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Explainer: What happens during a Nevada legislative session and how will it work in 2023?

A close-up image of the exterior of the Nevada State Legislature building.
Jana Sayson
/
KUNR Public Radio
Story

Starting on February 6, state lawmakers from all over Nevada will convene in Carson City for 120 days to debate new laws and set the state’s budget for the next two years.


How does Nevada’s legislature compare to the rest of the country?

Nevada is one of four states with a legislature that meets once every two years on odd-numbered years; however, Nevada’s legislature can meet outside of that schedule if a special session is called. Most Nevada legislators have jobs and don’t have staff working for them outside of the session.

“It’s becoming a real problem,” said Sondra Cosgrove, executive director of the civics engagement nonprofit Vote Nevada. “We saw this happen during the pandemic. So the pandemic happened in March; our legislature was not in session. So who then [ended] up having to make all the decisions? The governor did.”


How can Nevadans participate and stay engaged throughout the session? 

“We need lots of people to be engaged to make sure all the things that have been brewing for the last two years get fixed,” Cosgrove said.

On the front page, upper right-hand corner of the Nevada Legislature’s website, under “Scheduled Meetings,” is where you can find out when to stream hearings. You can watch the meetings online on your phone, tablet, and desktop. Videos are also viewable on YouTube.

People can provide public comment in person at the Nevada State Legislative Building in Carson City and the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas. You can also provide written testimony or call in. You can learn who your representatives are and how to contact them here.


How does a bill go from an idea to a law?

Before the legislative session begins, lawmakers, the governor’s office, state agencies, local governments and institutions, like school districts, can submit a certain number of Bill Draft Requests (BDR). At the beginning of the session, a digest, which is the summary of each bill, is read in the house of origination. Then each is assigned to a committee.

There are 10 similar committees for both houses – Assembly and Senate – which range in topics from health, natural resources and labor. The committee chairs decide if a bill gets a hearing. The chairs belong to the party with the majority, which is the Democratic party in 2023.

“The committee chairs are very powerful people,” Cosgrove said. “You need to know who the chair is, being in contact with them to say, ‘Please, we have a bill that needs to be heard.’ ”

If a bill gets a hearing, community members can provide testimony in support, opposition or neutral. The committee hearing the bill can decide to refer it to a different committee, take no action, or refer it to the full house with a recommendation to pass. This decision happens during what is called a work session. There are no public comments during a work session.

Bills must pass in both houses with identical language. If any changes are made, the bill will need to go back to the house it was introduced and then pass again.

After all this, a successful bill passed by both houses goes to the governor’s desk. The governor has five days to respond during the session, or 10 days if the session has ended, to sign the bill into law, to ignore it, which would allow it to become law, or veto the bill. Each of these steps has a set deadline during the session.


What happens if a bill lands on the governor’s desk and he vetoes it? 

The bill will return to the original house that put it forward. The legislature can override the governor’s veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses. Democrats in the State Assembly have a supermajority. But in the State Senate, Democrats are one person short of the two-thirds supermajority, so they would need one Republican to vote on their side.

If the governor vetoes a bill after the session has ended, the bill will sit and be taken up at the beginning of the next session in 2025.

“There isn’t a timeline per se. Instead, if legislators want to override a veto, their leadership needs to expedite getting that vetoed bill to the floor of each house for a vote. If the legislature goes out of session without taking a vote to override a veto, the veto stands,” Cosgrove said.


How is the state’s two-year budget determined?

The governor’s office proposes the budget based on tax revenue projections made by the Nevada Economic Forum.

On January 23, Gov. Joe Lombardo will give the State of the State address and reveal his administration’s proposed state budget. During the legislative session, budget-related bills will be hashed out in the finance-related committees before going to the floors.

“The legislature has some wiggle room, but not a lot, though,” Cosgrove said. “If they decide to do something that’s outside of the parameters of the governor’s budget, they risk making the governor angry, and the governor might veto their stuff.”

Transcript

MARC GARBER, HOST: Starting on February 6th, state lawmakers from all over Nevada will convene in Carson City to determine the two-year budget and create new laws. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck spoke with Sondra Cosgrove, executive director of the civic engagement nonprofit Vote Nevada, to learn more.

LUCIA STARBUCK: The Nevada State Legislature only meets once every two years. How significant is that?

