Lawmakers gather for ceremony, Week 1 at Nevada Legislature | NevadaAppeal.com

Lawmakers gather for ceremony, Week 1 at Nevada Legislature

Alison Noon
Associated Press

12:45 p.m. Monday update:

Nevada’s 63 state legislators are beginning the biennial lawmaking process to negotiate a state spending plan that could surpass $8 billion.

A ceremony attended by legislators’ families kicked off Monday with members of the Assembly voting for Assemblyman Jason Frierson to lead the lower chamber. The Las Vegas Democrat is the state’s first black Assembly Speaker.

The historic moment also marks the first time that both the state Senate and Assembly are concurrently led by black legislators.

In an election cycle dominated nationally by Republican candidates, Nevada Democrats flipped both chambers to their control.

They’re already putting roadblocks in front of some of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s priorities, including a contentious school voucher program.

Among other policies, lawmakers will review state taxes and take a closer look at newly legalized recreational marijuana.

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Nevada legislators are converging on Carson City to start the biennial lawmaking process Monday and resolve budget conflicts that could be seriously complicated by efforts in Washington, D.C., to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats will control both legislative chambers, holding an 11-9-1 majority in the state Senate and a 27-15 majority in the Assembly. But their plans to delete some of the laws written by Republicans last session and roll back the state’s public funding for private schools will face a hurdle at the desk of popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Here are some things to know about the first week of a session that will begin with pomp and circumstance and end four months later in a flurry of political activity.

CEREMONIAL GRANDEUR

Lawmakers and their families will applaud one another in stately gatherings their first day in office. It’s the only time spouses and children are welcome on the floor of the chambers as the legislators convene in a spirit of bipartisan collegiality that rarely extends through the 120-day session.

Senate Democrats are expected to officially select Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, as the upper chamber’s leader and Assembly Democrats will vote in Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, as speaker of the lower chamber.

EDUCATION FUNDS

State Treasurer Dan Schwartz will field questions from senators on a fiscal committee Thursday regarding Nevada’s school voucher program. The Education Savings Accounts program is aimed at providing public funds for families to spend on K-12 education outside the public school system, but has been bogged down in legal challenges since its inception in 2015. In a split ruling in September, the Nevada Supreme Court decided the concept was constitutional, but funding it with dollars dedicated to public education was not.

The treasurer’s office released data last month showing more than 8,500 people had applied for the vouchers and 243 of them were awaiting formal approval for the funds. Schwartz has long supported the program and said last month that he believes more families will enroll “once the uncertainty is removed.”

No Democratic lawmakers supported the program in 2015 and the majority party is currently mulling ways to limit it this session.

WOMEN’S ISSUES

Commanding nearly 40 percent of statehouse seats, women elected to the Nevada Legislature will meet on Friday in what some members say will be the state’s first organized, bipartisan and bicameral women’s caucus. The meeting will come nearly a century after the first woman was elected to the Nevada Legislature in 1918.

Sen. Patricia Farley, I-Las Vegas, one of the group’s five leaders, said she expects her female colleagues will rally around bills this session that seek fair pay among genders and employment data, target sex trafficking, and promote child welfare and childcare.

The group is also slated to plan social gatherings outside the legislative building, which are not subject to state transparency laws.

“I think it’s important to understand each other on a personal level as we try to work together from our varied backgrounds and try to make decisions for Nevada’s women,” said Sen. Becky Harris, R-Las Vegas, another leader of the caucus.

Farley, Harris and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, said they believe the formal gathering will be the first of its kind in Nevada. Legislative researcher Barbara Dimmit said the state does not record caucuses, so the Legislative Counsel Bureau could not determine whether there has ever before been an organized women’s caucus.

Nevada is among four states with the highest percentages of women legislators this year; women also hold 38-40 percent of statehouse seats in Arizona, Colorado and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nationally, women comprise about 25 percent of all state legislatures.

BUDGET ISSUES

The governor’s two-year budget proposal totals $8.1 billion in state spending — an 11 percent increase over the current budget. Sandoval has asked the Legislature to put a 10 percent sales tax on top of an existing 15 percent wholesale tax on recreational marijuana, and use the funds in part to increase state workers’ pay and spend more on various education programs.