By Megan Messerly, Michelle Rindels and Riley Snyder

The Nevada Independent

Lawmakers kicked off a historic 2019 legislative session with promises to act civilly and defy the political gridlock of Washington, D.C. — a marked contrast to the partisan lines in the sand drawn on opening day last session.

During largely ceremonial activities in the snowy capital of Carson City, Democratic legislative leaders Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson both highlighted the milestone Nevada reached Monday in officially becoming the first state in the nation with a female-majority legislature.

“Not only are the eyes of the state upon us, but the eyes of our entire nation are upon us,” Frierson said. “We must ensure that this milestone is not simply a symbolic victory but is instead a meaningful advancement in welcoming all Nevadans to the table to advance policies for all Nevadans.”

Lawmakers also adopted a few changes in legislative rules. The Senate is eliminating a rules committee that existed in the last two sessions to approve or disapprove of specific amendments prior to their introduction on the floor of the Senate. The effect was that very few amendments were ever added outside of committees.

“I just don’t even think it was great policy to implement in the first place … I think [former Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson] felt we were trying to put them on record to make some bad votes on some amendments,” Atkinson explained. “I just think that people should be allowed to introduce amendments if they want.”

Another change allows senators to have committees at remote locations using videoconferencing. And a further change requires senators who abstain from voting to make a complete disclosure of any conflict of interest that they may have — in other words, they must explain why they are not voting. “

“I kind of just really wanted to clarify what not voting should be used for and it really should be used if you have a conflict,” Atkinson said, adding that lawmakers in general should vote on everything unless there’s a good reason not to. “I think you should. I think that’s what you’re sent here for. Unless you have a real conflict, I think it is your job to vote.”

In his remarks, Frierson highlighted former Assemblywoman Sadie Hurst, the first woman in the Assembly who was elected in 1920, as well as Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, the longest serving woman in the history of the state. Carlton, who served six terms in the Senate before joining the Assembly, touched off her 11th regular session today.

Nevada’s female-majority legislature comes about a century after women gained the right to vote. Atkinson, in prepared remarks, called the milestone “unprecedented and overdue.”

The pair of leaders made history themselves today as only the second-ever pair of African-American majority leaders (after Frierson and former Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford in 2017), and Atkinson as the first openly gay state Senate leader. In one of his first official moves, Atkinson extended an olive branch to his Republican counterpart, Sen. James Settelmeyer.

“Myself, as a gay, urban black male, from an urban county, and a rancher from rural Nevada couldn’t be more different, however, I think we have forged a lifelong bond, and I think our friendship prevails,” Atkinson said in prepared remarks. “We haven’t always agreed, and have very different issues… yet, we’ve worked together many times, in the spirit of making all of Nevada better.”

Frierson also expressed his desire to work with Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler and Settelmeyer “to find common ground on the issues that will move our state forward.”

In speeches, Atkinson and Frierson outlined their top policy priorities for the 120-day legislative session, including codifying a stalled gun background check initiative, updating Nevada’s education funding formula and addressing LGBTQ homelessness.

Frierson, who began his second term as Assembly speaker on Monday, said that one of the chamber’s first actions would be to vote to implement universal background checks on gun sales, a rallying cry for Democrats which voters approved in 2016 but has been stalled amid refusal of the FBI to process the checks.

He thanked Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, who was at the Route 91 Harvest Festival the night of the Las Vegas shooting, for sharing “her story and her passion about helping to prevent tragedies like this from ever, ever happening again.” He also promised that the Legislature would address other gun control reform measures, including banning bump stock devices.

“This is personal, and it’s certainly personal to Assemblywoman Jauregui. We will stand up for a safer Nevada so that experiences of those such as Assemblywoman Jauregui and the brave action by so many first responders that night will not have been in vain,” Frierson said.

On education, Frierson stressed support for changing the state’s education funding formula, giving teachers “more tools to help us build the next generation’s leaders” and “rewarding” teachers who have worked in the state’s “most challenging schools.”

He also promised that no Nevadan would be denied access to health care due to pre-existing conditions, pledged to “be bold” in addressing the opioid epidemic and expressed support for funding to support women’s health benefits.

Frierson said that the Legislature would expand options for apprenticeship programs, ensure equal pay for equal work, provide access to paid leave for employees and create a “stable and predictable” environment for small businesses.

“I pledge to work with Governor Sisolak as a trusted ally and partner on implementing a vision for Nevada that takes us into our next chapter,” Frierson said.

Atkinson, a longtime lawmaker who’s spending his first session as the top-ranking senator, singled out broad policy areas including education and health care but paid special attention to the issues of affordable housing and of youth homelessness, a problem particularly acute among LGBT teens.

“My heart breaks knowing that in Southern Nevada alone there are approximately 15,000 homeless youth at any given time. Nearly 40 percent are LGBTQ kids, many rejected by their families for who they are,” he said. “I ask all of you to work with me in launching a concerted effort to save these kids, many with little food, bad health care and very often they turn to drugs and even worse suicide.”

Atkinson said that the greatest accomplishment the citizen legislature might achieve is to set an example for the state in how they treat each other.

“I ask that we consider our roles, not as politicians or legislators, but as parents, role models and community leaders,” he said. “Consider the progress we can make as a state if we the most diverse legislature ever, can behave with dignity, respect and tolerance.”

His speech is softer than what his predecessor, Democratic current Attorney General Aaron Ford, shared on his first day as majority leader. Ford had sharp words about policies enacted in 2015, when Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s seat.

“We’ll take another look at last session’s extreme and unnecessary legislation that targeted the pocketbooks of working men and women by slashing wages for construction workers, limiting project-labor agreements and attacking collective bargaining rights,” Ford said in 2017. “To our friends in the labor movement, we heard you when you said, ‘Never again,’ and we agree.”

The statement prompted pushback from then-Gov. Brian Sandoval and Senate Republicans.

Wheeler, in brief remarks from the Assembly floor, stressed the importance of debate to the legislative process while pressing for civility. Republicans will be in a super-minority this session in the Assembly, comprising less than one-third of lawmakers in that chamber.

“We’re all here to represent our constituents, and we would be derelict in our oath of office and our duties if we did not vigorously debate the positions and furtherance of our constituents’ beliefs,” Wheeler said. “But let us remember that in the end we’re all Nevadans and should endeavor to treat each other with the respect and civility that we would wish to be treated with ourselves.”

This article was reprinted with permission by the Nevada Independent. Visit them at thenevadaindependent.com.