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October 2, 2014

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OTHER VOICES - 2013 Legislature:

120 days and their consequences

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David Damore

Damore's top three issues

1. Align the state’s institutions to match the demographic shift and put Nevada in a better position to capture federal money.

2. Reform funding formulas for K-12 and higher education

3. Add infrastructure, such as Interstate 11 and UNLVNow, to boost economic development.

Other views

The Sun's opinion page provides a wide range of opinion about the start of the 2013 Legislature.

From the Sun:

The Sun's editorial Break the status quo.

Brian Greenspun's "Where I Stand" column.

• • •

Elected officials

Gov. Brian Sandoval

Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson

Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey

• • •

Political journalists

Elizabeth Crum

Anjeanette Damon

Ray Hagar

Jon Ralston

David McGrath Schwartz

• • •

Have your own opinion?

Write a letter to the editor.

On Monday, Nevada’s citizen legislators convene to conduct the people’s business. Regardless of the hard work and best intentions, the outputs of the session are sure to disappoint for the simple reason that the state’s policy demands far exceed legislative capacity.

In short, our legislators, many of them with little or no experience, are expected to develop and implement 21st century polices for a fast-growing, increasingly urban and ethnically diverse state in a globally connected region while operating in a legislative context designed for the Comstock era.

The consequences of this mismatch between legislative demand and capacity are myriad. Many deserving bills will get little or no attention. Important policy decisions will be made in haste by sleep-deprived legislators racing against a constitutionally imposed 120-day clock (a late 1990s “reform” engineered by the late Sen. Bill Raggio and prompted under the guise of limiting governmental excess, but which in practice increased the great Northern Nevada legislator’s control over the end game). Because legislators will not be in regular session again for two years, self-interested bureaucrats will simply wait out the session before unilaterally implementing their policy prerogatives sans legislative interference.

From this perspective, is it any wonder that Nevada’s economy remains trapped in cycles of boom and bust? Or that the state still uses a K-12 funding formula developed in 1967? Or that little consideration is given to how Nevada should respond to its changing demography and long-term infrastructure and resource needs?

The limited capacity of the Nevada Legislature means that there will be little opportunity to consider much-needed reorganization to the dozens of executive branch boards and commissions that run the state with little legislative oversight and no legislative representation. In 120 days, it also is unlikely that legislators will have time to examine why Nevadans receive the least amount of per-capita appropriations from the federal government or discuss how the state’s governance can be aligned to more effectively capture these dollars.

The state’s four community colleges nicely illustrate this point. Because of an attorney general’s opinion in the 1960s, the Nevada System of Higher Education subsumed authority over these institutions. In contrast, the community colleges in nearly all other states are governed and funded, at least in part, at the local level. This arrangement allows these institutions to better coordinate with local industries to facilitate workforce training and use these relationships to pursue assistance through federal programs such as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants, a $2 billion initiative that funds partnership between local industries and community colleges to retrain displaced workers.

So how well has the state — with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and desperately hoping to diversify its economy — done in obtaining these grants? The state’s first-round application failed to qualify. For round two, after initially working with a multistate consortium that received a $12 million grant, Nevada left the consortium and did not apply independently. It’s unclear whether the state will apply for rounds three and four. Perhaps if these community colleges were accountable to local business or civic leaders instead of bureaucrats in Reno, the outcome might be different.

Moreover, because Nevada’s entrepreneurial regions are not positioned to leverage state assets to attract external funding, competition for the state’s limited internal dollars is that much more intense. To this end, over time the Legislature has developed a number of opaque processes for centralizing and redistributing tax revenue such as the consolidated tax, which filters various locally collected taxes through a multitiered framework before redirecting this revenue back to local governments. Not surprisingly, post-session assessments of winners and losers invariably focus not on what Nevada has done to improve its competitive standing, but which interests avoided contributing to the pie and which interests extracted the most resources.

Of course, like any institution, the Nevada Legislature has adapted to its increased demands. The most obvious example of this is the bloated interim session anchored by the constitutionally dubious Interim Finance Committee and Legislative Commission. Indeed, during the 2011-12 interim session, which began days after the conclusion of the 2011 regular session and terminated last week, there were five interim committees and subcommittees, 18 statutory committees and subcommittees, and nine interim study committees and subcommittees, as well as 46 nonlegislative committees. Given all of this nonlegislative activity by our legislators, wouldn’t annual sessions, or at least, altering the 120-day constraint from calendar to session days be more transparent?

To be sure, as dismal as the status quo in Nevada can be, the handful of interests that benefit from present arrangements have little incentive to support any reforms that would increase the Legislature’s capacity. Instead, these interests are likely to use their clout to either minimize the impact of any reforms or stop them outright. In the meantime, Nevada continues to fall farther and farther beyond behind our regional competitors who long ago had the good sense to shed the vestiges of their pioneer governance.

David Damore is a political scientist at UNLV and a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.

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  1. The columnist has a very bleak view of the future legislative year especially for a Sunday morning at a time when Nevada has a chance for a new beginning. Let's not worry about the number of days being too little to get everything done. Let's worry about using those days wisely and efficiently to do Nevada's most pressing business. It's called prioritizing.

    CarmineD