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April 18, 2014

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STATE GOVERNMENT:

Deadlines and dead ends

As the clock winds down on this year’s legislative session, some bills will emerge as law, and a few, just as worthy, will be lost. A look at both.

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Nevada Assembly Sergeant at Arms Mary Mathews collects paperwork from desks in the lower chamber on Tuesday, which was the deadline day for moving bills to the Senate. Between both houses of the Legislature, more than 950 bills were introduced. It remains to be seen how many pass.

The state is broke, as everyone knows, and that’s having a punishing effect on the Legislature.

A deadline passed last week for getting bills out of their houses of origin, giving Nevadans a clearer picture of what their Legislature will accomplish this year.

Because advancing public policy — be it improving outcomes in education or health care, or building transit systems — usually takes money, the Legislature won’t be able to do much other than preserve the bare necessities. With a budget deficit of more than $2 billion, legislators are just trying to keep the schools and hospitals open.

Although legislators have restored money to programs cut in the budget of Gov. Jim Gibbons, the final outlook won’t be clear until Friday, when the state’s economic forecasters tell the Legislature how much money it will have for the next two years.

Still, more than 950 bills were introduced, and many, if they eventually pass, will make significant policy changes in renewable energy, education, public safety, health care and labor/management relations.

In other areas, notably campaign finance and ethics, the Legislature again resisted change.

One caveat: Although the deadline passed, strange amendments and other legislative gamesmanship are not impossible, so nothing is dead until the final banging of the gavels.

Energy

Besides the budget, renewable energy policy has received the most intense focus from lawmakers, industry groups and lobbyists. It’s billed as the future of Nevada, a way to diversify the state’s economy, create jobs and provide lasting benefits to residents.

But Legislative leaders and various interest groups have struggled to reach a consensus on how, exactly, to foster the nascent industry while gleaning benefits for the state.

Tax abatements for renewable energy projects, which industry representatives say are vital for the fledgling industry, are set to expire this year. There is widespread agreement among lawmakers that some of those incentives must be extended to keep Nevada competitive with surrounding states, which are also trying to lure renewable energy projects and companies.

Early in the session Assembly Democrats complained that the state has been giving out tax abatements, but winning few permanent jobs in return. Their original omnibus bill had a tax on renewable energy, with the money earmarked for a rebate program for energy consumers. The benefit of the industry’s presence would be lower power bills for residents.

Sources say that is now off the table; instead, the state would take a portion of property tax money to reduce energy costs for citizens.

Additionally, legislators are hashing out how renewable energy projects will be overseen. Currently, the state’s energy office is housed under the governor. There have been various proposals to either create a new office; create a nonprofit; or to create a commission under an existing office.

Negotiations among the energy policy group — made up of Democratic and Republican legislators, industry experts and lobbyists — are ongoing, though. Wednesday will be key. That’s when the Senate will introduce its policy through an amendment to Senate Bill 358. The Assembly also has a key renewable energy bill, Assembly Bill 522, meaning a compromise between the Senate and Assembly is likely.

Education

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, for whom education reform has been a passion for more than a decade, has offered sweeping legislation, Senate Bill 330, that would touch nearly every aspect of the education bureaucracy in Nevada. In proposing it, Horsford was sharply critical of the education establishment, from the state Education Department to the teachers union, for failing to serve Nevada children.

Horsford had hoped to raise starting teacher salaries to $40,000, though that’s clearly impossible. His bill would institute a pay-for-performance system, transform the elected state Board of Education into a largely appointed body and make the state superintendent of public instruction subject to legislative confirmation.

The bill would also require closer coordination between K-12 and the Nevada System of Higher Education and establish an oversight process to see that all the reforms are implemented.

Assembly Bill 14, which passed the lower chamber unanimously, would require the Education Department to develop a system to track students’ progress from year to year. This would give a clearer picture of which schools are succeeding and which aren’t.

Assembly Bills 26, 181 and 489 seek to improve charter schools with a host of provisions, including a new oversight panel and performance audits of those that don’t meet certain educational and financial benchmarks.

Assembly Bill 243 would require employers with more than 50 workers to grant four hours, in one-hour increments, of unpaid leave to employees so they can participate in their children’s school activities.

Senate Bill 317 would mandate the teaching of financial literacy, though many might snicker that the legislators ought to take the class first.

State Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, in an every-other-year ritual, offered Senate Bill 2, which would force Nevada to meet the national average in per-pupil spending. Once again, the bill will die as there aren’t nearly enough tax dollars to go around.

Health care

Nevada’s health care system has always suffered from a shortage of doctors and nurses; a stingy Medicaid system that has contributed to Nevada’s rate of uninsured being among the nation’s highest; and an inability to keep up with rapidly rising demand of population growth, especially among seniors and children.

That was all before the hepatitis C outbreak at a Las Vegas endoscopy center, which exposed flaws in the state’s regulatory system. That system’s weaknesses were again highlighted last year when the Las Vegas Sun reported widespread prescription drug use in Nevada.

With no money, there’s little that can be done to deal with the first set of problems — the shortage of professionals and the high rates of uninsured. Gibbons’ budget, while slashing funding for education, tried to protect health care priorities, for the neediest especially. He did cap Nevada Check Up, a health insurance program for children that has a waiting list.

The Legislature has tried to restore some funding that was cut during the interim, while introducing a number of policy bills.

