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Democrats are entering their third session in control of the Nevada Legislature. That has some within their ranks asking: What have we done with that majority and what do we plan to do this time?
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, has been among the loudest singing this refrain. And for him, that means figuring out how to pour more money into state coffers for education and other state services.
“There’s a kajillion things we can do with the majority vote, but the reality is without taxes we’re really just kind of rearranging things on the deck of the Titanic, which is sad,” Segerblom said.
Segerblom is an example of the kind of pressure facing Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis — neither of whom is willing to say they will seek a new tax. Varying factions of their caucuses seek to broker a compromise on the budget.
In fact, more than just Republicans are standing in the way of the majority pushing a Democratic agenda through the Legislature.
Both caucuses have novice legislative leaders at the helm. And caucus ranks include a gaggle of strong, competitive and ambitious personalities.
“It’s a new day,” Democratic political consultant and lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis said. “With term limits, with the changes in the political culture, the groupthink is gone. It’s a more dynamic and fluid process. I don’t think it’s all bad. I think it’s probably pretty good.”
Democrats and their allies have worked to put the best face on the situation, praising the diversity of opinions and background.
But even Vassiliadis acknowledges the potential exists for a caucus revolt to hamper both deal-making and agenda setting, much like the U.S. House Republican revolt during the "fiscal cliff" negotiation in Congress late last year.
Republicans, on the other hand, could use that potential Democratic disunity to their advantage. The minority in both houses has a significant bargaining position if it can fill in for lost Democratic votes on a compromise.
To that end, here’s a look at the dynamics at play in the four majority caucuses:
Things couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Assembly Democrats this year.
First, the presumptive speaker lost his seat altogether in the November election, opening up a leadership vacuum that had to be filled. After a somewhat contentious process, Kirkpatrick pulled together the support to win the speakership.
Kirkpatrick swiftly consolidated her support, smoothing rifts by parceling out important chairmanships and putting her opponent for speaker, William Horne, in the majority leader position. But that didn’t ensure smooth sailing.
A judge found one of her caucus members, Andrew Martin, did not live in the district he was elected to represent. Democrats still plan to seat him.
And, in a significantly more troubling development, a second caucus member, Steven Brooks, was arrested on charges of threatening Kirkpatrick’s life. A few days later, Brooks was detained for a psychiatric evaluation. His future in the Assembly remains uncertain.
In addition to the opening distractions, the Assembly caucus has a large freshman class to contend with. Of the 27 members, six are newcomers.
And a rambunctious sophomore class that often challenged leadership — and broke with the majority opinion in some key votes — returns to Carson City.
“Will it be cohesive? No,” one veteran legislative observer said of the Assembly Democratic caucus. “Before, you had a much stronger sense for the importance of a united front. Disagreements were kept in the caucus room. Now you see disagreements spill over into the hallways.”
Term limits — by emptying the Legislature of veteran leaders and setting a 12-year time crunch to establish oneself in a powerful position — have also created a sometimes back-biting competition for leadership and chairmanship positions.
“People are coming in with the perception they have to move up quick,” the observer said.
That can lead to some unpredictable coalition-building that may run counter to leadership’s deal-making with Republicans and the other house.
“There’s a general consensus among the Democrats that education needs to be funded at a greater level, but I think some may be a bit more pragmatic or might be beaten down over the years and not want to go down there and fall on their sword (for a compromise),” Vassiliadis said.
The 2012 election also left the Senate Democrats with a leadership vacuum. Former Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, who had established himself as a fiery, combative and at-times stubborn leader, left to run for Congress.
The personality and leadership approach of the man elected to take Horsford’s place couldn’t be more different from that of the former leader.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis is known as a mild-mannered, humble, politically moderate consensus builder. And he is at the helm of a caucus that is anything but.
Segerblom has voiced the expectation that Democrats do something with its majority power. Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, who arrived from the Assembly, often asserts his strong personality. Sen. Patricia Spearman was carried to victory on Nov. 4 by a coalition of liberal interest groups unhappy with her conservative predecessor's actions and will expect more liberal representation.
“We’re not going to always agree on everything, but that’s the nature of the Legislature,” Denis said. “We all represent different constituencies also. But we all have decent relationships with each other.”
Even if the more liberal factions in both houses try to push leadership to the left, they will encounter a difficult reality.
