Bad for politicians, but good for Nevada
Increased lobbying and campaign-finance transparency are badly needed
- Monday, May 21, 2012
Killed in a backroom in Carson City.
Killed because powerful lawmakers don't like the public knowing how cozy they get with lobbyists as soon as they walk out of the legislative building.
That was the fate of proposed legislation that would have shined new light on lobbying practices in Nevada.
During the 2011 legislative session, then-state senator Sheila Leslie proposed Senate Bill 206, which would have required lobbyists to report anything spent on lawmakers during the year, before or after legislative sessions.
Under current law, lobbyists are only required to report the amounts they spend wining and dining lawmakers during four out of 24 months - the period when the biennial legislature is in session.
That's not to say, of course, that lobbyists don't spend extravagantly wooing lawmakers into sponsoring lobbyists' bills outside of this four-month period. In fact, they do - and do so with increasing regularity and with ever-bigger checkbooks.
A story in the headlines weeks before Leslie presented her bill to legislative committees illustrates the rich spending that's aimed at wooing lawmakers between sessions.
Online poker giant PokerStars, reporters learned early last year, financed personal junkets for Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford to visit the Bahamas and for Assembly Judiciary and Commerce Committee chairs William Horne and Kelvin Atkinson to spend two-and-a-half days in London.
The lobbyist hired by PokerStars to arrange the outings, former Assembly speaker Richard Perkins, never reported the expenditures. Nor did the lawmakers involved disclose the events.
It was not until Horne - in the Assembly Judiciary Committee he chairs - introduced a bill that would legalize online gaming in Nevada, that reporters began inquiring. The bill appeared tailor-made to fit PokerStars' specifications, and the truth about the junkets emerged.
The PokerStars bill was eventually watered down by lobbyists from the Nevada Resort Association - about the time that PokerStars found itself under federal indictment. But the surreptitious influence the company was wielding in the Nevada Legislature after wining and dining its most powerful members on foreign soil - without public knowledge - shows clearly why Nevadans need full transparency in legislative lobbying.
So that's why Leslie's bill was important. Sadly, it's also why Leslie's bill found a cold reception. Before the public, of course, the state's politicians all postured in support of the bill. SB 206 emerged from the Senate with a unanimous 21-0 vote of support. Even Horsford - one of three named recipients of PokerStars' largesse - voted in favor of the bill.
Despite this public show of support, however, few lawmakers apparently really wanted the bill to become law. It would reduce, after all, what apparently is an important "perk" to some in the Nevada Legislature: enjoying luxuries for which lobbyists foot the bill.
After passing the Senate, SB 206 was sent to the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, chaired by Tick Segerblom. There, Leslie presented her bill to committee members - including William Horne.
As legislative minutes from that meeting now show, here's how Leslie introduced her bill to the Assembly committee:
What I have heard from my constituents is that there is a public perception that there is a lot of lobbying activity, and that lobbyists are paying for things for legislators such as golf games, fancy dinners, or whatever it might be. As a result, there is a lot of consternation that that activity is not reported. The public just wants to know. This is purely about sunshine. If it is so important that we have them report during session, I believe it is equally important that they also report out of session, when a lot of planning and legislative activity - interim committees or planning for the next session - happens. It is good government to have this kind of reporting. Most states do have year-round reporting, but of course most states meet more often than we do.
The extent to which lawmakers had conspired to kill SB 206 in committee remains unclear. But during that hearing, it became clear that Horne would take the lead in killing the bill.
He openly complained that, if lobbyists were required to report their expenses, then he and other lawmaker-beneficiaries of this spending would look bad to the public. In his words, the lobbyists "do not get beaten about the head and shoulders as we do" when they spend money to woo lawmakers. "This seems overblown in my opinion," concluded Horne.
Shortly after Horne's comments, committee Chair Tick Segerblom closed the hearing without a vote and no further action was ever taken on the bill. He did, however, allow public testimony and comment on the bill.
Every lobbyist who came forward to testify either supported the bill or took a neutral position. None wanted to oppose what the bill stood for - at least not publicly.
Given the very recent history of apparent corruption in the legislative process, it's imperative that lobbyist and campaign-finance reform be enacted to ensure greater transparency. SB 206 would have been a solid first step in that direction.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey is expected to announce a package of reforms along these lines today - including the lobbyist-reporting requirements that SB 206 would have created.
Here's hoping Hickey has better luck in convincing his colleagues to go along with such reforms in 2013.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.