When in doubt, do a study. Senate Bill 307 would require an analysis of the state’s Medicaid system. Nevada ranks near the bottom nationally in spending per capita and enrollees per capita. The former compels doctors to refuse to treat Medicaid patients, while the latter pushes up our rate of uninsured. The study would seek to show how to ameliorate these problems.

Senate Bill 197 would create a process for returning unused medicines to nonprofit pharmacies.

A number of Assembly bills would try to deal with the hepatitis C debacle. AB10 would offer whistleblower protections to nurses; AB112 would create an emergency team to respond to a public health crisis; AB206 would require more reporting of what are called “sentinel events,” unexpected occurrences leading to death or serious injury or the risk thereof. The bill would also give the Health and Human Services Department greater authority to obtain records in an investigation.

Without money, the Legislature had to look elsewhere to provide relief to families with autistic children. Assembly Bill 162 would mandate that some private insurance companies cover screening and treatment.

Housing

In March, Nevada had nearly 20,000 foreclosure filings, which continue to drive down housing prices, leading many to walk from homes that are “underwater,” which leads to further price depression, and so on.

Assembly Bill 149 would require mediation between lenders and borrowers if the borrower desires it, giving homeowners an opportunity to renegotiate their loans. The judiciary would administer the program.

Assembly Bill 151 would require plain English to describe nontraditional loans, disclosure of future monthly payment increases, while also attaching a license number to each loan so regulators can track bad lending.

Other bills would force banks to keep up the properties they own to homeowner-association standards, provide licensing requirements for “loan modification” and “foreclosure consultants,” and protect renters who are in a home that has been foreclosed on.

In response to the apparent FBI investigation of corruption on homeowner-association boards for the purposes of steering construction defect litigation to favored law firms, there’s a whole raft of legislation to clean up HOAs. These include Senate Bills 182, 253, 351 and 261, imposing new reporting requirements, criminalizing HOA board election corruption and forcing disclosure of the conflicts of interest of board members, among other reforms.

Public safety and health

Senate Bill 372 would revise a voter-approved ban on smoking in bars that serve food, making Nevada one of the only places in the country moving toward a less restrictive policy on smoking, which has been shown to cause significant health problems for both smokers and those who inhale second-hand smoke.

In another area where Nevada has held onto its libertarian roots, legislators killed a bill to make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense. Currently, drivers can be cited but only after being stopped for another offense.

Assembly Bill 233 seeks to stop the rampant theft of scrap metal, especially copper.

The tide may finally be turning against jurisprudence that focuses on incarceration and a show of being “tough on crime,” if Senate Bill 398 is any guide. It would seek to provide treatment and other “intermediate sanctions” rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, who make up 26 percent of the state’s prisoners.

Similarly, Assembly Bill 102 would allow judges to send convicts who are problem gamblers into treatment instead of prison. Supporters say the law would mainly affect gamblers who commit crimes to support their habits.

As is true every session, several bills would toughen penalties and oversight of sex offenders and criminal gangs.

Labor

Unions played a big role in helping deliver majorities to Democrats in the Legislature, but the fiscal crisis has limited their ambitions. A number of workers’ compensation insurance bills would tilt the system toward workers after decades of leaning toward management. These include Assembly Bills 511 and 178.

Senate Bill 288 would have overhauled Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in response to its weak enforcement of safety laws following a string of construction fatalities on the Las Vegas Strip.

Facing opposition from business interests and Nevada OSHA, Sen. Maggie Carlton, the bill’s sponsor, amended SB288 to bring an incremental change to the way the agency does business. The measure would require OSHA to place a call to family members of workplace accident victims and offer to walk them through the accident investigation process.

Government reform

There are numerous bills related to the cost of health and retirement benefits for state employees. Most observers expect a package of bills to cut those benefits for new state employees will be part of a final budget package — a bargaining chip Republicans will trade for agreeing to a tax increase.

Assembly 492 seeks to improve accountability and transparency in the awarding of tax exemptions and abatements. This comes in response the 2005 “green” tax breaks handed out for environmentally responsible building, which cost the state millions.

Assembly Bill 446 would force state agencies to establish goals and performance measures and report to the Legislature on whether they’re being met.

In the hope that future legislatures won’t face a fiscal crisis like the current one, Assembly Bill 165 would strengthen the state’s rainy day fund and force government to save more.

Assembly Bill 324 would have created a gift ban for some public officers and elected officials and required disclosure, but that legislation died. Senate Bill 210, which is still alive, would require slightly more disclosure about unspent campaign funds, but it would still leave Nevada as one of the most lax campaign finance disclosure states in the country. On that score, Assembly Bill 128 would have required considerably more campaign finance disclosure, but it is dead.

Senate Joint Resolution 2 would create a system for appointing judges, and then allowing voters to decide whether to retain them, which supporters say would cut down on the electioneering and problematic campaign fundraising often required to win a seat on the bench.

The Assembly passed a bill that would enter Nevada in a compact with other states to throw its Electoral College votes in the presidential election to the winner of the national popular vote. The measure is intended to prevent a repeat of 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

Other bills

Senate Bill 283 would grant domestic partnership rights to gay couples.

And, finally, a bill to eliminate the ban on a state lottery is still alive. More gambling is the answer to our problems, lottery advocates say.

Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.

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