Ensign casts a wide fishnet

Sen. John Ensign might have been telling a fish story when he ridiculed stimulus funds for a supposed $150 million fish hatchery.

The funds are among several examples the Nevada Republican and his staff have trotted out to argue that the $787 billion stimulus bill was packed with inappropriate spending. But by Ensign's own definition, there's nothing wrong with the government spending money on fish hatcheries.

Ensign has supported earmarks for Nevada fish hatcheries at least twice. In 2005, he worked with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and then-Rep. Jim Gibbons to get $95 million for Walker Lake, a package of funds that included $5 million for "fishery improvements," according to news reports.

Just last year, Ensign was a supporter of $175 million included in the farm bill to spiff up desert lakes and the Walker River Basin. The funding was singled out by the Department of Agriculture as an example of unnecessary pork. One million of those dollars would have gone for a Walker Lake fish hatchery, according to The Associated Press.

In the case of the "fish hatchery" money in the stimulus bill, it wasn't an earmark, defined as spending specifically directed to a particular project. It was agency funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service that could be used for wildlife refuges, habitat restoration and maintenance projects, according to the nonpartisan political Web site FactCheck.org.

The site termed the fish hatchery criticism, which has been cited by several Republican opponents of the bill, one of several "stimulus myths" not borne out by evidence. It quoted a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman saying the agency would direct the funds toward projects that create jobs in the short term.

Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said Ensign doesn't have a problem with government spending on fish hatcheries or with earmarks per se. But he doesn't think such funding belonged in a bill that was supposed to be about shoring up the economy in a time of acute need.

"In an emergency stimulus package that is supposed to help struggling families, create jobs and move the economy forward, it's not the best priority," Mazzola said. If there are worthy fisheries projects or needs, they ought to be debated through the regular appropriations process, not snuck into a bill that Ensign believes was rushed too quickly through to passage, he said.

"Senator Ensign isn't against earmarks," he said. "There are a lot of examples of worthwhile types of projects people wanted to add, but does it belong in the stimulus? When you're talking about helping families, you're not talking about fish hatcheries."


There's a battle brewing within the Nevada Republican Party over whether to take a hard line against tax increases. Many GOP elected officials take a pragmatic view, while some activists would prefer an absolute "no new taxes" stance.

Anti-tax activist Chuck Muth isn't even a Republican -- he left the party a couple of years ago because it wasn't conservative enough for him -- but he has continued to push the GOP in a fiscally pure direction.

Last week, he penned a screed against Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, and the other six Assembly Republicans who voted to raise the hotel room tax, something voters approved in November and Gov. Jim Gibbons, another supposedly anti-tax Republican, proposed in his budget.

"The good Lord did not create Republicans to vote for higher taxes," Muth writes. "That's why he created Democrats. And Republican primaries!"

Muth isn't the only one who feels this way. Within an hour of his essay being e-mailed, a news release landed with the headline, "Tax-Hiking Republican Earns Early Primary Challenge."

A Las Vegas film producer named Ronda Kennedy declares in the release that she plans to run against Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, in 2010, citing his support for the room tax increase and his co-sponsorship of a bill to name an official state insect among her reasons.

Muth, who's also a strategist and consultant, said he didn't put her up to running, but he is providing her with free services and, from the looks of it, free rhetoric. The state insect bill has long been the target of Muth's ridicule.

A Republican primary could create an opening for Democrats in Stewart's Assembly District 22. It's one of many districts that flipped in voter registration in the Democratic surge last year. There are now 245 more Democrats than Republicans in the district, which sprawls to encompass outlying areas in southern Clark County.


Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is only the 25th most liberal, according to the Washington magazine National Journal's recently released annual congressional ratings.

Ensign tied with three other senators for No. 1 on the conservative scale in 2008; he was the 94th most liberal member of the body.

Reid, whose critics back home like to portray him as an out-of-control liberal partisan, is actual closer to the middle of his party's pack based on his votes last year, and 73rd most conservative, according to the Journal.

As for the state's three members of the House of Representatives, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., was 181st most liberal and 247th most conservative. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., ranked 126th on the conservative scale and 302nd on the liberal side. Former Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., ousted in November, was 191st most conservative and 237th most liberal.

There are 100 senators and 435 representatives. Middle of the pack in the House would be 218.

The scores are based on members' votes on a number of bills related to economic, social and foreign policy over the course of the year.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.