Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2014

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THE LEGISLATURE:

Suddenly, lobbyists on outside, unable to see in

They complain of less influence, access with Democrats in control

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Sam Morris

Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, and Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, each indicated a lack of sympathy toward lobbyists’ waning influence in the Legislature.

State legislators, in a major shift in the way business is done in Carson City, are cutting some formerly influential lobbyists out of their deliberations over the state budget, among other issues, lobbyists say.

Legislative leaders say the move is healthy and long overdue. In their view, lobbyists for big business interests have had too much influence over policy and legislation, often at the expense of ordinary citizens.

“I think years ago the lobbyists helped write the bills, they had a much more active role in the process,” said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. “The last few years, there’s been a shift where legislators take more control. Lobbyists resent that.”

Indeed, in the words of one veteran lobbyist who didn’t want to be named for fear of angering legislators: “There hasn’t been a lot of discussion. It’s even more restrictive than the old back rooms with the plaid suits and the cigars.”

The Nevada Legislature has a long history of symbiosis with business. Lobbyists representing big monied interests, including gaming and tourism, mining, real estate development, banking and insurance, have historically played central roles in crafting policy. Labor lobbyists also have acted as powerful intermediaries between unions and the Legislature.

Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political scientist, said any lessening of influence would represent a significant shift in the governing process: “If true, this is a new era.”

The change this session appears to be the result of several phenomena: Strong-willed leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature; a Nevada Democratic Party that is far more ideologically liberal and less sympathetic to big business than in the past; and a budget crisis that has legislative leaders keeping their cards close — going so far as to deny they were even dealt cards at all.

Asked about the shift, Dan Hart, who represents the teachers union and Clark County, as well as a renewable energy and financial clients, said facetiously, “What a terrible development!” He added, “There isn’t the unfettered access and influence of the past.”

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford once worked as a young lobbyist at R&R Partners, one of the state’s most powerful lobbying firms. But asked about the shift of influence away from lobbyists, Horsford said: “Absolutely, the people of this state should have more of a say about what happens in Carson City than any one group of lobbyists. (Lobbyists) are an important part of the process but they’re not the only part of the process.”

Other lawmakers and the capital lobbying corps view Horsford and Buckley as tough, independent leaders who will listen to arguments but go their own way.

Traditionally, Nevada Democrats came from the Dixiecrat mold, centrists willing to work closely with big business. The new generation of Nevada Democrats — such as Horsford and Buckley — are more like their brethren on the liberal coasts and are less susceptible to the arguments of big business interests, Herzik noted.

Perhaps most significant, though, the budget crisis has created an acute need for secrecy, as legislators don’t want details of any tax plan to leak out, lobbyists hypothesize.

“There’s a concern that if you come out with a plan too early, then you allow the opposition to coalesce,” Hart said.

Legislators and lobbyists point to 2003, when then-Gov. Kenny Guinn announced a tax plan early, which gave the opposition plenty of time to get organized. In the end, he didn’t get the broad-based tax he wanted.

So, many suspect a tax increase is being developed behind closed doors, to be sprung on legislators, lobbyists, the news media and the public at the last minute of the 120-day session.

They say this is an improper way to create public policy.

“The question that has to be asked is, ‘Is policy crafted in the dark and then sprung on the 118th day before the public has the chance to comment on it?’ ” one asked.

Horsford and Buckley vehemently deny that’s taking place.

“There is the suspicion that there’s a plan being concocted and that’s simply not the case. I’m not a party to it, no other legislators are a party to it,” Horsford said.

“The suspicions are unfounded.”

Buckley and Horsford say they are engaged in a deliberative process that will protect essential services and impose as little pain as possible. They say they don’t know how much money they need or how much they have, so they can’t possibly be crafting a tax plan.

But most people in Carson City believe high-level talks among a small group are taking place.

Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera seemed to acknowledge that leadership had made a tactical decision to prevent a fiasco like 2003.

“You put out a plan too early, and it gets knocked down,” he said.

Asked about lobbyists’ waning influence, Oceguera said, “That’s a bad thing?”

He said there was so much focus on the budget crisis that the Legislature is avoiding major policy questions that would involve participation of lobbyists, who often broker deals between interest groups and government.

Not all lobbyists agree they’ve been iced.

Pete Ernaut, once an assemblyman and chief of staff to then-Gov. Kenny Guinn and now a principal with R&R Partners, said this session feels no different from any other.

He said it is up to legislators, not lobbyists, to craft a budget and propose the taxes needed to support it. He said all the tax possibilities have been gamed out, most recently in 2003, so there’s not much need for consultation. Everyone knows what’s out there, he said.

Still, other lobbyists are concerned, and not just about the budget. They say they are getting little guidance from legislators on other issues, including workers compensation reform: “Our clients are saying, ‘What’s going on?’ We’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ ”

As to these concerns, Buckley said, “I’m not too sympathetic.”

As Herzik noted, this carries some risk. Lobbyists can harness resources inside and outside the legislative building to oppose any eventual budget deal, or Buckley’s career once she leaves the Assembly after this session. “She’s playing hardball,” Herzik said.

He added: “But there’s always payback.”

Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.

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