Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, June 19, 2013 | 2 a.m.
School’s out for the kids but not for the state’s legislators.
The 120-day legislative session ended this month; now it’s time for the Nevada Legislature to start studying.
While talk of annual legislative sessions got plenty of media coverage this year, legislators are doing business annually, receiving pay and travel costs, and doing just about everything short of introducing and voting on legislation.
“The perception is that they show up on the first day of the regular session and leave on the last day, and that’s the end of it,” former state archivist Guy Rocha said. “That’s a misperception.”
On the last day of the session, lobbyists packed the halls, scurrying to and fro as they pushed their pet bills. But one lobbyist shrugged amid the panic. His bill was dead. It didn’t matter. Gaming lobbyist Josh Griffin said a constitutional amendment to cap emergency room health care costs would not pass.
But he wasn’t discouraged with the bill’s failure or the failure of a last-minute alternative to pass a bill for a study of emergency room costs. He said he’d just convene private working groups to study the issue during the legislative interim.
A lot of work gets done when the Legislature isn’t in session.
Regardless of the debate over creating a legislature that meets more often, legislators are well on their way to working full time. They passed several bills this year calling for studies and establishing new committees, growing the legislative branch and further extending its reach beyond the regular session that happens every two years.
For instance, six legislators will sit on a new legislative energy committee established under Assembly Bill 428. They will receive pay and travel costs when the group meets during the interim. The committee can issue subpoenas, depose witnesses, conduct investigations and make recommendations to the Legislature.
This committee will oversee changes in the state's energy policy that stem from Senate Bill 123, a new law that directs NV Energy to divest from coal and arguably loosens state regulation of the utility.
“It’s a big policy change, and with change, there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable,” said Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, who said the new energy committee will allow legislators to monitor energy policy year-round and ensure regulators comply with the Legislature’s will.
In fact, the new law says the energy committee has to monitor “the progress made by this state in satisfying the goals and objectives of Senate Bill No. 123.”
Another bill would’ve added 10 legislators to a new Legislative Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability whose members would also meet when the Legislature is out of session and receive pay and travel expenses.
Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the energy bill into law, but he vetoed this one, Assembly Bill 150.
In his veto message, he said the Legislature has a 12-member commission that meets between sessions.
"Assembly Bill 150 seeks to establish yet another entity dedicated to extending the powers of the Legislature into matters which it is not constitutionally authorized,” Sandoval said in the veto message.
In a rebuke of the legislative branch, Sandoval reminded legislators that the bill was “duplicative of the numerous existing interim committees.” He also said in the veto message the bill transcends the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government in a way that undermines the “supreme executive power” of the governor.
While the governor's staff said the veto was specific to AB150, others say it's not only this interim committee that rests on shaky constitutional ground.
Legislative observers, law students and university professors have over the years called the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee unconstitutional.
That’s the committee of 22 legislators who move money around when the Legislature isn’t in session.
There are 63 state legislators, so about a third of the people’s representatives are moving the state’s money in what usually amounts to small tweaks in the state budget.
“If I have a senator or member of the Assembly representing me and they don’t sit on the finance committee, I am not being represented,” Rocha said. “In Nevada, it’s our dirty little secret, and nobody has had the will and the fortitude and the money to essentially sue the state and say this is improper and this is unconstitutional.”
But nobody has challenged the matter in court, so the legal question remains just that.
Apart from the money and oversight functions, the interim also offers legislators an opportunity to thoroughly vet and investigate complex issues.
At its worst, the interim equates to a purgatory for bills that didn’t pass into law but didn’t die in the legislative process. Rather than passing a bill or killing it during the legislative session, legislators compromise and decide to study the issue more.
Fixing the state’s inequitable education system? We can study that, they say.
Move community colleges out of the Nevada System of Higher Education? We can study that.
Help pay for a large stadium at UNLV? We can study that.
It’s the season for commissions, committees, task forces and bureaucratically self-referencing studies such as last year’s Legislative Commission’s Committee to Study the Structure and Operations of the Nevada Legislature, and it begins this summer.