“Some people have these (more liberal) values, but they forget how to count,” Assembly Majority Leader William Horne said, noting the lack of a two-thirds majority to negate the Republican governor’s veto power.
Also, not all Democrats represent so-called safe districts with a strong Democratic voting-majority, Horne said.
“Some people live in extremely Democratic or extremely Republican districts and they can be as dug into their philosophies as the day is long and it’s not going to hurt them,” Horne said. “For others, that’s not the case. And they have to think about that.”
On one hand, the Senate Democrats have more experience because many of them arrived from the Assembly. Still, three of the 11 Senate Democrats have never served in the Legislature.
And all three freshmen have been granted committee chairmanships.
That has some observers worried about the sheer management of the 120-session, during which more than 1,000 bills will be processed.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” one lobbyist said.
Republicans made a fearsome, well-funded effort, led by Senator Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, to take back control of the state Senate for the first time since 2008. And they came within a couple of hundred votes of winning their fourth out of five competitive seats on the ballot in 2012.
But close doesn’t count in politics. So Senate Republicans are stuck with the more austere minority offices on the second floor of the Capitol, with a narrow 10 to 11 disadvantage to Democrats.
But while Roberson and other members provided a conservative outlet in 2011, they have — so far at least — been content to play a more moderate role.
Republicans in 2012 ran centrist campaigns. None of their five candidates signed a pledge not to raise taxes. They promised not to cut education. And Roberson proposed an English language learner program.
So far, it appears, they will maintain that image through the legislative session, and hardcore fiscal conservatives will have to look elsewhere for someone to carry their mantle.
“We have a very close, tight-knit caucus,” Roberson said.
Although Roberson voted against extending temporary taxes in 2011, he’s now come around to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s point of view that the revenue is still needed to properly fund government.
“Nobody loves taxes,” he said. “But I think everyone in the Legislature recognizes that to fund services, you need some level of taxation.”
One potential outlier from GOP’s message of moderation is Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who’s serving her final term in the Legislature.
The only Republican woman in the Senate, she was not given a leadership spot under Roberson, and was not given a seat on the influential Senate Finance Committee, where she had sat most of her term.
Cegavske downplayed any differences going into the session.
“Any time you get a group of people together, everybody has different backgrounds, different opinions,” she said. “Every caucus is unique. Each session is different.”
Cegavske, who voted against extending the sunsetting taxes in 2011, said she hasn’t decided about whether to extend most of them again as Sandoval has proposed.
“I’ll keep an open mind,” she said. “I think the world of the governor. ... I’m willing to listen to why he wants to do everything.”
But, she said, she’s “leaning toward no. The business tax is very harmful in this climate right now.”
The most pressing question about the Assembly Republican caucus is this: Why are we even writing about the Assembly Republican caucus?
“I didn’t think we were relevant enough,” joked Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno.
At just 15 of the 42 members of the Assembly, the lower house GOP is the smallest caucus.
But on Hickey’s office door in the third floor of the Legislature is a sticker: “Work Hard.”
So here’s the scenario where they matter. On the important point of taxes, which requires a two-thirds vote, Democrats still need one Republican vote, or two if they’re missing a member, such as Assemblyman Steven Brooks.
Additionally, Democratic Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick has been praised by Hickey and other Republicans for her fairness. If she faces a liberal uprising on bills, Republican votes could be important to getting some of them passed.
Hickey said his caucus is supportive of Sandoval’s budget, including his proposal to reduce the payroll tax.
The caucus’ top priority is “prevailing wage,” an issue that will be carried by Assemblyman Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite. It’s the system used to determine wages that companies have to pay specific workers on public construction projects, like building schools. A former construction company owner, Hardy said that the existing process unfairly balloons costs for the public, for the benefit of unions and not for workers.
But changing existing prevailing wage laws will be strongly opposed by unions, a key part of the Democrats’ base of support.
In the personalities portion, freshman Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, is making a name for herself with a conservative, fearless approach. She has proposed taking up gun rights legislation on higher education campuses, for example.
But Hickey, who’s thoughtful and self-effacing, said he’s optimistic about his caucus’ influence.
“Our caucus is a pretty friendly bunch,” he said. “We’re all essentially small government, fiscal conservative types.”