Indy Explains: Rules change outrage needs context

Republican lawmakers cried foul on Monday after Democrats introduced a bevy of rule changes into both the Assembly and Senate.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler said he was “disturbed by the fact that over 150 years of tradition were tossed aside,” and Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson was even more dramatic in a statement released late Monday, calling the rule changes proposed by Majority Leader Aaron Ford an overreach of power.

“He unconstitutionally stripped the Lt. Governor of his right to vote as the tiebreaker on legislation, attacked a member of his own caucus as having inserted a ‘poison pill’ into legislation in the 2015 session, gave himself the power to unilaterally kill legislation, and changed the rules taking redistricting from a bipartisan commission to a democrat-controlled process,” he said in a statement.

Fights over parliamentary rules and legislative operations are usually an excellent insomnia cure, but the outraged rhetoric so early in the session is unusual, making us curious if the changes are as drastic as Republicans claim.

Lieutenant Governor

Senate rules have been changed to prevent the state’s lieutenant governor — Republican Mark Hutchison — from voting to break ties on bills or joint resolutions. Hutchison can still vote to break ties on questions of parliamentary procedure or preliminary matters in his role as president of the Senate, but the question of his specific role is a constitutional question that hasn’t been answered by the courts.

Nevada’s Constitution requires that a “majority of all the members elected to each House is necessary to pass every bill or joint resolution,” with tie votes losing. A tie vote broken by the vote of the lieutenant governor could be considered violating that “constitutional majority” requirement.

The Constitution also states that the lieutenant governor shall only have a “casting,” or tie, vote but whether that covers actual bills or joint resolutions has never been litigated in court. The 2015 Senate rules added in the ability for the lieutenant governor to vote in any instance of tie, while the 2013 rules echoed the 2017 rules in prohibiting a tiebreaker vote on a bill or resolution.

In general, ties are a rare occurrence in the Senate anyways simply because there is an odd number of senators — 21.

Hutchison said he believed that the lieutenant governor should have the power to break all ties, but given the 12-9 Democratic advantage in the Senate, it is unlikely he’ll ever have the chance this session.

“It’s a situation where I’m never going to have to break a tie,” Hutchison said. “So, you know, it’s a little bit moot.”

Poison Pill

The “poison pill” reference to Ford’s floor speech is a bit of a misnomer, as the caucus member Roberson refers to is Independent Sen. Patricia Farley, elected as a Republican and who changed party registration shortly after the 2016 election and now caucuses with the Democrats.

During the 2015 session, Farley and Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer pushed for a bill that would have raised the state’s minimum wage for workers who aren’t offered health insurance by their employers. That legislation was tied to provisions that modified how the state calculated overtime, which Democrats strongly opposed. Despite multiple changes and last-minute pushes, the bill failed to make out before the end of the session.

Senate Democrats introduced a bill on Tuesday that would raise the two minimum wage tiers by $4 over a period of five years, to $11 and $12 an hour. In a brief interview, Farley said she was “very supportive” of the legislation.

Unilaterally kill legislation

The claim that Ford “gave himself the power to unilaterally kill legislation” refers to a procedural change made to how disputes between the two houses of the Legislature are resolved.

When one house of the Legislature makes a change to a bill and the other house doesn’t accept the change, leadership in both houses hold a “conference committee” to meet and discuss the changes. In the past (2015) such a change was mandated in the rules, while the 2017 version of the rules changed “shall” to “may” and made conference committees optional.

Technically, the change makes it possible for legislative leadership to effectively kill legislation by not agreeing to schedule the committees, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat — Ford (and in the past Roberson) have a variety of tools and options on hand to stop bills outside of conference committees.

Redistricting

Roberson also accused Ford of “taking redistricting from a bipartisan commission to a Democrat-controlled process.”

It is true that the 2017 rules changed the redistricting authority from the legislative standing committees to less clearly defined “Select Committees on Redistricting” appointed by the leaders of both legislative houses, but the redistricting process is very unlikely to come up in the 2017 session.

While several other modifications were made to the redistricting process in the rules, Nevada lawmakers typically do not engage in the redistricting process until the session after the decennial census, which will be in 2021.

Republicans (led by Roberson) inserted redistricting language into the 2015 Senate rules (earlier rules didn’t include them) setting off howls of unfairness from Democrats at the time but no redistricting bills were ultimately introduced.

Interim Committees

While not mentioned by Roberson, the Senate rules were also changed to require any meeting of interim legislative commission during the 120-day session to first gain the approval of legislative leadership.

This means interim committees, like the one overseeing the restructuring of the Clark County School District, one very important to Roberson, need approval from legislative Democrats in order to hold a meeting between now and June 5th.