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September 2, 2014

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Nevada Legislature allergic to ethics

With the 2013 legislative session safely out of the way — the session, special session and time frame for the governor to sign bills have all passed — Nevadans can now safely rest assured. Nevada politics have been cleaned up!

Politicians will not receive improper and/or excessive gifts, or participate in the infamous revolving door from elected office to influence-peddling lobbyist; and they must report contributions outside of the narrow legislative time frame. Moreover, elected politicians will actually come from the district from which they live, and sidestepping rules to limit growing political war chests cannot be purposely evaded using a $100 donation.

Sorry, I misspoke. I meant to say unethical political activities in Nevada will continue uninterrupted and unabated.

The five major ethics bills designed to limit politicians and provide transparency and accountability to the citizens of Nevada (Senate Bill 49, Assembly Bill 77, AB438, AB407 and SB194) all failed. The public lost, and the politicians and paid lobbyists won in the waning days of the legislative session — again.

So all of those unethical practices and a host of others not addressed will continue unabated until the public either bypasses the Legislature through the initiative process or there is new leadership in the legislative branch in 2015.

Who’s to blame? It’s difficult to say. The Legislature has never been fond of regulating itself, and there are many “no-fault” ways to quietly kill a bill in the Legislature.

On the face of it, the major ethics bills had general support both in the Assembly and Senate. Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, and Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, demonstrated the basic bipartisanship approach for many, with both proposing cooling-off periods for elected and public officials. And both bills passed the Assembly handily (AB438 with 37-2, AB77 with 40-0). But Democratic Sen. Pat Spearman, chairwoman of the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, decided, well, nothing. The bills never received a vote in her committee. It was in that committee that Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, proclaimed that he should be able to use his “skills” gained in public office for personal benefit, saying “Nevada is not Washington D.C.” and “doesn’t have ethical problems.”

Even taking his word for it, isn’t there a problem with an elected official stepping out of office and quickly turning around to lobby colleagues? Doesn’t that give them an unfair advantage with inside knowledge?

If nothing else, there’s a perception problem. And Carson City is full of former lawmakers turned lobbyists, as the Sun’s Anjeanette Damon noted in her March 13 piece “Lawmakers spin through revolving door to lobbying.”

Ironically, Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, raised eyebrows this session when he championed legislation that would help his former employer. The bills eventually failed.

SB49 was an omnibus bill tightening rules on gifts, contributions and reporting. Although heavily edited, it passed both houses, 36-5 and 13-8, but it died in a conference committee after lawmakers couldn’t find a compromise. SB194, which covered unspent campaign funds, never got a hearing.

AB407, co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, was directly about Assemblyman Andrew Martin, D-Las Vegas, who a judge said did not live in his district. But passing this bill would also point to how Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, had also acknowledged abandoning his prior Assembly district for some eight months in the previous legislative term, even voting in the primary of another assemblyperson’s district. This bill, although somewhat problematic, passed the Assembly 39-0 and was approved by a Senate committee. But when it went to the Senate floor, Denis used an obscure move on the floor, where the bill died. Or, more appropriately, he killed it.

Ironically, as I publicly testified as an unpaid, veteran lobbyist about the state of ethics in Nevada, echoing the 2012 State Integrity Report, for which I was a peer reviewer. That report gave Nevada a “D-,” and I proposed 15 ethical areas to focus on for improvement. At one point, I mentioned that there were actually 42 areas originally identified but 15 areas was more manageable. Nonetheless, I was asked to provide those additional areas. But the Legislature couldn’t handle 42 areas, much less 15, much less five. In the end, it couldn’t handle any.

Martin Dean Dupalo is president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics.

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  1. We get the government we elect; moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, legal or illegal, as it may be. Change starts FIRST with the electorate not the elected they voted for.

    Carmine D