Is there a “Nevada Way?”

That question was posed to Nevada lawmakers and thought leaders by Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks at an event this week in Las Vegas designed to “Elevate” the conversation and political discourse.

The “Utah Way” is often used to describe how lawmakers in the state try to find common ground on thorny issues like immigration, or the intersection of religious liberty and LGBTQ rights. So, Wilks asked, What does that look like in Nevada?

“I think about Nevada being just a quintessential Western state,” said Nevada Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager. He said there is a level of willingness for lawmakers to work together, though perhaps not on every issue.

“I think we’ve tried hard over the years to make sure that everybody can take some piece of legislation back to their community,” he said. “But it has to be something reasonable at the same time.”

In other words, Republicans and Democrats each have issues they don’t seem to bend on. The key is finding the common ground on state-level issues and then working to find solutions within that common ground, panelists agreed.

The conversation in Las Vegas was the fourth such event in the “Deseret Elevate” series held across the Mountain West. About 50 people attended the event held at the Vegas Chamber. Similar discussions have been held in Salt Lake City, Boise and Phoenix. Deseret Elevate events have also been held in Washington, D.C.

The need for compromise and civility has emerged in each of the discussions, whether the issues surround growth, use of public lands, water, expanded environmental concerns, or in the case of each western region, affordable housing.

Nevada has experienced political changes over the past two years. It went from a state where Democrats held all the levers of power — with a Democratic governor and majorities in both legislative chambers — to a divided government, after Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo won in 2022. Its Assembly is made up of a supermajority of Democrats.

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Nevada Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager listens as Nevada state Sen. Rochelle Nguyen during the Deseret Elevate Forum at the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, Nev., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Ian Maule, for the Deseret News

Intra-party contention

Nevada state Sen. Rochelle Nguyen, a Democrat, said there were also challenges when Democrats had a trifecta, because of the need to “put brakes on yourselves.”

Her concerns were echoed by Tom Roberts, a former state legislator and law enforcement officer, who now works as a Republican consultant in the political field.

Trying to get work done in the legislature can sometimes lead to intra-party conflict, he said. “It seems like your own worst enemies sometimes are your own people.” That’s the same conflict that exists nationally, as witnessed in the House of Representatives’ repeated failed efforts to seat a House speaker, until finally settling on Mike Johnson, R-La.

Roberts also raised concerns about state-level redistricting, and the risk of more extreme candidates winning elections as a district becomes more concentrated by party.

“There are two kinds of people in Carson City, there are lawmakers and there are noisemakers, right? And it used to be very few noisemakers, and I think you see larger numbers of that based on the demographics of some of our districts,” he said.  

Desert News Executive Editor Doug Wilks listens as Nevada Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager speaks during the Deseret Elevate Forum at the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, Nev., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Ian Maule, for the Deseret News

Lawmaking with an all or nothing approach

Wilks asked how lawmakers can battle an “all or nothing mentality.”

“You’re not going to get anything done if you don’t talk,” Yeager said.

He said he met with the Nevada Senate majority leader and governor weekly for sit-down discussions, even though “it wasn’t always pleasant.”

“There are just things that are going to be off the table,” Yeager said. “There are just things that Democrats are never going to give on in this state — abortion, voting rights, those are a few I can think of right away. And there are things on the other side, right?”

“I think you have to come from a point of realizing once you’ve discussed it, and there’s not common ground there, you’ve got to move on to something else where there is common ground.”

Voters, Nguyen said, don’t necessarily ask about party affiliation, they want to know what lawmakers can get done and what problems they can solve.

“I think that would alleviate a lot of the partisan politics — problem solving,” she said.

Many of the same problems come up in every neighborhood, Roberts said — education, affordability, housing.

Roberts said when he was in the Nevada Assembly, as a Republican, he was in the “super minority,” with the Democrats holding both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat.

“And so you pick and choose the things that you can move forward that we have common ground on it,” he said, adding that he was able to move bills forward every session. “I wouldn’t change the world, but I changed a few things at a time. And that’s what we’re all about, right, just making some type of progress.”

Nevada Legislature only meets every other year

Typically the Nevada legislature meets for regular sessions only in odd-numbered years, which means the executive branch has a lot of power, according to Jon Ralston, a four-decadeslong journalist who runs the Nevada Independent.

Whether the state should move to a full-time legislature has been a point of conversation for “years,” Ralston said. He said most lawmakers who are elected “want to do a good job,” but he called the current structure “irretrievably broken.”

“The part-time legislature doesn’t work,” he said. “We pay them nothing and expect them to not be tempted by wanting to curry favor with people who can help them.”

The Nevada Legislature, which meets at the statehouse in Carson City, is one of the smallest in the country. The lower chamber, the Assembly, has 42 representatives, while there are 21 senators in the state Senate.