The June 1st conclusion to the 78th Session of the Nevada Legislature brought to the end one of the most improbable and significant sessions in the state’s history. Improbable in that a state under unified Republican control for the first time since 1929 increased taxes by $1.1 billion for the biennium and appropriated the bulk of this new revenue to K-12 education. To be sure, Nevada Democrats have long advocated for more funding for education and an expansion of the state’s tax base. Democrats also provided important votes, particularly on taxes, and many of the education initiatives drew on Democratic legislation. Yet, it was Republicans, under the leadership of Governor Brian Sandoval, who delivered these policies.
The significance of these actions cannot be overstated. Nevada has long been a bottom dweller in K-12 funding and performance due in large part to its use of a funding formula developed in the 1960s and governance structures that are a decade older. Indeed, to rhetorically differentiate his initiatives from the outdated and ineffective status quo, the governor dubbed his policy package “The New Nevada.”
Without a doubt the biggest winners of these changes are the state’s burgeoning Latino population. Latinos now constitute nearly 28 percent of all Nevadans and Latinos are a plurality of school age children. In Nevada’s most populous county, Clark, the English Language Learner (ELL) population exceeds 30 percent. Yet, prior to 2013 the state appropriated no money for ELL and the funding that was included in the 2013 budget was limited to 20 “zoom” schools statewide (a number that will double in the coming two years).
Aided by the efforts of members of the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, the state’s Latino community will also benefit from legislation allowing noncitizens to obtain teaching certificates without restrictions, the creation of the State Seal of Biliteracy Program to recognize graduates with proficiency in languages besides English, the expansion of early child education and all day kindergarten, and the tightening of regulations of notarios.
Latinos and other minority students may also benefit from legislation reorganizing the Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the country. Nevada is also implementing one of the most robust school choice laws in the country in the form of education savings accounts that allow parents to withdraw their students from public school and apply the state per-pupil expenditures to an educational institution of their choosing. Lastly and in contrast to a number of other GOP controlled states, Republican legislative leaders killed four voter identification bills (two died without hearings), as well as proposed restrictions to early voting.
So what next? With the conversation quickly shifting to the 2016 elections, Nevada will once again be front and center. Harry Reid’s retirement and Governor Sandoval’s decision not to seek the seat means a likely US Senate race between sitting House Republican Joe Heck (NV-3) and former two term Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. Heck’s candidacy and the surprise victory by Republican Cresent Hardy last November in the Democratic leaning fourth district means that Nevada’s third and fourth House seats will be in play. In the fourth district, at least four Democrats, including state senator Ruben Kihuen and former assemblywomen and Lieutenant Governor candidate Lucy Flores, will be competing for the Democratic nomination.
At the presidential level, Nevada will again be competitive and the state is hosting early nominating events for both parties, as well as a Republican primary debate. Many of the presidential aspirants of both parties have already visited the state. Most notably, early last month Hillary Clinton, much like President Obama before here, used Las Vegas as the backdrop to unveil her immigration priorities.
The real intrigue though in on the GOP side where it remains to be seen what the party’s candidates takeaway from their visits to the Silver State. In this regard, one of the most consequential decisions of the Nevada Legislature may have been to let a bill die in the last moments of the session allowing parties to use primaries instead of caucuses as their nominating events.
Democrats opposed the bill because they saw it as a threat to Nevada’s early state status and the party had used the caucus structure effectively to organize for the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Many conservative and Tea Party Republicans saw the legislation as an effort to mute their influence, while establishment Republicans pushed the bill in hopes of saving themselves from another low turnout debacle.
The legislation’s death was immediately seen as a win for Rand Paul, whose father’s supporters have been the source of much of the Nevada Republican Party’s recent dysfunction. Some have speculated that Nevada’s decision to stay with the caucus format will result in other candidates either downplaying or skipping Nevada so as not validate Paul’s efforts. It is worth noting that despite the hype surrounding the Paul grass-roots juggernaut, Ron Paul was the preferred candidate of just 14 percent of Republican caucus goers in 2008 and 19 percent in 2012.
Less discussed is what the caucus process may mean for candidates’ efforts to mobilize supporters. The state’s various conservative and Tea Party groups provide ready-made audiences of ideologically motivated voters who are likely caucus participants. Of course, these voters and their allies in the Nevada Legislature loudly and angrily opposed most of Governor Sandoval’s agenda, as well as his earlier acceptance of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and his opposition to his own Attorney General’s decision to join a lawsuit against President Obama’s use of executive action to alleviate deportations.
Thus, what is likely to unfold in the coming months is an awkward dance where most, if not all, of the Republican presidential candidates visiting Nevada will seek an audience with Governor Sandoval, while simultaneously distancing themselves from much of his policy agenda so as not to alienate conservative caucus voters. This would be unfortunate. Many of these candidates could learn a great deal from a moderate, popular two-term governor of a swing state who works across the aisle to govern pragmatically.
David Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Senior Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.