Kirkpatrick is a different kind of speaker, but will this be a different kind of session?

CARSON CITY -- If you were there in 1989, during the searing acrimony of the 300 percent pension increase, you really can’t believe.

If you were there in 1997, during the special interest domination of the Session From Hell, you really can’t believe.

If you were there in 2003, during the relentless nastiness of The Great Tax Debate, you really can’t believe.

Too much experience with the Gang of 63 begets too much cynicism, too much exhaustion to have the strength to suspend one’s disbelief. But for a few moments Monday, as the curtain went up on Session ’13, I believed.

The Steven Brooks drama/trauma faded, the well-earned cynicism born of a quarter-century’s worth of sessions (cue “poor grizzled veteran” theme) dissolved as I listened to a remarkable speech by Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who was installed minutes earlier by her colleagues.

Yes, I know that the first day usually is like a pleasant overture to a cacophonous piece, a day of sweet, bipartisan music followed by clanging, discordant cymbals. Both parties put out statements that had me imagining Cyndi Lauper et. al. , circa 1985, singing the words. The Democrats even started a new web site – “Building a Better Nevada,” a gimmick, a slogan they hope becomes reality. Such is every first day, suffused with family, friends and phoniness as a prelude to a session that goes nowhere, slowly.

But Kirkpatrick is a different kind of speaker, and her speech made me believe this could be a different kind of session.

Kirkpatrick, as the encomia from both sides on Monday showed, is respected and liked. But she is also feared because her colleagues know how tough she can be and how no one will outwork her.

She is that rare elected official, as Minority Leader Pat Hickey noted, who will “put policy before politics,” as she has done before in less high-profile roles, especially as chairwoman of the Government Affairs Committee.

Yes, she confronts a rambunctious caucus, with some members who would rather not see her lead the lower house. But, at least Monday, they fell in line, including her lieutenant she hopes will be loyal, Majority Leader William Horne, who was generous in his praise of Kirkpatrick before she spoke. Horne wanted to be speaker but, for now at least, seems content to be No. 2.

When she began to deliver her relatively brief remarks, Kirkpatrick, who only a few weeks ago was distraught in the face of supposed threats from one of her own members, seemed relaxed, comfortable. And her words were both embracing and firm, hopeful yet admonishing.

Kirkpatrick asked her colleagues if they will “apply nickel-sized solutions to dollar-sized problems.” That phrase resonates because of its metaphorical and near-literal meanings – the penurious funding of most services and the small-minded thinking when large solutions are imperative.

Nickel-sized solutions for dollar-sized problems: Thus has been the story of every session I have covered, so Kirkpatrick is asking me to believe the Gang of 63 will actually put its money where its leaders’ (or at least the Democratic ones) mouths have been on Day One of nearly every Legislature.

Yes, some will translate that line to mean: Kirkpatrick wants to raise taxes. And while she might, that is the most simplistic interpretation of the line, which is more a call for real, substantive debate – the kind she has made her signature.

“Will we be a state that answers the wake-up call to the problems in our education system, or will we, once again, put off taking action and leave the toughest problems for future generations to solve?” Kirkpatrick asked. The tendency is to snarkily reply: “Well, of course you will.”

But Kirkpatrick’s fire ignites embers of hope that have been all but burned out by sessions of inaction and postponement. You could tell that these were not just words to Kirkpatrick, that she does not want them to fade into the expected hurly burly of the next 119 days.

That’s why she also pointedly wondered, “Will we finally recognize we cannot balance our state on the backs of a few industries?”

Some progressives may recoil at that phrasing, thinking it is more a sop to gaming than a cry for tax reform. But it is surely the latter, a recognition hat the gross gaming tax and a narrow sales tax are a shaky foundation upon which to build a diverse economy.

And in her speech, Kirkpatrick was not afraid to says she will fight for more money for education in a state where “for too long, our answer to education problems is to cut.” She thanked Gov. Brian Sandoval for his commitment to early education funding, but insisted the effort to fund all-day kindergarten “will extend to all Nevada’s children…..”

That presages the session's flashpoint with Sandoval and legislative Republicans perhaps exchanging more funding for some of what they want on construction defects, prevailing wage, collective bargaining. You can almost see the path.

But Kirkpatrick also was willing to talk about accountability and said the Legislature should be “mindful of the need to ensure our tax dollars are not wanted, and all revenue is fully utilized. By reforming our tax system, we can give businesses and citizens the guarantees they need, as that s the foundation to rebuilding our economy.”

Now I don’t expect business groups or right-wing polemicists to suddenly put faith in the Democratic leadership. They will not be so willing to believe. But will they be willing to deal?

Kirkpatrick also hearkened back to sessions of old with legislators “sitting down across the street at a bar (ah, the legendary “Jack's Bar”)….the governor coming over and working on an issue until all hours of the morning…parties aside, differences aside, solving problems together.”

There is some truth to that, although the past always looks better when the present seems so bleak. But the polarization and micropolitics of DC have come to Carson City, with embedded partisan operatives looking for every opportunity to eviscerate the opposition. It might be hard for the new speaker to keep her frothing troops in line.

Kirkpatrick revealed her Polyanna side when she talked about ridding the process of “pettiness, bickering and personality vs. policy.” But she was right to ask her colleagues to “not shy away from difficult conversations…..let’s consider all good ideas, no matter from where they come….Let’s make this a session that future legislators look back on as an example of how Nevada’s work together to get the job done.”

I would dismiss this out of hand because of my natural cynicism, intensified by too many regular and special sessions. But while I recall 1989, 1997 and 2003, I also remember 1995, when the Assembly was tied 21-21 and a nightmare loomed. It would be the worst partisan session ever, some predicted (I did, too). Instead, with co-speakers and co-committee chairmen, comity reigned, productivity ensued.

Listening to Kirkpatrick Monday, I tried to believe it could happen again.