Nevada governor's support for ambitious bills is uncertain
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — At the end of a hearing for a bill that would further expand coverage for gender-affirming medical care, transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath shifted her focus from the majority-Democratic senators before her to the Republican governor who likely will decide the bill’s fate.
“This bipartisan support has been described as ‘The Nevada Way,’” Maylath said, repeating Gov. Joe Lombardo’s mantra coined during his January inaugural address. In the speech, Lombardo vowed broadly to push conservative tenets like school choice and bolster criminal penalties while working with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Four months later, little more is known about how Lombardo will respond to several ambitious policy proposals advancing in the Legislature. He has declined to comment publicly on most bills, setting the stage for last-minute deals and conflicts as the final month of the session nears.
The stakes are high in one of the few Legislatures meeting every other year. Nevada lawmakers adjourn in early June, and the final stretch will further define Lombardo — the only Republican to unseat a Democratic governor in the 2022 election.
As his counterparts in the GOP push anti-transgender rhetoric and vow to curtail transgender healthcare on the campaign trail, Lombardo steered a more moderate path. He stayed away from anti-transgender rhetoric and touted his position as Clark County sheriff to build an ethos among conservatives.
The Democratic sponsor of the gender-affirming care bill contends it's worth a shot with Lombardo. If he ultimately approves the bill, Nevada would join some states led by Democrats in carving out safe havens amid a flurry of conservatives moving to ban or limit transgender care.
“They know that this is not a political stunt,” state Sen. Melanie Scheible said. “I’m not trying to give them a bill to veto just so I can complain about it later.”
Nevada is one of 10 states with executive and legislative branches split in different parties — the lowest number since 1952, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While the two major parties become more polarized, national party identity has become a stronger driver of voting patterns, said Jesse Richman, an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University, who researches the topic. State-level parties have less room to differentiate themselves.
Single-party control is producing substantial changes on hot-button issues, such as abortion rights, access to gender-affirming care and gun control.
Other states with dual-party control have seen gridlock.
Democratic Govs. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Katie Hobbs in Arizona recently set their state's records for vetoes. In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s influence has appeared to wane after a House member switched parties in April, giving Republicans veto-proof supermajorities in both legislative chambers.
In Nevada, a bill is still in play that would establish trust fund investments for the children of families who receive Medicaid, known as “ baby bonds." Another bill would expand Medicaid or similar programs to undocumented children and pregnant parents. Other measures, including a trio of gun control bills and a measure to criminalize fake electors, have advanced through one chamber.
Lombardo declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
“As hundreds of bills work through the legislative process, our office has chosen to only engage on legislation when we feel necessary,” his spokesperson Elizabeth Ray said in an email. “As bills are presented to Governor Lombardo in their final form, our office will comment and respond appropriately.”
Lombardo’s win over incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was part of a series of tight, split-ticket races in Nevada's midterms last year that cemented the state as solidly purple.
Still, Democrats won a supermajority in the state Assembly and are one seat short of achieving a supermajority in the state Senate.
While Lombardo has given few early predictors of his stance on certain bills, he has broken away from the GOP by indicating he’d sign a bill to codify his predecessor's executive order to protect out-of-state abortion patients and in-state abortion providers from prosecution and penalties. It’s a marked shift from an early campaign promise to repeal the protections, on which he switched course later in the campaign. Overall, he has maintained an anti-abortion stance.
The Nevada Republican Party said Chairman Michael McDonald was away on Friday and unavailable to comment on Lombardo’s position. But it previously chided two GOP senators who voted to advance the measure to the Assembly.
Democratic lawmakers advancing bills that have riled conservatives elsewhere said Lombardo’s office has been open to talking about them.
Those conversations will likely narrow down a bill expanding state health programs to undocumented children and pregnant women, said Democratic Sen. Fabian Doñate, the bill's sponsor.
Lombardo's bills haven't always gotten a warm reception from Democratic leadership, who called his proposals for voter identification and a partial rollback of the state's universal mail-in ballot system a “non-starter.” But the state Assembly recently advanced one of his bills to strengthen certain disciplinary policies in schools, and an Assembly committee held a long, contentious hearing for his school choice measures.
“I am imagining that he’s going to — and we can use Las Vegas parlance here — lay that bet on the table,” said Sondra Cosgrove, a professor of history at Southern Nevada College and executive director of Vote Nevada, a civics education nonprofit. "And say, ‘OK, this is what I want. If I don’t get it, don’t expect to get what you want.’”
Associated Press writers Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed reporting.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter: @gabestern326.