Nevada’s needs have outgrown its part-time legislature’s bandwidth

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Legislative Building is seen at the end of the first day of the 2013 legislative session Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 in Carson City.

With Nevada’s 2021 legislative session officially underway, state lawmakers face the daunting challenge of dealing with the effects of the pandemic while also taking care of the state government’s normal business.

It’s a massive workload, and it underscores the need for the state to begin holding sessions on an annual basis.

The current biennial approach may have worked in bygone eras when Reno was the state’s largest city and the locomotive was the state-of-the-art form of transportation, but it doesn’t work for the modern age. There’s too much to tackle these days for lawmakers to hold regular sessions only in odd-numbered years.

Witness the fact that when the 2021 session began Monday, there were requests to draft 900 bills. Topics of those proposed bills covered a wide breadth of critical needs — health care, education, jobs and the economy, the social service net, infrastructure, gun safety, criminal justice, you name it.

That alone would be a full plate for lawmakers. But this year, legislators face especially heavy lifting to help Nevada recover from the pandemic while also contending with budget constraints brought on by the crisis. The burning question is whether tax increases are on the horizon and, if so, in what form.

Key needs include:

• Adequately funding public schools statewide, and providing Southern Nevada schools with a fair share of state funding. In 2019, the Legislature approved a long-overdue overhaul of the school funding formula, which provided weighted funding to schools with above-average populations of English-language learners and students with other specialized educational needs. That made sense, because providing those services comes at a price. But with state revenues hurt by the pandemic, it’s unclear how state funding for education will shake out. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed budget calls for a reduction in state dollars, but that would be offset by federal coronavirus relief funding that is expected to flow to Nevada. However, there are limitations as to how the federal funding can be spent. Those restrictions, coupled with Sisolak’s budget plan calling for an overall 2% decrease in state funding, have K-12 officials watching the issue carefully.

• Increasing state funding for Medicaid. As tens of thousands of Nevadans lost work last year, the number of residents covered by Medicaid ballooned 18.7% higher than the number projected when lawmakers approved the 2021 budget. As of last November, 761,000 Nevadans were covered by Medicaid, while the projection was for 641,000. Now, state forecasters expect the caseload to grow 2.2% in the next biennium, bringing the total number of Nevadans on Medicaid to 778,000. To meet the need, Sisolak’s budget calls for a spending increase of $1.6 billion.

• Economic development. Every time there’s a downturn in Nevada, the cry goes up to diversify our economy so the state relies less on the tourism and gaming industry. We’ve made progress, but the pandemic showed that far more is needed. Sisolak’s plan calls for a refocusing of state economic development efforts to focus on recruitment of green energy and high-tech jobs, which makes sense. Sisolak says his plan can be implemented without tax abatements or other forms of public assistance. But can it, and is that the right approach? That’s for lawmakers to decide.

• A vast improvement in the state Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation, which is responsible for handling unemployment claims. The department was unprepared for the crush of claims stemming from the pandemic, leaving thousands of Nevadans unable to file for unemployment benefits for weeks on end.

Those are just a few of the areas lawmakers need to address. And again, these come on top of the normal issues that crop up during legislative sessions — bills to put the state in compliance with recent changes in federal law, bills to repeal out-of-date statutes or fix inadequacies in current ones, bills to address new or emerging problems, bills to respond to changing technology, etc.

Yes, 900 bills is a lot. Anti-government critics have already complained it’s far too many and that lawmakers should pare down the list to the bare bones and move along.

But those critics haven’t even read the bills, which we know because the text isn’t available yet for the vast majority of the draft requests.

Keep in mind that every session sees bills requested by municipalities, counties, state agencies and other public governments in direct response to Nevadans’ needs. In other cases, they’re suggested to lawmakers by their constituents.

That’s another reason for the Legislature to meet annually and for a longer term: The media, the public and the legislators themselves have a hard time processing that many bills. Public discourse and the deliberative process would be more fulsome if lawmakers had more time.

Nevada is a vibrant place, a global tourist destination in a fast-moving world. We have ever-changing needs that go on top of addressing some of our longtime challenges, such as improving our education system, diversifying our economy, maintaining and enhancing our infrastructure, etc.

Holding a session once every other year doesn’t cut it. True, lawmakers can hold special sessions, as they did after the pandemic hit, but those feature a short window for action and tend to focus on one or two issues. The idea is to get in and get out quickly.

But a biennial session interspersed with full-sprint special sessions isn’t the way to run Nevada today. Too much work gets pushed aside or piles up for the next regular session.

Critics of government love to repeat a tired old joke: No one is safe when the Legislature is in session. But the opposite is true today. Maintaining biennial sessions runs counter to protecting the safety and well-being of the state.

We need a Legislature that can respond to our challenges in a timely manner, and have a reasonable amount of time to react. It’s past time to change to annual sessions.