The lid seems to be coming off Nevada’s ongoing public-employees-in-the-Legislature scandal.
Latest news reports on Assemblymen Wendell Williams and Morse Arberry tell us more than that these are legislators with itchy palms.
The real import of the latest revelations is to prove the soundness of the distilled wisdom of the English common-law tradition over the last five centuries.
It is that wisdom—boiled down into separation-of-powers provisions in countless national and state constitutions, including Nevada’s—that historically sought to keep individuals occupying positions in one branch of the government from also exercising power in another branch of the state.
Unfortunately, that wisdom was summarily dismissed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by politically ambitious Nevada Attorney Generals.
With an eager eye on the highly effective political machines of the state’s growing public sector unions, AGs of both major parties bent in the winds and gave employees of local government, school districts and the university system the green light to “serve” in the Nevada Legislature. Rationalized away were the plain words of the state constitution and the systemic conflict of interest that government lawmaking by government employees would entail.
But what we are seeing today is clear evidence that systemic corruption of state and local government did, indeed, ensue.
For those who’ve missed recent news stories, it turns out that during the 2001 Legislature both Williams and Arberry billed Las Vegas taxpayers for hundreds of hours of full pay—at exactly the same time that they were also pulling down the full salary and per diem of state lawmakers.
Using a mix of claimed work hours, sick leave and vacation time, the two assemblymen—who usually room together during legislative sessions—pushed their city paychecks back up to full strength—though nearly always spending full days in Carson City.
While City of Las Vegas spokespeople, both past and present, publicly continue to express stupefaction at the pay manipulations of these city-employed lawmakers, reports from inside the city bureaucracy suggest that the Williams-Arberry salary gimmicks during the 2001 Legislature were actually an open secret. Yet for years, until the Las Vegas Review-Journal began aggressively pursuing the story, the city seemed quite content to close its eyes.
The truth is, Nevada’s tax-financed government and quasi-government agencies employ public-employee lawmakers because overriding the state constitution’s separation-of-powers provision is thought to be in the agencies’ interest.
As both Las Vegas dailies reported last week, Assemblyman Williams himself more than once publicly noted that he lobbied fellow lawmakers during the 2003 Legislature to support a particular program he administers for the City of Las Vegas.
Deputy City Manager Betsy Fretwell touched ever so delicately on this matter when she said it was not appropriate for Williams to have thus “blurred” the line between his role as a city employee and his role as a state lawmaker by lobbying other legislators in behalf of the city.
But the conflict-of-interest “blur” here is massive and goes well beyond that of the assemblyman alone. A huge and permanent element in the blur—one that City of Las Vegas spokespeople always carefully ignore—is the city government itself.
To flesh out this point, recall that a few years ago the City of Vegas was threatening to fire Williams because, as an assemblyman, he was failing to vote for certain bills that city officials wanted.
In other words, when not on the media hot seat, city officials very much like the blurring of city employee and lawmaker roles!
And this is the heart of the matter. The more the Williams case expands, the more it reveals that public-employee lawmakers and most of the public-sector agencies that employ them are involved in a joint conspiracy against the taxpayers of the Silver State.
The public agencies generally like their pact with the pols because it provides more power in the state legislature than they otherwise would merit. Truly independent lawmakers might represent their constituents and put agency money requests under a microscope. Much easier to get your way from lawmakers who are “on the pad” with you—for plush, virtually no-show jobs you gave to them without those messy competitive exams.
At the same time, legislators of the grifter sort like the arrangement, too. Not only do they, also, get more power than they’re entitled to, plus fat jobs, but also—as Williams has amply demonstrated—complicit agencies may wink for years at your chronic misbehavior.
The losers are the rest of us—from whom the power is being taken.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute