Most state legislatures are about to begin their annual lawmaking session. It happens every year in 46 states, as lobbyists and lawmakers flock to statehouses to begin the process of determining regulations.
But that’s not the case in Nevada, which is one of the last few holdouts of the biennial legislative tradition and has staved off attempts to transition to an annual session.
So, what do the lawmakers Nevadans elect to send to Carson City do beyond the 120-day period every two years when they gather in the statehouse? Quite a bit, actually.
On an off-day from his job as a consultant, state Sen. Chris Brooks, D-Las Vegas, drove to Carson City to attend an interim committee meeting. Interim committees meet regularly, whether it’s twice a year, quarterly or monthly, he said.
“It’s really all about your ability to work on these committees,” Brooks said. “I would say I’m still very busy, even in the interim.”
Michael Bowers, a political science professor at UNLV, said lawmakers are generally involved in legislative committees during off-years, working on bringing forward reports or recommendations to the next full session. “For example, the issue of school funding cannot possibly be resolved in a session lasting only 120 days,” Bowers said. “Much of the work must be done during the 20 months when the Legislature is not in session.”
The goal of many of these committees is to bring forward bill drafts. Brooks, for instance, is studying fuel gas taxes for bills the Interim Energy Committee hopes to draft. Consumers are buying less gas as cars become more fuel-efficient and some motorists opt for electric vehicles. That means less money for road repair—something the energy committee hopes to address in the off-year.
State Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers work not only on committee business but also on constituency outreach, communication and other non-committee meetings. Plus, there’s the non-legislative work. “Most of the legislators, of course, have proper jobs as well,” she said.
A bit of history
North Dakota, Texas and Montana are the only other states in the nation that meet biennially.
“Originally, many states had biennial state legislatures, because they were not highly populated and also because government’s role in people’s lives was much smaller and more limited than it is now,” Bowers said. “There is also the theory that the less often the legislature meets, the less damage that it can do.”
Bowers said there have been multiple attempts throughout Nevada’s history to switch the session to an annual schedule. The only success, he said, was one brief period when a 1958 constitutional amendment made the legislative session annual. It was repealed in 1960.
Bowers said Nevada’s history of small-government movements might lead opponents of an annual legislature to opposing having lawmakers meet more often.
“I would suggest that Nevada’s libertarian history and fear [or] disdain for government have worked to ensure that these proposals simply never make it through,” he said. “The more often the Legislature meets, so the thinking goes, the more laws it will pass and the more mischief it will cause.”
Meeting annually could become a burden to some lawmakers, many of whom balance the four months of the session with full-time employment. The state pays about $9,000 per session to lawmakers, a figure that would need to increase if the Legislature met annually. In California, for instance, it’s a six-figure-a-year position.
Dondero Loop said a lack of awareness about legislative sessions and lawmakers’ responsibilities could lead people to oppose a move to an annual session. She also said Nevada’s transient population and the number of people moving here can create groups that might not realize that the state doesn’t have an annual session. After all, it’s more common than not nationwide.
What it means for bills
The last days and hours of a session are usually a frantic push to get laws passed. Some bills die simply because there’s not proper time to look into the legislation. That could be considered reasoning enough to meet annually.
Bowers said that while many bills do die in the session, he has seen no evidence that it’s easier or harder to pass a bill during a biennial session compared with an annual session.
“Whether those bills [that died] would have been passed in an annual session or wind up in a committee chair’s desk drawer, we really have no way of knowing,” he said. “It does seem to me, based on the more than 35 years that I have observed the Legislature, that if leadership wants a bill to see the light of day and be voted upon, then it will.”
Both Brooks and Dondero Loop said the year off from the session gives lawmakers the ability to take a step back, breathe and examine the issues. “It does help quite a bit because it gives you time to study things at a different level,” Dondero Loop said. “Because when you’re up there, it’s, ‘Hurry up and go.’”
Brooks said that, although lawmakers have responsibilities during off-years, the workload remains up to individual legislators. “You can be as active as you have the time and money to be,” he said.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.