Nevada lawmakers will convene on Wednesday morning for the first time since mid-2019 for what is expected to be a painful special session cutting $1.2 billion out of the state’s budget.
The state’s 31st special legislative session, which was officially called Tuesday evening by Gov. Steve Sisolak, will be very different from those in the past.
There will be no lobbyists or members of the public allowed in the building, and lawmakers and staff will have to adhere to social distancing and other safety measures because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers have been given the unenviable task of determining and approving massive cuts to education and health care services. Sisolak has also promised to issue a call for another special session once budget issues are resolved, with many expecting topics such as criminal justice reform or election changes to come up.
Here’s what to expect out of the special session:
The initial shutdown of nonessential businesses ordered by Gov. Steve Sisolak in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19 dealt a massive blow to the state’s revenue projections.
Already, Sisolak’s office and state lawmakers have signed off on using a $401 million “Rainy Day Fund” and other one-time cuts to meet an estimated $812 million shortfall in the 2020 fiscal year budget, which ended on June 30.
But the budget outlook for the new fiscal year, which began in July, is even bleaker.
The most recent estimates put the difference between legislatively-approved spending and projected tax revenues at $1.2 billion, or about 25 percent of the year's budget.
Sisolak previously announced once-a-month furloughs and merit pay freezes for state workers, and detailed more of his plans in a lengthy budget outline released by the governor’s office on Monday.
That document outlined cuts of more than half a billion dollars' worth out of state agencies, reversions of one-time spending and other shifts to help bridge the budget deficit. The proposed cuts do not affect the per-pupil support dollars school districts receive, but make significant cuts to other K-12 education budgets, as well as to the Department of Health and Human Services, including the state’s Medicaid program.
Although some progressive groups have called on the Legislature to remove constitutional limits on mining taxes, Sisolak said in his budget document that he would only consider modifications of existing tax revenue sources already in law.
Sisolak’s call for the special session only deals with the state budget and some changes to K-12 funding mechanisms, but the governor’s office said in a press release that other topics will be addressed during a subsequent special session.
The governor and lawmakers in both parties have hinted at a willingness to address systemic racism and police violence issues in the state after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
On Monday, a group of community nonprofits and criminal justice advocates including public defenders in Clark and Washoe counties called on Sisolak and legislative leaders to take substantial steps in the special session, including repealing a 2019 law granting police officers accused of misconduct additional protections, penalizing officers who don't use body cameras, allowing for independent investigations of police-involved killings and removing qualified immunity for police officers sued for misconduct.
Another progressive group, Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, has also called on lawmakers and Sisolak last week to repeal the state’s death penalty during the special session.
How a special session gets called
Under normal circumstances, the Legislature meets every other year for 120 calendar days starting on the first Monday in February. But the state’s Constitution gives the governor the ability to call a “specially convened” legislative session during times of “extraordinary occasions.” The Legislature can also call itself into session with two-thirds support of its members.
Unlike normal legislative sessions where lawmakers break off into committees and process hundreds of bills, special sessions are limited only to items outlined either in a formal proclamation issued by the governor or the Legislature. Lawmakers typically are not assigned a secretary, and usually meet in their respective chambers rather than in smaller committee rooms to hear bills during the special session.
The Constitution limits the length of any special session to 20 calendar days, including the day it is convened, and requires it to end at midnight Pacific Time. Two bills passed after midnight in 2001 were legally challenged but upheld by the state Supreme Court over a dispute about whether daylight savings time should be considered when determining “midnight.”
The 20-day limit does not apply in special sessions dealing with cases of impeachment or removal from office for the governor, other state or judicial officers, or members of the Legislature. Only two special sessions have exceeded 20 days in state history — a 24-day impeachment trial of state Controller Kathy Augustine in 2004, and a 27-day special session brought to a standstill over a proposed tax package after the regular 2003 legislative session.
Voters in 2012 approved a constitutional change allowing the Legislature to call itself into a special session, but that process has never been used. That change does allow any legislatively called special session to supersede or “take precedence” over one called by the governor.
Not including the special session starting Wednesday, Nevada governors have called 30 special sessions over the last century and a half, with nearly half, 14, occurring since the turn of the century.
The recent uptick in special sessions has come after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 limiting legislative sessions to just 120 days; past sessions could run indefinitely but legislators were only paid for the first 60 days. A significant number of special sessions have come immediately after the normal legislative session wrapped up, including in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2013.
Special session topics run the gamut. Several recent sessions have focused on special tax break or incentive packages for major businesses including Tesla, Faraday Future and the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium, but many others have dealt directly with budget issues in a state long reliant upon gaming and other boom-and-bust industries for the bulk of its tax revenue.
The most analogous comparison to the current day may be the pair of fiscal-focused special sessions held in 2008, called by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons to cut the state’s budget after the Great Recession slashed expected tax revenue. The first one-day session was called in June to address a $1.2 billion shortfall; another was called in December to deal with another $340 million deficit.