SONDRA COSGROVE: It’s becoming a real problem when we’re living in a modern era, where things change really fast, to not have a whole branch of government be out of session for the majority of the time because if not, we saw this happen during the pandemic. So the pandemic happened in March; our legislature was not in session. So who then end up having to make all the decisions? The governor did.

STARBUCK: For Nevadans with, you know, busy jobs, busy lives, how can they participate and stay engaged throughout the session?

COSGROVE: I oftentimes – and I’ve been doing this a lot lately – show people how to use our legislature’s website. So on the website, on the very front page, upper right-hand corner, it says “Scheduled Meetings.” So every single day, you can log in, and you can see every single committee that’s hearing. So anywhere you’re at, on your phone, on your tablet, on your desktop, you can log in and watch the hearing and hear the hearing. You can do public comment in person. You can also do written comment. And then something they started doing during the pandemic, which, thank goodness they’re continuing, you can actually call in.

STARBUCK: Let’s chat process. How does a bill go from an idea to a law?

COSGROVE: If you’re talking to anybody that’s familiar with our legislature, they’ll start using this term: BDR. That’s a Bill Draft Request. So each legislator gets a certain number of bills that they can sponsor. And they don’t write the bills. It’s actually the Legislative Counsel Bureau that runs the legislature. Those are the attorneys and the fiscal analysts. Well, if you’ve got 63 legislators, that’s a lot of bills to write. So they ask the legislators who are currently sitting, the July before the legislative session, if they already kind of know what bills they wanna be putting in, to put a bill draft request in, and it’s kind of like a placeholder.

STARBUCK: What happens – now we’re day one of the session – what does that look like?

COSGROVE: That’s when they call them into session. They pass their rules, but then they really have to get working by the end of that day and into the second day because every single bill has to be read on the floor, and then the speaker or the majority leader has to then assign the bill to a committee. The committee chair then is responsible for making sure that the bills get hearings. Now, the committee chair can decide not to hear bills, and this is where you see the partisan infighting, where the majority maybe doesn’t let the minority have a bill heard. So the committee chairs are very powerful people. And so it’s really important if you’re following, like education, you need to know who the chair is, being in contact with them to say, “Please, we have a bill that needs to be heard.”

If they schedule a bill for a hearing, it will have actually two times to be heard in committee. Then it goes over to the full floor. There’s debate. Then there’s a vote. If it passes, it goes to the other floor and goes through the exact same process. But then, it goes to the governor, and then you gotta make sure you’re emailing and messaging the governor to say, “Please, please sign our bill.” Then if he does, then it becomes a law.

STARBUCK: During the session, they also decide the budget for the next two years. What does that look like?

COSGROVE: Because we have a part-time legislature, the budget is actually built by the governor’s office in the March and April before; that’s when the governor asks the state agencies to start building their budgets. Economic Forum, which is the group that predicts how much revenue we’re gonna have, they meet in June. So this year, on the 23rd of January, our new governor will give the State of the State address, and that’s where he’s gonna reveal the state budget. The legislature has some wiggle room – not a lot, though. If they decide to do something that’s outside of the parameters of the governor’s budget, they risk making the governor angry, and the governor might veto their stuff.

STARBUCK: What happens if a bill lands on the governor’s desk and he vetoes it?

COSGROVE: There’s a certain number of days after the governor vetoes a bill that the legislature – by two-thirds vote in either house – can override. The Democrats are actually one vote short of having that; they have the supermajority in the Assembly; they’re one vote short in the Senate. So they would have to have one Republican voting with them to do an override.

If the governor, like, vetoes something on the very last day, then what happens is that bill sits until the legislature comes into session again. And then what you’ll see is the legislature will immediately bring up any bills that were vetoed at the end to decide if they want to do an override.

STARBUCK: Why is it important for people to be engaged with the Nevada legislative session?

COSGROVE: Even though we only have a legislature every other year for 120 days, our legislature has all the powers to do everything. So we need lots of people to be engaged to make sure all the things that have been brewing for the last two years that need fixing need to get fixed. There’s also just when you think about checks and balances. Well, we, the people, are also a check and a balance. We check and balance every election cycle. We check and balance with initiatives and ballot questions. But, if we don’t show up, nobody’s checking and balancing from our perspective.

STARBUCK: Sandra Cosgrove is the executive director of Vote Nevada. Thanks so much for joining me.

COSGROVE: Thank you.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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