By Jacob Solis and Jose Olivares
The meeting of the Nevada legislature is, by its very definition, a kind of rarity. Only coming together once every other year for just over five months, Nevada’s legislative sessions are not dissimilar to a shooting star — if you blink, you miss it.
Being so condensed, the legislative session thus creates a more entertaining political experience than that on Capitol Hill. As legislators scramble to make policy, tensions run high along marked partisan divides as debating, politicking and occasional skullduggery runs to the max.
Even now, at press time, the legislative session has but 35 days left in the session and hundreds of bills to pass or kill. Below are some highlights, both of the bills themselves (of which there are nearly 1,000) and of the occasional political antics that makes state politics infinitely more fun than their national counterpart.
SENATE BILL 2
As the law stands now, it is illegal for the Department of Transportation to establish speed limits above 75 miles per hour. SB 2 aims to completely destroy that status quo and prop a new one—one that has an 80-mile-an-hour speed limit.
Practically speaking, SB 2 should be a boon for those wishing to zoom as quickly as possible from the greater Reno area to the Las Vegas valley as that extra 5 miles per hour add up over a 7-hour-long journey.
Opponents of the bill have mainly cited concerns with safety. In a report presented to the Senate Transportation committee, the Center for Traffic Safety Research found that road fatalities increased by 9.1 percent on rural roads and 4 percent on city highways when speed limits were raised.
Despite the morbid statistics, a slew of other, more positive fact sheets swayed 16 of the 21 senators to vote in favor on April 2 and send the bill on to the Assembly, where it is currently sitting in committee.
ASSEMBLY BILL 253 AND ASSEMBLY BILL 266
Both bills, sponsored by Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, and Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, R-Sparks, respectively, seek to establish some form of voter identification in Nevada, bringing the national debate on voter ID back to the Nevadan consciousness.
AB 253 was recently amended to resemble a failed voter ID law from the 2013 session that aimed to set up electronic poll books run by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The 2013 effort failed largely due to hefty financial burdens.
The other bill, AB 266, aims to set in stone what identification someone could use if they wanted to vote and requires the DMV to issue identification at no cost to any eligible voter.
Voter ID, in theory, would tamp down on voter fraud and further legitimize the election process. However, opponents of the idea claim voter ID laws would be used to disenfranchise minority voters who would be less likely to own the proper ID’s.
Moreover, little evidence exists to support the idea of widespread voter fraud. Even so, many voters believe voter fraud is a serious problem, with 48 percent of polled voters believing hundreds of votes were fraudulent, according to the Marquette Law School. That public perception has driven a nationwide push by conservative lawmakers to pass voter ID laws, and Nevada is only the latest player in the ongoing game.
However, each bill nearly died in early April as they were shuffled from committee to committee. They were only kept alive through exemptions—a legislative rule that essentially removes a bill from the rigorous schedule the legislature adheres to.
ASSEMBLY BILL 375
Nevada students are now free to choose restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. On Tuesday, April 21, Assembly Bill 375 was defeated in the Nevada State Assembly. AB 375, also called the “bathroom bully bill,” if passed, would have restricted transgender students’ access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender. It meant that transgender students would have to use facilities that are aligned with their biological sex, instead of their gender identity. The bill would have only affected public K-12 schools in Nevada.
There were many opponents to the bill, including groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Laverne Cox, an Emmy-nominated actress of “Orange is the New Black” recently visited the University of Nevada, Reno and also expressed her opposition to AB 375. According to Cox, the bill and similar legislation are discriminatory to transgender people. Other opponents have stated that the passing of this bill would have violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which condemns discrimination in public accommodations.
AB 375 was introduced by Assemblywoman Victoria Dooling (R-Las Vegas) and Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas). In a statement to the legislature, Dooling quoted an unnamed doctor who said the bill was necessary because students could claim to be the opposite gender in order to “gain entrance into bathrooms and locker rooms of the opposite gender to stalk and sexually abuse others.” According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, proponents of the bill claim that it is not discriminatory.
A study produced by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, stated that 70 percent of transgender people surveyed reported experiencing “verbal harassment, assault, and being denied access to public restrooms.” Alex Vitale, a UNR alumnus and transgender community member, stated that the passing of AB 375 could have elevated negative treatment toward transgender students. Vitale was bullied in school while growing up as a result of gender identity discrimination.
The bill failed by vote of 20 to 22 that demonstrated party lines. Assembly members who voted to pass AB 375 included Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas; Randy Kirner, R-Reno; Jim Wheeler R-Gardnerville; and 17 others. Representatives who voted against AB 375 included Olivia Diaz, D-Las Vegas; Nelson Araujo, D-Las Vegas; and 20 others, including five Republican representatives.
Community activists rejoiced after the bill was rejected.
“I feel extremely relieved that this bill is dead, but I’m still a little apprehensive about what will happen next session if these legislators are re-elected,” Vitale said. “I’m just glad that the right to bully trans kids isn’t written into law.”
ASSEMBLY BILL 408
As of now, the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, owns most of the land in Nevada. That has traditionally upset many rural Nevadans, particularly ranchers, who want to use this land for ranching or grazing but are halted by government regulations.
The BLM’s ownership of Nevada land came to a head in late 2014 when rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with federal officials. Bundy had been grazing his cattle illegally, amassing over $1 million in fines over the course of two decades. Under threat of violence from militias in support of Bundy, the BLM released Bundy’s cattle back to him.
In an effort to address the underlying causes of the Bundy standoff, AB 408 would essentially shift power from the federal government to the state, reversing the current bureaucratic order so that the BLM is no longer in charge.
However, the bill ultimately amounts to little more than political theater. In its review of AB 408, the Legislative Counsel Bureau found the measure to be unconstitutional and was skeptical the bill would hold up in court based on existing precedence.
AB 408 has also been the source of a war of words between legislators on the Assembly floor. On Tuesday, April 21, Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, the bill’s primary sponsor and regular source of legislative controversy, told fellow Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards to “sit your a– down.”
In short order, the entire chamber erupted in outrage, more or less derailing that night’s proceedings. Fiore later apologized to the Assembly, but refused to apologize to Edwards.
Jacob Solis and Jose Olivares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush