Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2014

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Wheeling, dealing and a failed coup

The day was one of deals dashed, and dealing with Nevada's embarrassing Los Angeles Times problem.

Also, cowboy hats.

And, a failed coup.

No, the failed coup didn't attempt to take down Gov. Jim Gibbons, although that's in the air, too, following his veto-threat of the two-year, $7 billion budget if he doesn't get four small items that amount to less than 1 percent of the total outlays.

Rather, it was Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas. Ty Cobb, R-Reno, a pugnacious conservative, has tired of Mabey's leadership, which is moderate and often conciliatory.

So he approached the caucus whip, Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, with the notion of taking over. She declined.

Mabey said he was unaware of the intrigue.

Political junkies may recall lieutenants of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempting a coup and failing. That cost Rep. Bill Paxon his job, as he quit in disgrace. Cobb is probably OK.

Mabey did make a concession to his caucus, agreeing to bring Gibbons' transportation plan to the Assembly floor. The plan would divert room-tax money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which runs the Las Vegas Convention Center and buys the famous ads about us, and direct it to road projects.

The plan has no hope for passage.

Gibbons' plan would create holes in the already embattled education and health care budgets, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said, because it would divert money from the live-entertainment tax that currently goes to the general fund to pay for schools and such.

The Las Vegas Democrat also said the plan was tardy. "It is so incredibly late," Buckley said. "If we had this bill two months ago, it would have been great."

Buckley said the legislation was unlikely to gain traction, if only for procedural hurdles that would further bog down legislators so late in the session.

Nevertheless, she and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, told a group of industry lobbyists to get together and craft a compromise roads package by cobbling together the ideas that have been floating around this session, the lobbyists said.

It was a telling episode in the key role played by industry lobbyists in crafting policy.

There was much hope Wednesday, but the deal fell apart Thursday over a proposed taxi surcharge, according to a lobbyist familiar with the negotiations.

Despite the setback, the talks continued, as did legislative negotiations about the education budget, the first and most important item in the overall budget.

Now, as for that Los Angeles Times problem: Last year, the out-of-towners ran a series of stories about Nevada judges taking campaign money from people with cases before them. The problem isn't unique to Nevada, but the series was quite damning, and Raggio has sought to modify our practice of electing judges as a way to address the problem.

In a stark reversal of opinion, the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed a resolution Thursday trading a system of contested elections for one in which District Court judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed.

The measure passed by a 9-4 vote after the committee killed it last week by a nearly identical margin.

Why the change of heart?

Raggio and Buckley are pushing the measure. The two revived the resolution with a special waiver last week allowing the Assembly Judiciary Committee to reconsider it.

The measure would mandate that the state's Judicial Selection Commission choose three candidates for vacant judgeships. The governor would select one of those people to serve a two-year term. The judge would then face voters unopposed in a "retention election."

The original legislation would require judges to win re election by a 60 percent margin to serve an additional six-year term. The Assembly Judiciary Committee passed an amended version Thursday that cut that percentage to 55 percent.

Reformers support the measure because they say it would go a long way toward removing cash - and the resulting conflicts of interest, perceived and real - from the judicial-selection process.

Critics, including Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, reiterated their concerns at Thursday's hearing. Anderson said that the bill would take the public out of the process, and that judges would still have to raise money for retention elections.

"I've always thought the public can be trusted," he said.

With the committee passage, the bill appears on track to pass both houses this session. In April the Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill, with Raggio as its champion. Buckley said she expects it to pass the Assembly in a floor vote today.

"Too often the public believes justice is for sale," Buckley said.

If the bill makes it out of the Legislature, it would be the first of many steps needed to turn it into law. Because changing the system would require amending the Nevada Constitution, the Legislature would need to pass the same bill again in 2009. Then, voters would need to approve the change in a referendum.

Finally, what seemed like utter frivolity had purpose, as a dozen lawmakers were inducted into the Assembly "Cowboy Hall of Fame."

Lawmakers donned cowboy hats as Assemblyman John Carpenter, the master of ceremonies, read the hall's honor roll and extolled the virtues of the cowboy - with a country soundtrack playing in the background. Loyalty, generosity, fairness.

Everybody got that?

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