You can lead lawmakers to ethics reforms, but you can’t make them vote

Wow. Did you hear about the tough new ethics laws passed by the Legislature?

Of course not, it never happened.

With just three days left in the 2007 session, the chance of passing strong ethics legislation is as dim as (fill in the name of your least favorite legislator).

For heaven’s sake, legislators haven’t been able to pass a bill that defines “gift.”

The current version in Assembly Bill 335 started off strong and was gutted to nothing in the Senate. Now there’s a honking big loophole in the bill, courtesy of the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee.

The senators amended the bill to exempt from the definition of gift “anything of value received from a person with whom the recipient has an existing business or professional relationship.”

Well that opens a lot of doors. The way that bill is now written, it’s better off dead.

Assembly Joint Resolution 1 to amend the Nevada Constitution so that politicians with three ethical violations would be stripped of their office, passed in the Assembly, but never got a hearing in the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections.

The Nevada Center for Public Ethics offered 11 proposals to improve ethics laws. The center’s idea of requiring monthly reporting of gifts from lobbyists all year long, not just during the 120-day session, didn’t fly. Wouldn’t want to have to report the free meals, shows and golf games legislators take when they’re not in session.

One Senate bill passed saying if you take an honorarium, which politicians are not supposed to do, it’s no longer a crime, it’s a civil penalty. By golly you might have to forfeit that honorarium if someone found out. That’s not really toughening anything. However, there is a provision authorizing an additional penalty if someone breaks an ethics law and gains some financial benefit.

The Kathy Augustine memorial bill prohibiting the use of government property and employees for campaigns died after lawmakers feared it might stop them from calling constituents from the Legislative Building. Yeah, like that would happen.

We can thank Gov. Jim Gibbons for Senate Bill 425 establishing laws for legal defense funds since that had been lacking. But that was to clarify for future politicians what they can legally do to raise money when they need a good criminal defense attorney.

I remember vividly when Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, gave her first speech as speaker on Feb. 5, the first day of the session. She said, “This past year was a year of scandal, shame, indictments and dishonor.”

She didn’t name names, but we knew their names: county commissioners convicted and jailed, judges embarrassed by the Los Angeles Times, a gubernatorial candidate accused of sexual assault by a cocktail waitress.

Just another year in Nevada politics. Ten days later we learned our governor was under investigation by the FBI for possibly taking unreported gifts while in Congress.

Buckley called for ethics reforms, for more detailed campaign finance reporting and for a three-ethical-strikes-and-you’re-out resolution. Most of the proposals are in jeopardy.

Craig Walton of the Nevada Center for Ethics said he saw bipartisan cooperation on the Assembly side to write good ethics laws, but in the Senate work sessions, a lot of bills lost their substance.

“A lot of good stuff was taken away by Senator (Bill) Raggio,” Walton said. The Senate majority leader would say disclosure and ethics requirements were “meddlesome and burdensome,” Walton said. Raggio said he was concerned that people might not run for office under laws requiring extensive disclosure.

Walton, who has been testifying on behalf of ethics bills since the 2005 session, said bills started off strong, but lawmakers would “dice them to death.”

One example he cited: Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, had a good bill defining gifts, Assembly Bill 312. But Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, was upset because the language to define a gift might prohibit him from playing golf for free. “Senator Hardy screwed it to hell,” Walton said.

Joe Hardy’s bill died, and the other gift-defining bill is worse than no bill. It welcomes corruption.

How absurd if the Legislature ends Monday without being able to define “gift.” Isn’t a gift like pornography? Don’t you know it when you see it?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.

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