Last minute legislative rush is a symptom of a larger problem

Nevada News

By Doug Goodman

The individuals who serve as state legislators and support staff are some of the most dedicated individuals you will find anywhere. What follows should not be construed as contradicting this fact.

27, 34, 22, 33, 40.

Together these numbers represent a broken process. They are the number of bills and resolutions (bills, resolutions, concurrent resolutions and joint resolutions) introduced in the last three weeks of the past five legislative sessions: 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019. Resolutions and concurrent resolutions are mostly administrative, of course, but that fact does not detract from the problem. Additionally, these five numbers do not include the numerous amendments that inevitably are introduced in the final days of a session and that can (and do) drastically change the scope and impact of a bill.

The problem of late-session bill, resolution and amendment introductions is basically ignored by those who have the power to study the root cause and enact a solution. When brought up, the conversation most likely ends with “it can’t be helped,” “this is the way it has to be,” or similar words. It’s easier to make an excuse than to face the problem head on.

We also hear “the Legislature only meets for 120 days every other year.” Actually, 88 days, given that legislators are not in Carson City on weekends except for the last weekend of the session. (Yes, legislators are reading bills and preparing for the following week during the days they are not in Carson City). Again, though, it’s an excuse. It is not the number of days that is the problem. It is how those 88 days are structured. It is how the planning leading up to the session is organized (or not).

Nevada is no longer a small, simple state with relatively simple problems. The issues facing Nevada are multifaceted and can change rapidly. Waiting two years for solutions is not an effective way to govern. The Interim Legislative Commission (ILC) can only do so much, and 12 people are not as representative as 63.

The long-accepted rush to the finish in Carson City is an affront to citizen participation in the legislative process. In Nevada Revised Statute (NRS) 241.016(2)(a), the Legislature has exempted itself from the state’s Open Meeting Law. And while the Nevada Constitution was amended in 1994 to ensure that all legislative committee meetings were open to the public, each chamber sets its own rules on when and how committees meet.

During the final three weeks of the session, both the Assembly and Senate suspend all rules. Few if any of the last-minute bills are heard in formal committee meetings. Many discussions and votes are held “behind the bar,” a legislative term meaning that members of a committee are called to meet during a floor session on the floor of the chamber to discuss and vote on a bill. Members may not have had an advance copy of the bill or proposed amendment. Because the meeting occurs on the floor of the Legislature, the public is prohibited from attending or listening to what is said. A secretary logs who is present, who made the motion and what the motion was, but there’s not a transcript or audio recording of the meeting. The public has no way of knowing what exactly transpired. Hardly open and transparent government.

What to do?

  • Beginning with bill draft requests (BDR), all bills need to be cross-checked to eliminate duplicate and/or intersecting bills. The Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB) is responsible for writing all bills. Before drafting any legislation, LCB should have a formal process for identifying duplicate and/or intersecting bills. This could be as simple as an automated keyword search of BDR language. Sponsors of identified bills should then be notified so a single collaborative bill can be prepared. Legislators may have to let go of any pride of ownership and become co-sponsors. Result:  more efficient management of legislation allowing for fewer bills without sacrificing substance.
  • We also need to require that all financial data needed to act on the budget is available at the start of the session. Action on spending and all associated bills should be completed by the midpoint of the session. This may require adjustment to the scheduled submission of the budget revenue projections by the Economic Forum; however, I believe that is a minor inconvenience that would benefit the budget approval process. Result:  as much of the last-minute legislation falls into this category, the process then becomes fully transparent and the budget and associated bills are not passed simply because time is running out.
  • Major policy or process legislation should be submitted within the normal BDR submission schedule. I cannot imagine any reason why a bill to change the school funding formula could not have been introduced on the first legislative day. A committee of private citizens met for an extended time during the interim. Their deadline should have been set appropriately. The introduction of major bills in the last three weeks of the session only leads to the perception that the sponsors do not want full debate, believing an abbreviated timeline will ensure a smoother, yet more uninformed passage. Result:  major changes to state law will receive full discussion allowing for collaboration among all stakeholders and full public debate.
  • Ceremonial bills and bills such as designating a “State _____” should not be considered until the appropriate committees have finished all other business, unless the committee chair determines there is time available that will not interfere with the committee considering other legislation. Result:  better allocation of committee assets.
  • So-called “legislative time” should not be tolerated. Time management is essential for any organization to operate efficiently and effectively. I understand that meetings can run over, but adjusted start times of over one-half hour and sometimes as much as two hours are unacceptable. Better coordination of bills, the first item in this list, would help. Leadership needs to ask themselves if they would tolerate the same lax time standards in their personal or private professional lives. I doubt it. Leaders need to be aware of the impact of poor time management on rank and file members as well as the public at large who want to testify or observe. Poor time management affects productivity and the quality of work of all involved in the process. Result:  a more effective and productive legislative session.
  • Voters need to be given the opportunity to amend the Nevada Constitution to require the Legislature meet annually. During each of the last five sessions, a resolution to amend the Constitution has been considered. In 2011, the resolution was not given a hearing. In 2013, the resolution passed — but in 2015 when considered for its required second passage, it was not given a floor vote. In 2017, a resolution passed the Senate but it was not even given a committee vote in the Assembly. This session, the resolution was not given a committee vote on either side. Let’s allow the voters to decide how frequently their representatives should meet. (Annual sessions, however, will not make much of a difference if the overall process is not fixed in the other ways mentioned here.)

During the 2013 session, legislators were provided an opportunity to demonstrate that they see the operation of the Legislature itself as a problem. They didn’t take it. Senate Concurrent Resolution 8 would have created a sub-committee within the Legislative Commission to study the internal operations of the Legislature. Proposed by the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, the bill passed out of committee unanimously but was denied a vote in the full Senate.

Nevada has a part-time citizen Legislature. Those who offer themselves up to serve do so because they care about this state. They dedicate themselves to the process with minimal compensation, receiving no salary, just a per diem, for the last 60 days of the legislative session. They separate themselves from their families and normal lives. They do so without reservation with full dedication. However, sometimes, those closest to a problem are blind to it. It’s time for the rest of us to shed some light and push for solutions.

Doug Goodman is the founder and executive director of Nevadans for Election Reform. He can be reached at info@nevadansforelectionreform.org

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