Informed at the Polls: Understanding State Ballot Question No. 1
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As Election Day approaches, Reno Public Radio explains the handful of ballot issues voters will decide this year. KUNR's Michael Hagerty begins with the only ballot question that voters all across the state will be asked.
Right now, only the governor can call a special session of the Nevada Legislature. The last time that happened was in 2010. But what if, say, a governor was accused of wrongdoing, like in the case of former Illinois Governor Rod Rod Blagojevich? You'd think a governor would be reluctant to call a special session for his or her own impeachment proceedings.
And such a scenario is one example of where Statewide Ballot Question No. 1 comes into play. If it passes, the measure would allow the legislature to call a special session - but only if two-thirds of both the Senate and the Assembly agree to. And the power would only be used in "extraordinary occasions," but the ballot question never explicitly defines what such an occasion would be.
So I asked Rick Combs, Director of the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau. He said things like impeachment proceedings could fit the "extraordinary occasions" definition. Or the legislature might call a special session to reconsider bills the governor vetoed after a regular session. One way or another, he says whatever the legislature deems an "extraordinary occasion" would have to be specifically detailed in the petition -- that's the measure two thirds of both the Assembly and Senate would have to pass.
"That petition then would set forth what that extraordinary occasion was and basically would state what type of business could be transacted during the special session," Combs said.
And only that business -- or any bills related to paying for the special session -- could be considered. And, by the way, the special sessions would be limited to just 20 days, except in the case of impeachment proceedings.
Democratic Assemblywoman Debbie Smith voted for the measure twice and says it's necessary because it makes government more nimble in responding to a crisis.
"It just provides some protection and ability to act by one branch of government," Smith said.
She dismisses the idea that the legislature would call sessions frivolously because getting two-thirds of both houses to agree on an issue is never easy -- but also for another reason.
"First let me say there's nothing special about a special session," Smith said. "And legislators aren't dying to go into special session. They miss work. They're away from their families. It's not a place people are desirous of being. And I think the idea that a legislature's going to call itself back in for anything frivolous is just unfounded. It's not a place that people are dying to go back to."
Meanwhile, Republican State Senator Ben Kieckhefer says he'd support the ballot measure if it were just for impeachment proceedings. But it's the idea of the legislature using it to reconsider bills the governor vetoes that he takes issues with.
"We know what the deadlines are to get bills out and get them to the governor's desk if we want to have the opportunity to reconsider them," Kieckhefer said. "And if we can't meet that deadline that's our fault."
And, as far as dealing with "extraordinary occasions," Kieckhefer says -- outside of impeachment proceedings -- the system where the governor calls the special sessions has always worked.
"After the Sept. 11th attacks Gov. Guinn was able to manage," he said. "During the fiscal crisis Gov. Gibbons was able to manage and did call a special session to address fiscal issues. So this idea that it's this power that's required in order to deal with an emergency just isn't so."
But Debbie Smith counters that before Gov. Gibbons called the special session in 2010, there was some concern that he wouldn't.
"It eventually worked out, but in a case like that we do have the different branches of government for a reason," Smith said. "And the legislature's job is to help manage."
But is it? Many Nevadans hold fast to the idea framed in the state constitution of a part-time citizen legislature -- hence only meeting every other year. And Ben Kieckhefer says giving the legislature another way to meet more often might undermine that in some people's minds.
"I do think that Nevada is a state that cherishes the limited role of the legislature," Kieckhefer said. "That respects the citizen legislature. That enjoys the fact that we are not professional politicians. I think that traditionally efforts to expand the scope and power of elected officials in the state is generally frowned upon by the people."
To amend the Nevada Constitution, a ballot measure has to pass two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by the voters. This particular measure passed both the 2009 and 2011 sessions, meaning if voters approve it Nov. 6, it'll become law. If it fails, the next legislature could choose to take it up again