CARSON CITY — As the gavel fell on the last night of the 2019 Legislature, Assembly members on both sides of the aisle stood and cheered. After 120 days focused on the biennial nexus that is Carson City, the lawmakers, many of whom had spent months away from their families, would be going home.
As sine die — Latin for “without a day,” meaning final adjournment — approached, these same lawmakers had burst into a flurry of activity, putting in long days, often ending around midnight, to complete their work within the set timeline.
In remarks to the Assembly before the session’s end late Monday, Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said work by the body touched on issues around the state.
“This session, we all set out to move Nevada forward, advancing causes that touched on issues urban and rural, environmentally sound and fiscally responsible. We committed to advancing causes that protect women’s health choices, support teachers and children in the classroom and maintain balance in encouraging entrepreneurial endeavors and protecting workers,” he said.
Here’s a look at some of what happened.
Historical first woman-led session is done
Nevada’s 80th Legislature received national attention from the start due to its historical status as the first female-majority state legislature in the country. Besides local Nevada media, national media outlets including CBS, NPR and The Washington Post took notice.
The 23 women in the 42-member Assembly and 10 in the 21-member state Senate brought with them their own ideas for legislation, from health care to criminal justice reform.
During the session, they helped pass the Trust Nevada Women Act, which would in essence decriminalize abortion across the state, a marked contrast to abortion restrictions being adopted in some states in the South and Midwest.
State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas and the sponsor of the act, said it was obvious that women’s reproductive freedoms would be under attack across the country. Her bill was meant to head off such attacks.
State Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, said the female majority changed the tone of many of the conversations in Carson City. For example, she said, “Everybody cares about having access to affordable health care, and when you have more women in the room … people are more willing to talk about contraceptives and mammograms and screening for breast cancer.”
Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, said her caucus would continue to seek more representation by women.
“Ultimately, more than half of the country’s population is made up of women. I’m hopeful that we will see more state legislatures become reflective of the communities they represent,” Cannizzaro said.
Marijuana’s got a new governing body
The session saw passage of a bill creating a Cannabis Compliance Board, a goal of Gov. Steve Sisolak.
The board — created by Assembly Bill 533 — is modeled after Nevada gaming regulators and would oversee most aspects of the state’s recreational and medical marijuana industry.
One of the board’s first duties: Study how to license and regulate marijuana consumption lounges — because under current state law, tourists don’t have a place to legally consume marijuana.
AB533 supersedes a move by the City of Las Vegas, which had sought to institute its own licensing process for consumption lounges.
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom has expressed his frustration with the issue over Twitter since the amendment was added.
Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for Gov. Steve Sisolak, said in the past that the governor wanted to implement the lounges the “right” way rather than the “quick” way.
Education funding dominates
Lawmakers made big changes on the education front in the waning days of the session. They passed an overhaul to the Nevada Plan, the state’s five-decade-old formula for providing state funds for public education.
Senate Bill 543, dubbed the “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” would go into effect during the 2021-23 biennium and funnel money to schools based on the cost of educating each student. That cost could be increased based on certain needs — for example, whether a student is an English-language learner or has a learning or physical disability.
In a floor speech late in the session, one of the bill’s architects, state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said the bill was an opportunity to make history in the state. “Last year, we finally decided we were going to do something about (education funding),” he said, “whatever it took.”
Lawmakers also took steps to increase funding for schools, extending a tax on business payrolls to help pay for raises for the state’s public school teachers.
Extension of the state’s modified business tax — with the proceeds going to help fund public schools — was a contentious issue between Democrats and Republicans. GOP lawmakers claimed that extending the tax beyond its scheduled sunset this summer would count as a tax increase, and the Nevada Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote by both chambers to approve tax increases. The extension was passed by party line votes in both chambers — just under the two-thirds threshold.
Republicans have threatened a lawsuit if Sisolak signs the bill into law, which he has indicated he would do.
Campaign payments, recall elections get update
Lawmakers took a few steps with regards to elections and campaign finance.
One bill bans politicians from paying themselves a salary. It was introduced after a high-profile campaign finance scandal rocked Senate Democratic leadership, with then-Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigning and facing jail time after admitting to misusing about $250,000 in campaign funds.
Also passed is a bill that makes the recall election process more difficult by, among other things, allowing people to remove their signatures from a recall petition and making it a felony to knowingly obtain a false signature on a recall petition.
The bill passed after recall elections in 2018 rocked by accusations of exploitation were targeted at Democratic Sens. Joyce Woodhouse and Cannizzaro.
Assistant Majority Leader Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, said the new legislation was not targeted at residents who organize a recall election in good faith, but rather at outside interests targeting lawmakers.
“We should be willing to tighten up the process to make sure that when these things happen, all of us can rely on a process that is fair, consistent, reliable and can be easily interpreted,” Ratti said.
Collective bargaining, minimum wage
Lawmakers helped Sisolak achieve his campaign promise to extend bargaining rights to state workers.
The bill passing the measure, however, contains a caveat in that the governor is allowed to disregard the results of negotiations when he sees fit. Sisolak called the legislation a “critical first step.”
Two pieces of legislation to raise the minimum wage — a statutory measure and a constitutional amendment — were also approved.
The statutory bill would raise the minimum wage to $8-$9 an hour in July 2020, based on whether an employer provides worker health care coverage, and would then annually increase the minimum wage by 75 cents per hour until it hits $11-$12. The constitutional amendment, which needs approval in the 2021 session and then approval by voters in 2022, would raise the minimum wage to $12 by July 2024.
Democrats use majority to advantage
In many ways, Democratic legislative priorities were generally met.
The Democrats’ “blueprint,” a policy outline released at the beginning of the session, contained goals including a minimum wage increase, a for-profit prison ban, collective bargaining for state workers and a school-funding plan revamp, all of which were achieved.
“Under the leadership of Gov. Sisolak, Majority Leader Cannizzaro and Speaker Frierson, Nevada’s majority-female Legislature made historic achievements on behalf of all Nevadans,” said Alana Mounce, executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party.
Republicans hobbled by near-supermajority
Facing a steep hill against the two-chamber Democratic majority, Republicans mostly played defense against Democrats throughout the session.
Republicans leaned into public opinion as a legislative tool, starting with hearings on a controversial bill requiring background checks for gun purchases. Republicans mobilized residents who didn’t support the bill by getting them to testify in person or file opposition online.
Some Republican-led bills did pass this year, including measures removing the statute of limitations on some sexual assault cases and putting regulations on kratom, a plant that has grown in popularity for its claimed pain-relief tendencies, but the party was generally left hanging on many of its legislative pushes due to its near-superminority status.
Legislative Republicans have been generally quiet after the session’s end, but Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, resigned from his position as minority leader, being replaced by Assemblywoman Robin Titus, R-Wellington.
Sisolak fulfilled campaign promises
Sisolak got much of what he wanted out of this session, including collective bargaining for state employees, the Cannabis Compliance Board and an Office for New Americans. Helped by a significant Democratic majority,he was able to enact almost all of his campaign promises.
“Working Nevadans across the state will wake up the morning of June 4, 2019, better off than they were the day before because of the historic measures we passed this legislative session,” Sisolak said in the statement. “From making our schools and communities safer, to passing the largest education budget in Nevada history, to securing protections for Nevadans with pre-existing conditions and combating the devastating practice of surprise (medical) billing, we have taken bold steps that will create better opportunities for all Nevadans, keep our economy on the path toward even greater success, and strengthen communities across the state — from Laughlin to West Wendover and everywhere in between.”