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Nevada’s Blue Wave

Once reliably Republican, the state has suddenly become a laboratory of progressive experimentation.

For most of the last 30 years, it’s been Republicans who have charted Nevada’s political destiny. The GOP won every governor’s election from 1998 until 2018 and usually controlled the state Senate. In the 2000s, the state went to George W. Bush twice, albeit by a few percentage points. Then, three years ago, Nevada Democrats did something remarkable.

Buoyed by a nationwide “blue wave” backlash to Trumpism, Nevada voters elected a Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, and handed all but one of the statewide offices to Democrats. With majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and the first majority-women legislature in the country, the party secured its first trifecta in state government since 1992. Nevada Democrats have drawn a road map of sorts for how progressives could govern other bluish-purple states when given the opportunity.

“I think folks sometimes get scared,” Nicole Cannizzaro, the state Senate majority leader, told me. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the Democrats or the Republicans, you’re like: Oh, it’s a trifecta, it’s going to be the end of the world. But hopefully, what you’re seeing is that we’re passing progressive policies. They’re addressing real issues. And yes, we’re getting them passed where previously they wouldn’t be able to make it over the finish line. But they’re actually nothing to be afraid of.”

A review of new laws passed in Nevada over the past three years reads like a progressive wish list. Since 2018, the state has abolished prison gerrymandering and the gay-panic defense, reformed its strict felony-disenfranchisement laws and decriminalized traffic enforcement, given collective-bargaining rights to state employees, and required state utility companies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent of 2005 levels in the next 10 years. Perhaps the most prescient law was the Trust Nevada Women Act, which removes criminal penalties for obtaining an abortion even if Roe v. Wade is struck down—a decision that could come as soon as next spring.

The Democrats’ flagship bill this session created a public option for health insurance, just the second measure of its kind in the nation. Though the law won’t take effect until 2026, Cannizzaro and other state lawmakers had first moved toward a public option during the 2019 session, when they passed a bill requiring the state to study whether one would be feasible. The question is particularly urgent in a state where 11.4 percent of residents are still uninsured. “They can’t afford plans on the [Affordable Care Act] exchange or they don’t qualify for subsidies,” she explained. “Some of them are Medicaid eligible and just don’t realize it. But there’s a whole chunk of them that just can’t afford health care.”

Though the discussion long preceded Covid-19, the last 18 months only underscored its necessity to Cannizzaro. “It really does put the impetus on the state to take action and to do something about it. When we have the history of a persistently high uninsured rate, coupled with some of the impacts of the pandemic,” she explained, “I think that that really did help us to engage legislators, engage the community, engage stakeholders to say: Hey, you know, this is really the time for us to be able to tackle this and to do it in a smart way.”

There was also the question of how to help thousands of hospitality workers laid off during the pandemic. Though Nevada had some recent success at diversifying its economy, the gaming industry is still its economic engine. The state’s unemployment rate was only 3.6 percent in February 2020. Two months later, it peaked at 30.1 percent—the highest level ever recorded for any state, according to Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation. More than 350,000 Nevadans filed for unemployment during those dire months.

Compounding the human toll was the impact on the state budget. “When all the casinos closed and all those folks lost their jobs, we then had a billion-dollar hole in a $4 billion budget,” Cannizzaro told me. “That was devastating.” In December, as the national death toll headed toward 400,000, and mass vaccination seemed light-years away, economic forecasters predicted a $400 million shortfall over the next two years. By May, however, there were enough signs of life returning to normal and pent-up travel demand that they revised the budget numbers upward—by about $500 million.

The most notable effort by Nevada lawmakers to protect laid-off hospitality workers came in the form of Senate Bill 386, colloquially known as a “right to return” law. It generally requires casinos, resorts, and large event centers to rehire the workers they had earlier let go as they reopen and seek to fill vacant positions. As enacted, SB 386 is one of the most ambitious efforts by any state to restore economic life to normal as the pandemic abates. Its success is all the more striking in a right-to-work state not known for strong labor protections.

The law’s passage followed intense lobbying pressure by the Culinary Union, the influential labor group that represents more than 60,000 hospitality workers in Las Vegas and Reno. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the group’s secretary-treasurer, told me that the law reflected a moral responsibility toward the community by the hospitality industry. While some major business groups withdrew their opposition to the final version, others did not, and how it will be put in practice is still getting worked out. “We’re expecting that they respect the law because they care about this community, they have to comply with the law,” Argüello-Kline explained. “But if they don’t comply with the law—the workers, they have rights.”

Nevada lawmakers operate under some unusual constraints compared to bluer states. The legislature typically works on a part-time basis, holding 120-day sessions every two years. (In extraordinary circumstances like the pandemic, the governor can call a special session.) In 1996, Nevada voters also approved a constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote in the state legislature to raise taxes. Reflecting its libertarian tilt, Nevada has neither personal nor corporate income taxes, making the state heavily reliant on tourists’ spending to stay fiscally sound.

This dynamic led some progressives to eye the state’s powerful mining industry as a greater source of potential tax income. During a special session in 2020, Democrats approved three initiatives that could change a taxation formula enshrined in the state constitution since it joined the Union in 1864. (So powerful was mining’s influence in Nevada’s early years that it became known as the Silver State.) A second vote in the following legislative session would be necessary to put it on the ballot for voters. Lawmakers used that leverage to strike a bargain with the mining industry and its allies in the spring to create a new excise tax that would go toward the state’s education budget instead of its general fund.

By tying the proceeds from that tax directly to K-12 funding, Democrats sought to escape the usual tropes around higher taxes. “I run in a district that is a very swing district,” Cannizzaro told me. “But we get out and talk to folks, you know, things like investing in the education of our students—that’s popular. Sometimes that means that you’ve got to look for revenue sources. We did that this session; we got to deal with mining to transfer that money to education. And so we raise revenue, but we put it toward education.”

Progressives haven’t seen all their dreams come true, of course. Lawmakers’ bargain with mining groups didn’t go as far as some had hoped. Criminal justice reform groups won some victories but struggled to get major packages on policing and bail reform through the legislature. And in May, Sisolak and top lawmakers announced the failure of a bill abolishing the death penalty. As with other part-time legislatures, lawmakers typically have jobs beyond their elected duties. Two of the most influential state senators on criminal justice matters, including Cannizzaro, work as prosecutors in the Clark County district attorney’s office.

It helps that Nevada was never quite as red as it seemed. In a state where brothels are licensed and casinos employ hundreds of thousands of voters, conservative leaders didn’t fully embrace the culture war battles that often divided other states. And Nevada’s most popular governor in recent memory, Kenny Guinn, was a moderate Republican who championed education and pushed the then-largest tax increase in the state’s history through the legislature—a necessary move to diversify a tax base, he said, that largely rested on the shifting economic sands of tourism.*

At the same time, the state’s turn in recent years owes as much to migration as it does to persuasion. Tens of thousands of Californians have moved to Nevada each year over the past decade in search of lower tax burdens and cheaper housing, with obvious effects on the state’s political complexion. The Golden State exodus has sparked alarm among conservatives in states like Arizona and Texas, as once reliably red states start to drift toward bluer shades. For now, however, their future could look more silver.

* This article has been updated. The tax increase was Nevada’s largest at the time; a larger one has since been passed.