The years 2001, 2002 and 2003 will bring the most dramatic changes Nevada’s political scene has gone through in modern times. Many lawmakers who drove legislative policy for the last three decades will retire. Reapportionment’s power shift will sake up the entire organization. It is estimated that 20 to 30 legislators will not return next session. The most important reality of the change cycle is this: For a full decade, opposing political parties will dominate the senate and assembly. Democrats will lead the assembly, Republicans the senate. The obvious question: What happens to small and mid-sized businesses’ agenda in a divided legislature?
We recently explored these issues with state Senator Randolph Townsend. First elected to the senate in 1982, he has served 19 years on the senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee, including 11 years as the committee’s chairman. Townsend reports this was a mixed year for business leaders. The legislation that passed may have been lifesaving for many businesses; however, many bills that should have passed and didn’t, were essential to the business community.
The most important success was in energy. “Fortunately, two years ago Nevada took a slow-paced approach to electric deregulation,” Townsend says. “Unfortunately for us, California didn’t. They went headlong into it and took the entire regional economy along with them.” According to Townsend, the three most important successes for Nevadans in the energy arena were stopping the sale of power plants, accelerating the permitting processes for new power plants, and establishing a portfolio standard that encourages development of renewable energy resources within Nevada. Estimates indicate that when 15 percent of Nevada’s power comes from renewable sources, we will avoid consuming the equivalent of some 8.4 million barrels of oil annually that might otherwise be purchased from the likes of Suddam Hussein. One vitally important component in this rescue plan got scant coverage, Townsend said. The Legislature built a fuel-cost recovery program into the law that Sierra Pacific Resources, parent company for Nevada Power, desperately needed. “But we did something never before implemented in Nevada,” Townsend says. “We required cost recovery be spread out over three years, rather than the usual six to 12 months. Over the past two years natural gas market prices skyrocketed upward — they went from the lowest in history to the highest in just 11 months. Without the ability to spread the impact of record-high prices, the cost of electricity could well have broken the backs of many homeowners and businesses.”
Overall, though, the record of this past session “…isn’t much for legislators to brag about,” according to Townsend. “Divisive partisan politics between the senate and assembly created deadlocks that killed desperately needed legislation. The construction defects crisis is driving up housing costs through millions of dollars in litigation, yet this problem was not addressed,” Townsend said. “This crisis could result in making the American Dream significantly more expensive for thousands of Nevada’s working families.”
Switching from problems to solutions, Townsend had some important advice for Nevada’s business leaders. “[They need] to spend time helping the assembly’s members become more familiar and comfortable with business issues. Business leaders tend to spend more time with the senate than with the assembly, but that’s a mistake,” according to Townsend. “It is vital business leaders increase one-on-one time with assembly candidates right now. There will be huge turnover this year. Now is the time for a major, statewide business initiative focused on the assembly,” Townsend says. “Forget party lines, forget regional differences. Focus on education — both yours and theirs. Make this an interim that brings all legislators and business leaders closer together in a bipartisan manner. Failure to do so could lead to ten years of division and deadlock. Deadlocked legislatures devastate market economies. And in this, the fastest growing, most aggressive and productive business community in America, we can’t afford that.”