what was on a lot of people’s minds.

These are two separate issues, the North Las Vegas Democrat declared, and they deserve two separate hearings.

Earlier in the hearing, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, state Sen. Becky Harris, R-Las Vegas, had explained why the bond extension and the higher wage requirement were included in the same bill. The chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said he wouldn’t have passed the bond component if it stood alone.

But that, it must be said, is a choice. There’s no provision in the state constitution requiring the linkage of issues in bills. (In fact, there’s a much-ignored requirement that bills embrace but a single subject.) There’s no requirement in the joint standing rules for this session that certain matters be combined in one bill. It’s not part of Assembly or Senate standing rules. It’s a choice.

And it’s a choice Republicans are making frequently as the 2015 session of the Legislature progresses, baking ideas that their Democratic rivals like (building more schools, for example) into legislation cakes along with things Democrats hate (doing away with requirements to pay higher prevailing wages on government construction projects, such as schools).

It happened again this week, in an omnibus public safety bill brought by Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. It contains something Democrats would very much like to pass — prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence from owning or possessing firearms — with something they dislike vehemently: extending the “castle doctrine,” which allows people to use lethal force to defend their homes, to vehicles.

There’s no need to combine those ideas into one bill. In fact, there’s a separate bill from state Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, that contains only the domestic violence provisions (as well as a ban on owning, possessing or buying guns for people convicted of stalking). But Roberson defended his decision by saying his bill has the votes to pass, implying that Smith’s bill doesn’t.

Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, insists that a clean, no-guns-for-domestic-abusers bill could pass the Legislature, and he challenged Roberson to do just that. It didn’t seem like Ford had persuaded his colleague to separate the issues, however. And if Roberson doesn’t, it won’t be because of law, rules or tradition. It will be because of a choice.

Politically, Republicans have little reason to separate the issues. By keeping them together, they force Democrats to either give up votes for bills with provisions they hate or suffer the political consequences at the next election. (“He voted against building schools!” or “She voted to against a bill that would have taken guns out of the hands of domestic abusers!”)

But if you separate the issues, Republicans would face the same dilemma: They’d have to explain why they voted against a school construction bill, or against Smith’s sensible anti-domestic violence legislation. (They’d also have to face the reality that a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans would probably pass both ideas if clean bills ever got to the respective Senate and Assembly floors.)

It’s too bad we can’t offer a compromise: Allow school construction to go forward (while paying workers prevailing wages) only in those districts where an elected official voted yes. Similarly, in districts where lawmakers voted to allow domestic abusers to keep their guns, they could. (Everywhere else, common sense would prevail.) Keep it going: Vote for a tax, get the benefits of the money. Vote no, your constituents pay nothing, but they also get nothing.

Then, our naysaying elected officials could explain to their suddenly outraged voters why they’re getting the small-government libertarian paradise that those officials must imagine their voters want. Meanwhile, the rest of us could live happily in civilization.

That kind of approach, too, would be a choice — one that Democrats might want to keep in mind, should they ever find themselves in charge of the Legislature again.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or

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