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April 17, 2014

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The Legislature:

Legislative process no match for lawmaker gamesmanship

No legislation is dead until the session is over. And no bill is safe until the governor signs it.

As the end of the session approaches, lawmakers have abandoned the lawmaking process taught in civics class — a bill is introduced in a house, then assigned to a committee, which sends it to a legislative body, and so on — for legislative sleight of hand.

Legislation considered dead can be resurrected as an amendment, and bills headed for a vote can be killed without an explanation.

“He who knows the rules wins,” said lobbyist Tom Clark, who represents a number of industries. “So what do you do when they suspend the rules?”

Here is how gamesmanship changed the fate of three bills last week:

Smoking ban

The bill to ease the smoking ban has been hotly disputed, with powerful lobbyists pushing it and health advocates fighting it. The legislation sailed out of the Senate, and the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing but took no vote.

Lobbyists in favor of the bill had been working committee members hard, and some believed they had the votes to get it approved. But votes don’t matter if you can’t get the chairman of the committee on board, which was the case.

During the Assembly floor session Friday, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, called a meeting “behind the bar.” (This entails committee members gathering in a circle at the back of the Assembly chambers, with reporters and lobbyists crowding around trying to figure out what’s happening.)

“I call this meeting to order ... to adjourn this meeting,” Anderson said to the gathered lawmakers.

“The smoking bill is dead,” proclaimed Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas.

The tavern owners’ lobbyists, who had watched the clubbing of their bill and were furious, knew that might not be entirely true.

“Friday was the day that the bill (numbers, but necessarily their substance) die,” one of the lobbyists said. “This was only the beginning.”

Seat belt law

Legislation that would allow police to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt has prompted some of the most emotional testimony this session. Current law allows motorists to be ticketed for not wearing seat belts, but to stop the vehicle an officer must have spotted another infraction.

After hours of emotional testimony from mothers whose children had died because they weren’t wearing seat belts, Senate Bill 116 cleared the Senate and entered the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Assemblyman and Transportation Committee Chairman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, raised concerns that the so-called primary seat belt law might be used for racial profiling and questioned whether it would actually lead to more people buckling up. The bill died in his committee on April 23.

Then, late Friday, Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, resurrected it on the Senate floor by adding it as an amendment to a bill that would require University Medical Center to provide outpatient cancer treatment to the poor.

Nolan said Monday that the amendment “addressed all of the concerns” expressed by the opposition. He said the primary seat belt law would go into effect only after a four-month public information campaign by law enforcement; the Legislature would have to pass it again in two years; and it would be accompanied by a study to determine whether it’s saving lives or is being abused by police.

Atkinson questioned the relevance of seat belt use to oncology at UMC.

Nolan said UMC reported that unrestrained drivers without sufficient insurance cost the hospital $25 million a year. “If you relieve some of that burden, it could help provide cancer treatment,” Nolan said.

Diesel fuel tax

This month Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford proclaimed he wanted to chip away at the state’s $6 billion gap in funding for major transportation projects.

Some thought it was too late for lawmakers to do much beyond addressing the state government’s yawning budget gap and wondered how would he do it. That question was answered Friday evening, when Senate Democrats introduced, by amending a related bill, a 7-cent tax hike on diesel fuel, which would raise $21 million to $24 million a year.

Opponents, caught off guard by the proposal, struggled to find a copy of the amendment Friday night, as it was being heard.

“These kinds of things are why the public distrusts this process,” said Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Motor Transport Association. “And not only the public, but lobbyists too.”

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