Now, the real fun begins

Andy Matthews

Future psephologists (sociologists who study election trends) will undoubtedly look back in puzzlement at how the massive, pro-Republican wave that swept most of the country in 2010 never quite materialized in a few select states, including Nevada.

Instead, what the Silver State got was more of a soft ripple.

The phenomenon wasn't limited to races for federal office, either. Though most pundits have focused their analytical energies on dissecting Harry Reid's dramatic win over Sharron Angle — understandable, since that race offered enough juicy subplots to fill multiple election cycles — the "What happened to Nevada?" question applies to the state-office elections as well.

One of the most significant developments for national Republicans this year was their almost unfathomable success in races for state offices. As of this writing, roughly 675 state legislative seats and about 20 legislative houses have been flipped from Democratic control to the GOP column, and Republicans captured a solid majority of governor's mansions as well.

Apparently, Nevada didn't get the memo.

True, Republicans already held Nevada's governorship heading into Election Day, and Brian Sandoval's sound defeat of Rory Reid ensured this will remain the case for another four years.

But it remains a major 2010 storyline that, despite all of the apparent rightward momentum, Nevada Republicans failed to make much hay in the state legislative races.

In the Senate, Democrats saw their 12-9 advantage trimmed only slightly to 11-10, the lone GOP pick-up coming with Mike Roberson's win over incumbent Joyce Woodhouse in Clark County District 5.

In the Assembly, the GOP gained just two seats, as Mark Sherwood toppled incumbent Democrat Ellen Spiegel in District 21, and Republican Pete Livermore bested Democrat Robin Williamson in an open-seat contest in District 40. Even with those losses, Democrats enjoy a comfortable 26-16 advantage in the lower chamber.

Ho-hum, all right.

For those salivating for political drama, however, there is some good news. The balance of power in Carson City next year, while not much different from the last go-around, should produce a high-stakes battle over the direction of Nevada public policy.

That's because lawmakers next year will face a pivotal decision on how to address the state's budget deficit. And the divided state government means it's anybody's guess how it will all play out.

Indeed, even the attempt to define the deficit has proved contentious: Many observers have for months been claiming that the size of the deficit is around $3 billion, even though the gap between current spending and projected revenues is less than half that size, and the $3 billion figure relies on an assumed 30 percent increase in state expenditures over the next biennium.

The cast of characters taking center stage during the 2011 Legislative Session all but ensures that the battle has only just begun. Governor-elect Sandoval is already on record in opposing tax increases as a means of addressing the shortfall. On the other hand, Steven Horsford, the Democrats' majority leader in the Senate, has taken a different rhetorical route, even going so far as to publicly contemplate which taxes he'd like to raise. (Hint: Business owners, watch out.)

Sandoval's veto pen isn't the only obstacle on Horsford's road to tax hikes, however. That's because of a provision in the Nevada Constitution that requires any tax increase to be approved by two-thirds of each legislative chamber, rather than a simple majority. Democrats have majorities in both, but super-majorities in neither.

What it will all come down to is whether Democrats can hold their caucuses together in both houses, and convince three Republicans in the Senate and two in the Assembly to join them in backing tax hikes. Even a Sandoval veto would be futile at that point, since the same two-thirds that passed the increase would, presumably, hold together to override a veto.

In 2009, Nevada Democrats succeeded in pushing through the largest single-session tax increase in state history, despite opposition from a Republican governor, by convincing several legislative Republicans to back their tax-hike plan.

Of course, voters today seem far less enamored by the idea of handing more money over to the government. If Republicans opt to band together and present a unified front against tax increases next year, they'll likely do so with the political winds at their backs.

Then again, if Nevada Republicans fail to catch the trend, it certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Andy Matthews is vice president for operations and communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit This article first appeared in the December 2010 edition of Nevada Business.