2011 Legislature faces perfect storm
Even if every incumbent running wins re-election to the Nevada Legislature this year, nearly half the Senate and Assembly will be newcomers when the 2011 session begins in February.
And some observers say the arrival of term limits – the reason most of those incumbents are gone – couldn’t come at a worse time.
Not only is the state facing the worst budget crisis in its history, members must draw new boundaries for every legislative and congressional district in the state, a process eight-time Assembly Speaker Joe Dini of Yerington described as “always ugly.”
And they must do it as term limits take effect, which means the Assembly will see at least 19 new faces out of 42 in 2011 and at least eight in the Senate.
“They’ll have some of the most significant challenges that our state has ever faced,” said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas – who is termed out this year.
With several vulnerable incumbents, Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said it’s not a big stretch to imagine a majority of the Assembly being freshmen when the 2011 Legislature is gaveled to order.
Even with eight new members, the Senate will likely to be less affected by freshmen than the Assembly since outgoing Assembly members are expected to win several of those seats.
“Term limits were a bad idea to start with and we’re just starting to figure that out,” said former Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, who resigned for business reasons last year.
“We’re losing some of the best minds in the place,” he said, naming outgoing members from both parties.
Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, who chose not to seek another term, said “experience is essential.”
“We will lack some of the veterans, and with term limits, people are going to have to take on more responsibility earlier,” she said.
Dini said the large number of freshmen means some will end up in power positions such as committee chairs despite having no or little experience.
He said the Assembly speaker – expected to be John Oceguera of Las Vegas – will face major challenges.
“The speaker’s got a big job to hold these guys together,” he said. “Beginners are sometimes harder because they get ambitious, but they haven’t been through it.”
Hardy, however, said the Assembly still has strong leadership and that “it’s going to be easier for the Assembly to hold their caucuses together.”
But he agreed some freshmen or sophomores may be tested as committee chairs.
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who termed out after 28 years as a lawmaker, said the freshmen will be OK, “if they’re open-minded and willing to ask the old timers for advice.”
Buckley said she is concerned the 2011 Legislature will be more polarized than 2009, which she said passed a budget and revenue package with bipartisan support.
“We’re seeing many more people with a chance of winning who are going to govern by just saying no, by just throwing out partisan soundbites,” she said.
She said a projected revenue shortfall of $3 billion is nearly half the total $6.5 billion general fund budget and that cutting that much is impossible.
“We can’t let violent prisoners out of prison, can’t kick people out of nursing homes and can’t not educate our children,” she said. “There is no doubt there are going to have to be revenue solutions on the table.”
Coffin said recent signs revenue numbers have “bottomed out and the economy is coming back” won’t save lawmakers from raising more money. But he predicted recovery in 2013 will help restore the state to health.
Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, who resigned to take an appointment on the Colorado River Commission, had a different take on last session, saying Democratic majorities in both houses just pushed their agenda through.
“With the culture that was established in the Assembly and last time in the Senate, I don’t see anybody breaking ranks,” he said. “They’re going to bring them in, line them up and say here are the taxes you’re going to vote for. That’s a really cynical thing to say but I just don’t see it (dissent among the Democrats).”
“It’s going to be crucial for all parties to work together,” said Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Sparks, also termed out.
She said that means everybody has to give a bit to get the job done.
Dini said with the depth of the budget crisis and numerous freshmen, it would make sense to separate the tax and budget battle from the
10-year reapportionment process by doing the redistricting in a special session after the regular 120 day Legislature.