The legislative session in Nevada wrapped up earlier this summer, and it will be nearly two years before lawmakers meet again in Carson City for the next session. So, what should we all be paying attention to in the meantime?
Dr. Sondra Cosgrove is a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, and she recently joined the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Noah Glick over Zoom to talk about the next 18 months – and how we can keep up with the latest in Nevada government.
Noah Glick: What should folks be paying attention to in the meantime [between regular sessions]?
Dr. Sondra Cosgrove: When the legislative session ends, our legislators just go back to being regular citizens. But that means they don’t have staff, [and] they don’t have access to their information that they had access to as a legislator. And so from a constituent or Nevadan’s perspective, that means we’re kind of on our own trying to figure out which bills passed, and then which ones are being implemented and by who.
And so that means we have to actually look at the bill to see if we can discern, ‘Is it Health and Human Services? Is it Department of Corrections,’ and then who, within those agencies, we would contact make sure that bill was being implemented?
There are hundreds of bills that are presented during the session. Dozens, if not hundreds, are passed every session, so there’s a lot to go through. It’s not like there’s a standard oversight board or some kind of agency that just overlooks to make sure this all gets implemented, right? It’s kind of up to individual agencies or branches?
That’s correct. So even though there’s what’s called the Legislative Council Bureau, that’s just the attorneys that help legislators write bills, that does not help legislators in making sure that they’re tracking the bills after the session is over. It doesn’t help us if we’re just trying to figure out where a bill went, to be able to ask the person wherever the bill is [and] if they’re implementing it.
So it’s incumbent upon a lot of citizens to really take up the mantle of making sure that this happens, right?
Yes, I mean, it has it has really deep repercussions. In 2019, we passed a restorative justice bill for our schools, and it kind of redid everything that the schools were doing as far as discipline. But, the bill was assuming there would be more social workers and that there would be training and that parents would be contacted – and then that didn’t happen. So that law got repealed this time, because that law didn’t get implemented. It made everybody upset, because now we have to revert back to expelling six-year-olds, six-year-olds who are having problems.
So that’s kind of it writ large, one of the biggest examples I can show of everybody walking away from a bill and no one making sure it got implemented.
The other thing that comes to mind to me is that during the session, there’s committee meetings, there’s floor hearings, there’s all kinds of stuff going on. But then once session is over, that doesn’t mean the work is done necessarily – but in some ways, it is. It’s done for this session, but then the work begins for the next session. So, what’s going on in the meantime?
Over the interim, there’s interim committees. The two main ones are Interim Finance [Committee] and Legislative Commission. Those committees are powerhouses, because they almost have quasi-legislative authority. So, let’s say for instance, AB 37, which was a bill to create a work behavioral health workforce center within the Nevada System of Higher Education. Legislators said to [NSHE], ‘Here’s some things we want you to do first, before you get the money,’ but they’re going to be gone. So, what they [legislators] did is they sent the money over to Interim Finance. And when NSHE comes and tells you, ‘We’ve done these things the legislature said,’ then you’re allowed to give them money.
But they oftentimes go beyond that. There’s a point where, those Nevada System of Higher Educations shows up and says, ‘Oh, we thought we could do that thing, but we couldn’t do that thing. We still need more money.’ Well, right now, the Interim Finance Committee would say, ‘OK, well, you’re still going to get the money; we’ll waive the thing you’re supposed to do. We’ll give you the money.’ Technically, that’s a legislative function that’s not supposed to be happening during the interim, but because no one sues to stop it, it just happened. Legislative Commission is the same way. It oftentimes enacts regulations. So, it’ll say, ‘This is how the bill is supposed to be implemented, and we’re going to implement some regulations.’
The other committees mirror the regular legislative committees. So, there’s an Education Committee, there’s a Health and Human Service Committee, and you would think, ‘Well, maybe those are the committees that do implementation.’ Not really. They’re looking at what bills need to be brought next session. Now, they might get told there’s a problem with a bill and that’s why it’s not getting implemented. So, they might put that on their agenda, say, ‘Hey, we got to fix this.’ But a lot of times, they’ve already moved down the road, and they’re thinking about the next session.
I want to ask a follow up about this authority of the interim committees, because it sounds like because lawmakers are meeting every two years, there seems to be a desire from the interim committees to keep things moving in the interim. But do they really have the authority in order to make changes to law that’s already been passed?
No. So, they can do studies, they can make recommendations for bill draft requests, which is kind of a free bill. They can draft a resolution that will be presented to the legislature, but they can’t actually open up a law and change it. Now if somebody wanted to sue, you can go to the courts, and if something is legally wrong, the courts can then say that needs to be taken out or that needs to be fixed. But those interim committees are just more like study groups.
So we’ve got essentially two buckets of interim committees, like you said. There’s the finance and the legislative committees, and then you’ve got all these parallel committees going on. What are some of the higher priority kind of committees or things that people should be paying attention to in particular in between sessions?
I would say Interim Finance is probably the most important, because they do have the ability to allocate money and make decisions about money. Oftentimes, if your bill doesn’t have money, it’s not going anywhere.
If you want to have a law enacted or have a law changed, there is a lot of interaction between the public and those interim committees, because things are slower. And so, it does give us the ability to have more impact on a future bill. But based on my experience and a lot of other people’s experience that I’ve heard from, once a bill is passed, we’re on our own trying to figure out whether it’s going to get implemented or not.
Let me ask you this. Given that our legislative process is one that has lawmakers meeting every two years, do you think that that makes sense today? Do you think that we should maybe think about adjusting that?
There’s been a lot of discussion about that topic for at least the last 15 years. Because as the state got really big, at the end of the 1990s, we went from everybody knowing each other to lots and lots of people moving here. But every time we tried to put a bill through the legislative session, it has to be a constitutional amendment, because our sessions and how long they are is written into our state constitution.
There are groups in this state that would prefer that the legislature not meet: gaming, mining, the big industries like just being able to go to the governor or to a mayor and have something happen. So, there’s been kind of pushback on changing the way we run things.
As far as our legislature, I think there should at least be a legislative session of 60 days every year. So, take the 120 days and break them up, so it’s every year. That way, in July, if we figure out, ‘Hey, this law has a problem,’ I’m not stuck waiting two years to bring it back. I can just say, ‘Well, in March or April, the legislature will back be back in session, I can just bring it up, then.’
I can’t help but think about the session and how lawmakers seem to wait until the last minute to put forward all these bills. I don’t know how that would work with 60 days, but that is an interesting idea…I know there is a website for the legislature. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? How can people find information there?
Sure, so what you would have to do is go to the Nevada legislature’s website (leg.state.nv.us), and on the website, you’ll see at the top, it says, NELIS [Nevada Electronic Legislative Information System]. But when you click on that, here’s something you need to be aware of, you’re going to come to a page, and it’s going to say legislation and committees. So, what you have to do is click on where it says, Select a session, and then you have to go to the regular session.
When you click the regular session, all the bills show up and all the committee work shows up on there. There are reports of all the bills that were passed to those that were vetoed. There are recordings on the committee pages. But it’s up to us to find the bill, make sure that it passed, make sure that it got signed, and then read through the final version to figure out where it landed to make sure that it gets implemented.
Dr. Sondra Cosgrove is a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.
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