In 2015, Nevada passed a $1.4 billion plan to fund education—including funds for early education and English language acquisition funds—via the largest increase in corporate taxes in the state’s histor. During the same period, it passed one of the nation’s more forward-looking laws with protections for transgender people in the workplace and housing market. Read through the lens of partisan politics, these two policies would seem to be impossible in a state where the two state legislative houses and the governor are firmly Republican. But applying the States of Change framework allows us to tease out a different story—one that allows us to look beyond the constantly shifting realm of partisan politics and understand the possibility for progressive governance in this state for the long term.
Between 1990 and 2010, Nevada’s population doubled in size, with most of this growth among people of color and immigrants. Looking ahead, people of color are expected to account for all net population growth, which is predicted to continue at a rapid pace. The economy of Nevada is also diversifying, with growth in more advanced manufacturing and technology-linked jobs in the Reno metro area leading to a reduction in the overwhelming economic influence of the mining and gaming industrie. Ensuring the continued growth in these new economy sectors will require improvements in education of the state’s rapidly growing youth population. But the clear logic of education reform certainly does not guarantee its passage, nor does it tell us how, say, transgender rights came into play. To see how arenas of governance.translate to political realities, we look to the
Nevada’s part- time "citizen" legislature meets only 120 days every other year. With such few work days and relatively low pay, most legislators are independently wealthy, financially supported by outside (i.e., corporate) interests, or have a position that allows them significant time off from work. The legislature is supported by a small, shared pool of nonpartisan staff researchers. This part- time legislative structure gives full-time lobbyists outsized power, which is part of what allowed mining and gaming industries to dominate politics for so long.
The average legislative session in Nevada is 4 months over a two-year period. Nevada is tied for 24th in terms of the longest state legislative sessions.
Only nine states have full-time legislatures, meaning the rest have some form of part-time legislatures. The part-time structure means legislators are paid a low salary, so candidates must essentially be independently wealthy or bankrolled by outside entities to be in office. This exacerbates the absence of people of color, women, and low-income people in o ice. In Nevada, being a legislator is even less professionalized since the state legislature meets rather infrequently: every two years for four months (as opposed to every year in the state of Washington),. Nevada legislators also are not budgeted for their own starters for research so they must draw from a small pool of shared, nonpartisan sta . According to interviewees, this structure gives lobbyists an exorbitant amount of power in Nevada, as they are full time, and end up advising legislators and even writing policy in between sessions. However, one interviewee suggested a possible upside, that having time in between sessions gives progressive groups more time to organize. Organizers in Nevada have also sought to utilize the inter-session committee meetings to place legislators face-to-face with constituents. These realities provide a good reminder that we must not be quick to make normative judgments but rather use these factors to understand the terrain.
Nevada’s geography is strongly bifurcated, with Las Vegas in the south, home to a majority of Nevadans, separated by hundreds of miles from the state capital of Carson City, near Reno in the northern half of the state.
This separates southern residents—many of whom are communities of color—from state politics, which is especially problematic given the strong executive powers granted the governor and his administrative bodies in a state with a part-time legislature.
But organized constituents have, at times, turned the part-time legislative situation to their advantage by directly reaching representatives during the in- between legislative fora and commissions where much of the deliberation happens. And because the legislature is part-time, elected representatives are not likely to be career politicians which makes them more amenable to responding to affected populations in such sessions and more susceptible to public pressure.
Furthermore, given the state’s small population, some interviewees believe that mobilizing communities is more manageable and has a greater impact.
In the North Carolina and Florida because the state has not instituted significant barriers to voting or registration. Nonetheless, Nevada’s voter turnout and registration are among the lowest in the country. Many attribute this to the state’s "transient" population and lack of rootedness in place. Moreover, the state’s large immigrant population means many are not part of the electorate. However, immigrants have asserted their voice through the state’s strong labor movement. Bucking national trends, Nevada’s unionization rate has increased to 12 percent in the private sector (and 17 percent in the Las Vegas region. This is due to increased organizing in the state’s hotel and restaurant sector as well as in the dominant gaming industry. Labor groups have backed bills protecting transgender persons, as well as education reform—issues that are not traditionally considered part of labor’s agenda., voter suppression is not an issue in Nevada like it is in states like
Voters in Nevada waited an average of 8 minutes during the 2012 presidential election. Nevada is tied for 19th lowest in terms of wait times at the polls.
Nevada has no voter ID laws
Voters in Nevada may vote as an absentee without providing an excuse.
Voters in Nevada may vote early (before election day).
Yet advocacy and organizing efforts around the state were not sufficient to pass the educational tax measure that was on the November ballot. Still, six months later, a tax bill was passed by the Republican majority legislature and signed by the Republican governor. This was because, after the initial ballot measure defeat, advocacy and organizing groups leveraged their strength (and corporate self-interest) to create a wedge among powerful interests. They influenced casinos to come out in support of raising taxes on other industries to fund education—using the fact that casinos are uniquely taxed and do not want to be solely responsible for funding public infrastructure.
Our Lessons From Nevada: The framework is not about a checklist of factors that can add up to progressive governance. What it points us to are the key factors, the critical points where politics, economics, and demography are translated into power and policy. Importantly, many of the organizations we spoke to recognize that the state’s future requires not simply maneuvering through what exists in these arenas, but also trying to change the rules.
For example, the Institute for a Progressive Nevada and Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) recently convened a cross-cutting alliance focused on judicial reform to increase diversity on the bench and to counter the effects of money in judicial elections. Likewise, Nevada’s social movements are underfunded and have proven they can "make it work," but we can only imagine what new pathways they would forge if equipped with the resources, key leadership pipelines, and alliance infrastructure they need to fully thrive.
In Nevada, private sector unionization remains relatively high—and it is one of the few states where this rate is growing. Importantly, these unions have been particularly active in the restaurant and hotel service sector, which are key industries in the state. Unions established the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, which has become a prime example of a labor-management partnership that is centered on improving the lives of workers through skills training and development. With over 20 years of commitment, the partnership has not only succeeded in training over 35,000 workers, but also offers citizenship courses, classes for English language learners, and daily meals to disadvantaged youth, seniors, and veterans. They have also leveraged their power to pressure the casino industry to support major education legislation, which increased business taxes in order to fund a massive buildout.