Welcome to The Wasted Session

At some point, during all sessions, someone exclaims, “What a waste of time!”

Pointless debates. Political stunts. Animal resolutions.

We come to expect these temporal outbursts during our biennial 120 Groundhog Days. But never, never has a Legislature threatened to earn the moniker, “The Wasted Session.”

Until now.

I am experienced enough (that’s columnistese for “old enough”) to know that first weeks often are harbingers of nothing, that they are generally family time followed by committee and floor sessions that lack the tensions and import of later days. There have been exceptions to this rule: In 2003, Gov. Kenny Guinn essentially called lawmakers cowards if they did not enact the largest tax increase in history (at the time), and in 2015, the GOP majority began ramming and jamming from Day One.

Those were tone-setting events that still resonated in June. But they don’t happen often.

After one week of Session ’17, though, I am not sure that The Wasted Session will not live up to its name (that I just gave it). And it could be wasted for everyone: Democrats, Republicans, the governor and – who have I forgotten? – oh, yes, the people.

Here’s why:

The basic construct of the session was set on Sept. 29 and Nov. 8.

On the first date, the state Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the funding mechanism for Education Savings Accounts, the linchpin of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s universal and landmark school choice program. This was as partisan an issue as any in legislative history, and Democrats began to salivate about formally killing ESAs by not funding them in 2017.

A month after the court decision, the Democrats had both houses and vowed to reverse gains the GOP made when it had hegemony in 2015. The question would be, without veto-proof majorities, what the Democratic leaders could pass that would keep Gov. Brian Sandoval’s veto pen in its drawer. Knowing that he would fund ESAs – and he did to the tune of $60 million – the Democrats had to know the spokes to all other deals would emanate from that line item.

So Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford had to make deals with Sandoval to pass any of their agenda items, including any rollbacks of GOP victories in ’15 on collective bargaining (hello, labor) and tort reform (hello, trial lawyers). The natural speculation was that if Sandoval got ESAs (any funding gets the program going, so $60 million clearly was a starting point for him), he would give the Democrats something. They would have to work together and both sides would have to placate state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, who pushed through most of what the GOP called reforms and the Democrats called abominations last session.

It’s really that simple, or the session would be….wasted.

After the first five days, I fear the worst. Why? Words and deeds.

----On Day One, Ford gave an acidic speech obliquely attacking Roberson’s 2015 stewardship and vowing to undo “extreme and unnecessary legislation” from the 2015 session as families there for the ceremonial first day squirmed in their seats and lobbyists and veteran lawmakers of both parties watched in wonderment. Roberson and Sandoval reproached the new leader. Heads shook in the corridors. Not an auspicious start.

----The Democrats signaled their intent to move a minimum wage increase early in the session, something that went nowhere in 2015. They have the votes to do it, and I am not entirely sure that the governor might not sign….something. But by pushing it so early, they forced Roberson to make a statement and, worse, Sandoval, to protect the minority leader’s back, had to come out with a stronger-than-usual declaration. Why get the governor’s back up so early?

----Newly elected Assembly Judiciary Chairman Steve Yeager introduced a bill to reverse collective bargaining changes made by Republicans last session. The 2015 measure passed unanimously out of the lower house after much negotiation and, among other provisions, involves so-called evergreen clauses that allow public sector unions not to lose benefits if contracts expire during negotiations. It was arguably the bill unions most hated from the last session. The introduction followed state Sen. Mo Denis’s proposed measure to repeal a critical component of Sandoval’s 2015 education reform agenda, so-called Achievement School Districts that would convert struggling schools to charters. Consider the governor poked in both eyes – in the first week, and to what end?

I understand the Democrats, now that they control the legislative branch, have every right, maybe even an imperative to stand up for their priorities. But if the goal is to actually get something done, as opposed to pandering to special interests still aggrieved from 2015, the first week did not provide many good omens.

Ford and Frierson will have to decide whether they care more about pleasing labor and trial lawyers than they do about being leaders who can thread the needle of a Democratic legislative body and a Republican executive branch.

Sandoval is not a frothing partisan, but he’s also a human being. What governor would want what he considered dramatic accomplishments garnered two years ago tossed aside only two years later?

He won’t let that happen. And he not only has the power to stop it, he has the luxury of being a patient man who lives in the place most legislators do not. Summer in Carson City? Gorgeous.

So now what?

The Democrats and Sandoval can find common ground on issues without obvious special interest lobbyists such as mental health  and Medicaid funding, issues that matter to much greater swaths of people. And they can find ways to negotiate on some of the most partisan, incendiary issues, too.

Maybe the adumbrations mislead. Perhaps the early actions and posturing are markers being laid down that will dissolve later in the session amid the realities of the capital power matrix.

But I am starting to believe after the first week of The Wasted Session, the only question remaining is whether the time squandered will be 120 days or longer.

Jon Ralston is the editor of the The Nevada Independent. He has been a journalist in Nevada for more than 30 years. Contact him at ralston@thenvindy.com