Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2014

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Memo from Carson City:

Do lobbyist spending reports measure influence?

It’s no secret that full-time lobbyists wield influence at the Nevada Legislature.

But far from the cliches of crooked politicians making quid pro quo deals with cigar-smoking lobbyists, the official tally for influence amounts to $93,000 worth of expenditures during the first two months of the legislative session, with many lobbyists reporting $0 in wining and dining expenses.

As the Sun reported today, local governments spend more than $3 million of taxpayer money lobbying the Legislature, but it’s difficult to measure how much influence that money buys.

If money is a proxy for power, then the reigning monarch of influence is Nevada Taxpayers Association President Carole Vilardo, the “hat lady” and former retailer whose extensive knowledge of the state’s tax structure makes her an asset at the Legislature.

She dropped more than $12,000 on the association’s annual dinner, which brought together lobbyists, legislators and staff members over a meal and a lecture about the dangers of unfunded liabilities of state pension systems. Not exactly that secret, smoke-filled room influence.

The association really isn’t a lobbying firm, Vilardo said.

“We’re an advocacy organization,” she said. “The association monitors state and local government expenditures. … They give us the courtesy of listening.”

The vast majority of lobbying expenses are for group events such as the association’s dinner. Sometimes they’re evening receptions or wine socials.

But the lobbyist-to-legislator spending on entertainment just isn’t happening, at least officially.

In fact, only $1,221.57 in lobbyists’ spending this year is listed as “entertainment.”

So how’s the public supposed to know who’s influencing whom?

To whom should Joe Taxpayer point when he’s looking for somebody to blame for having undue influence?

The lobbying reports may not be the best place to look. As former Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz noted this year, lobbyists can easily dodge the reporting requirement.

“A lawmaker and lobbyist go out, get a bottle or two or three of wine, a glass of brandy, a nice steak dinner,” he wrote. “When the check comes, the lobbyist asks the lawmaker to chip in $10 or $20.”

Secretary of State Ross Miller is trying this year to require more stringent reporting of gifts to elected officials, and Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, wants lobbyists to report expenses when the Legislature is out of session.

But even with these efforts, much of the influence in the Legislature may escape official reporting. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the value of relationships or gauge whether a powerful legislator trusts one lobbyist more than another.

Nevada’s reporting requirements don’t reveal who really has influence at the state house. Although some power lobbyists made the list of top spenders this year, influential lobbyists such as Pete Ernaut, John Griffin, Jim Wadhams, Billy Vassiliadis and Greg Ferraro have spent nothing, according to lobbyist reports.

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