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The Republican base is driving Lombardo, but ARPA built the session


The Republican base is driving Lombardo, but ARPA built the session

May 25, 2023 | 8:40 am ET
By Hugh Jackson
The Republican base is driving Lombardo, but ARPA built the session
At least budgets for Nevada's long-neglected, perpetually underfunded public services won't be cut. That's made possible not because of Lombardo or Nevada legislative Democrats, but thanks to the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress. (Photo: Alejandra Rubio/ Nevada Current)

Two factors underlying a bread and circuses legislative session have little if anything to do with decisions made by state lawmakers: The March 2021 enactment of the American Rescue Plan Act, and Gov. Joe Lombardo’s fear of the Republican base.

Since it’s orders of magnitude more important, let’s start with ARPA.

Thanks, Biden

When sworn in as governor early this year, Lombardo inherited an unusually flush budget and a state economy that had recovered far more strongly than anyone had anticipated when the last legislative session was winding down two years ago.

“Thanks to the actions of legislative Democrats over the past four years, Nevada’s economic recovery is well ahead of schedule,” Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager asserted this February while delivering a Democratic response to Lombardo’s state of the state address, “and that makes investing in the crucial needs of our state, including education, easier than ever before.”

Yeager was wrong on one count, and laughably so. The economic rebound and flush budgets in states across the nation are not “thanks to the actions” of state legislators of either party, but the actions of Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.

ARPA delivered more than $4 billion to shore up state and local governments in Nevada. Through extended unemployment benefits, a child tax credit that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to Nevada households each month over a year, rental assistance, expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies, loans and assistance to small businesses, and multiple other programs and policies, ARPA might have pumped as much as $12 billion into Nevada directly.

That’s just the part that was directed specifically to Nevada. Implemented nationwide, ARPA jump-started recovery of a national economy on which Southern Nevada is especially dependent.

As a result, Yeager was right on one count: Spending on “crucial needs…including education” has probably been “easier than ever before.”

When the legislative session started two years ago, severe budget cuts were in the works, the force and scope of the economic recovery wasn’t fully apparent, and everyone knew (but few if any politicians would admit) it was impossible for Nevada to rescue itself, so Congress would have to do it.

The most consequential, determinative factor effecting this year’s legislative session won’t be a baseball field or Sony in Summerlin or a lottery or anything else Nevada legislators pass. It will be the same thing that was the most consequential factor effecting the last legislative session two years ago, the enactment of ARPA by the U.S. Congress in March 2021.

But with such a flush budget (thanks, Biden), the governor and legislators are squabbling over how to spend it. Democrats, whose agenda is already so modest as to be nearly unidentifiable, are trying to figure out what shiny objects on Lombardo’s agenda they can give him that will do the least harm while still calming him down (the utter pointlessness of the gas tax holiday makes it one strong contender).

All about that base

Perhaps the most notable thing Lombardo’s done since becoming governor was that time he got his picture taken with Elon Musk (and it only cost the state $412 million).

But now Lombardo has set aside his folksy just-happy-to-be-here vibe and started swinging his veto pen around as if he’s a big strong grownup governor for reals.

Which serves as a reminder that Lombardo won his gubernatorial primary last summer with just 38.4% of the vote.

He had won nonpartisan races for sheriff in heavily Democratic Clark County, where his brand had more or less been that of the local aw shucks sheriff, more acclimated to writing tickets than topping one as a right-wing ideologue. The political pros who signed on with his gubernatorial campaign could not have been impressed with his sharp grasp of state policies or his clearly articulated vision for the state’s future – Lombardo demonstrated neither during the campaign, and little of either ever since.

What the political pros must have seen (as I’ve suggested several times before) was not a talented Republican politician with an agenda that would resonate with today’s Republican, i.e., Trump, voters but, rather, a potential solution to a Republican Southern Nevada math problem.

In other words, the increasingly extremist Republican electorate is new to Lombardo, and vice versa. Lombardo’s efforts to placate that electorate have manifested as genuflection to Trump on multiple occasions, and prompted him to fold for Trump on demand.

Lombardo is a lot more afraid of his base than Democrats are of theirs. 

So he’s subjecting anyone who is paying even casual attention to a hot mess of huffery-puffery. Or as The Associated Press more politely phrased it, “a combative shift.”

He vetoed three modest gun safety bills. Lazily making arguments that were rejected by Justice Antonin Scalia in the landmark D.C. vs Heller case, Lombardo cited the bills’ infringement on constitutional rights with all the intellectual integrity of a National Rifle Association press conference.

(In the Heller decision, Scalia wrote that “the Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” Those three categories of prohibitions – which Scalia ruled should not be doubted – correlate precisely with the three bills Lombardo vetoed.)

Lombardo’s initial ask to spend $50 million of public money on private school vouchers was dismissed as weak and inadequate by those who want to privatize publicly funded education – a stalwart component of the hard right – so mid-session he upped his proposal to an eventual yet preposterous $500 million, and now he’s pretending he means it. 

And he’s threatened to veto the budget. Because whenever Republicans shut down the government it always works out so well for them.

The state’s most powerful industries will let Lombardo parade for a while – new governor after all, it’s only polite. But they also observe no partisan boundaries and freely order around Republicans and Democrats alike. Before too long the state’s masters will tire of the show, and have Lombardo and Democratic legislators both quit messing around, finish up, and go home.

A budget will get enacted, and it won’t include a half-billion in vouchers.

But Lombardo can tell the base he tried. And he needs to do that, if he wants to build on that 38.4% in his next Republican primary.

Fortunately for Nevada, even if stuck with policy dogs like a snotty billionaire’s baseball field or a publicly funded industrial park for film companies that don’t want to pay their writers, at least budgets for the state’s long-neglected, perpetually underfunded public services won’t be cut. That’s made possible not because of Lombardo or Nevada legislative Democrats, but thanks to the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress.

Coda: If Republicans in the U.S. House force the federal government to  go into default, that will be the single most consequential event dictating the next legislative session in 2025, and perhaps one or two special budget-cutting sessions before then.