Under the Silver Dome:

Face Off at the
Nevada Legislature

by Pat Hickey
Nevada Assemblyman District 27

he current box office smash Face Off that cleverly disguises good guys as bad guys wearing human masks is a fair likeness of the mysterious and equally confusing process we call lawmaking here in Nevada in the latter part of the 20th Century. Like the movie, the just completed 69th Session of the Nevada Legislature offered societal high stakes driven by a complicated political plot, 11th hour hostage-taking, confused identities and an ending that while not all that bad, left both players and the viewing public relieved that it was finally over.

Nevada’s biennial legislative sessions are not bad because they are becoming longer. (That hopefully will be solved by 1998 when Nevadans cast their vote along with legislators for limiting the length of our biennial sessions.) The real problem is what we’ve allowed the process to become. The standard insiders’ joke around the Legislature compares lawmaking to sausage making with the obvious parallels about questionable ingredients and the lingering smell of the final product.

When a freshman lawmaker earns the privilege of serving in Carson City, he or she eagerly arrives to take the prescribed seat in those physically pleasing and politically uncomfortable new leather chairs. And for the first two to three months the lawmaker experiences what’s commonly referred to in the military as the practice of "hurry up and wait." You wait for bills to be drafted and get scheduled for a hearing in the appropriate committee. Sometimes bills that you think deal with an important public policy question never even get a hearing because of an all-powerful committee chairman who’s predisposed to never let them see the light of day. Some bills get "held" to the very end of the session when they attract less public attention or are more easily amended when deals are being brokered and legislative horse trading is being done.

But there is a way to improve the way we do things. It would require some self-imposed self government by legislators on themselves. Everyone knows we could be more efficient and, more importantly, more open with respect to the way we conduct the people’s business.

First, all the minor regulatory changes that are commonly referred to as "housekeeping" bills could be handled by interim committees in between sessions with suggested changes in law ready to be heard and acted on only if interim committees have recommended their passage. Secondly, there should be definite cutoff dates for bills to be introduced and heard in both houses during the session itself. This way, no last minute Leg-O-Matic, special interest bills can be shepherded through in the 11th hour when only self-interested lobbyists are still awake.

We should lower the number of bills that legislators and state agencies can propose—prioritize what’s worthy of legislation. As one constituent said recently upon looking over a list of bills passed last session, "How did I ever manage to live in Nevada for the past 20 years without all these bills on the books?"

The practice of suspending the rules at the end of the session needs to be abolished. Bills should go through the committee process with adequate public notice, or they should not be heard at all. What do you call lawmakers who routinely suspend the rules for lawmaking itself? Lawbreakers may be too harsh, but the public is not so dumb that they can’t recognize a double standard when they see one.

Nevada should consider doing what past Blue Ribbon Commissions have suggested—amend the constitution to convene our biennial session later in March to allow more time for the Legislative Counsel Bureau to have bills ready. We could establish parallel standing committees and meeting times in the Senate and the Assembly in order that important bills can be heard and acted on jointly by both houses.

Our good friends the lobbyists could use a little restraint as well. Most are decent Nevadans who provide legislators with valued information to help make good public policy. They too represent the public, the businesses and the constituencies that we all make up. But lobbyists should consider limiting the number of clients and constituents they represent and not have too many chips on the table when the inevitable political gamesmanship takes place at the end of the session.

The public also deserves a little scolding. We’re all apt to expect too much and do too little with respect to our individual self-government responsibilities. Lawmakers need to hear from you. Your informed input on particular issues does make a difference. Tell them how a proposed piece of legislation will affect you, your children’s education, or your business. When Nevada lawmakers sit on those lonely leather hot seats in Carson, they will likely remember your call or visit, often more than the polished urging of high-priced lobbyists.

Finally, none of us should expect miracles. If we want our greatest-in-the-world political process to survive and prosper, we will all have to do a better job. Our "face off" at the start of the 1999 Legislature will be to boldly begin a contest for a better Nevada, meeting the healthy challenge of finding solutions because we faced head on some of the problems we created for ourselves. u


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