When the Nevada Legislature convenes next month, hundreds of paid, professional lobbyists will converge on Carson City to make sure their clients don’t get shortchanged on political horse trades.
None of them will be looking out for Clark County, perhaps the fattest target in Nevada when it comes to poaching local government money to balance the state’s general fund.
That’s because the Clark County Commission plans to use county workers instead of professional lobbyists to represent them in Carson City, which could save as much as $12,000.
Supporters say the strategy is a smart move because in tough times local taxpayers don’t want to see their money going to highly paid, professional lobbyists.
Critics say the strategy is akin to taking a knife to a gunfight because county workers, no matter how smart and talented, have neither the expertise nor the connections to compete with politically savvy special interests looking to protect their clients at the expense of someone else.
"They are certainly going to have one of the largest targets painted on their back," said former Clark County Commissioner Chip Maxfield, a civil engineer by trade who is now general manager of the Clean Water Coalition. "Politically, I think it hurts them."
Projected revenue for the state general fund is expected to be about $5.3 billion for 2011-13, more than $1 billion less than what the state spent in the 2009-11 biennium and about $3 billion less than agencies would like to spend to maintain existing levels of service over the next two years.
Gov. Brian Sandoval insists he won’t raise taxes to balance the budget, but administration officials will consider shifting local money to the state and state services to local governments.
In Nevada, which is known as a Dillon’s Rule state, the state government reigns supreme over local governments and has wide latitude to siphon away county money.
With nearly 2 million residents, a general operating fund of more than $1 billion and thousands of employees, Clark County is by far the largest county in the state in terms of population and government revenue.
Others who have faced the Legislature without professional lobbyists in their corner have regretted the decision.
"Those who have no representation are going to probably take a beating, as was the case last year with us," said Mark Reece, past president of the Nevada Landmen’s Association, a group that represents mineral explorers.
During the 2010 special session of the Legislature, legislators seeking to close a budget gap of about $805 million included a measure intended to raise $25.7 million through new fees on mining claims.
The Nevada Mining Association was involved in negotiations on the one-time charge and sought tiered fees to protect small mining operations.
But Reece said small exploration companies aren’t represented well in the mining association and were hurt by the new fee, a message he and a colleague didn’t have the access to send during the special session.
"(Legislators) weren’t about to be listening to two small unknown guys, we had no legislative experience, no legislative horsepower and obviously no legislative influence," he said.
Clark County officials, however, say they will have plenty of clout and expertise in Carson City and they aren’t worried about being at a political disadvantage to folks with professional lobbying teams.
Sabra Smith-Newby, director of administrative services for the county, says there will be a team of at least five county employees in Carson City working with the Legislature.
The group includes three people who will work full time: Coroner Mike Murphy, Constance Brooks, a senior management analyst and Alex Ortiz, a departmental administrative services administrator.
Also, Deputy District Attorney Sam Bateman and attorney Tierra Jones, who works in the public defender’s office, will act as lobbyists for their respective offices.
All of the county workers except for Jones and Murphy have lobbied full time previously, said Smith-Newby, who has also lobbied during three previous sessions and plans to travel to Carson City during the upcoming session. Murphy has lobbied on specific issues; it will be Jones’ first legislative session.
The highly regarded and well-connected lobbying firm R&R Partners will represent University Medical Center, the county hospital, Smith-Newby said. McCarran International Airport will work with Smith-Newby on airport issues and, when needed, send Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker to Carson City.
"They are talented and intelligent folks and I think they will carry us through," Smith-Newby said of the group.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said the decision to eschew hiring outside lobbyists is borne of necessity.
The county has already made drastic budget cuts and sought wage and benefit concessions from employees.
Giunchigliani said it wouldn’t be right to seek cuts to wages, employee benefits and taxpayer services while paying professional lobbyists to go to Carson City.
During the 2009 session it cost the county approximately $12,000 per month to pay a lobbying firm, and county workers still had to travel to Carson City to share their own expertise.
Giunchigliani said the county workers can handle the job on their own.
"The wheel-and-deal is absolutely imperative, but if you’ve been part of the process from the beginning, you are not going to receive any shocks," she said.
Also, there’s no guarantee that professional lobbyists will yield better results than keeping the work in-house.
During the 2007 legislative session two key Clark County lobbyists had to remove themselves from work on bills because of conflicts of interests with gaming industry clients who sought tax breaks that were greater than the county would have wanted.
County Commissioner Steve Sisolak agreed that county taxpayers would be better served by county employees doing the work, as opposed to hired outsiders.
"I don’t think it would be prudent to say to the taxpayer we are going to spend taxpayer money to pay someone to go talk to somebody who they elect," Sisolak said.
The city of Henderson pays two outside lobbyists, including former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, $9,500 per month each for lobbying in Carson City.
North Las Vegas pays lobbyist Dan Musgrove $9,000 a month during legislative sessions and $7,000 per month when the Legislature is out of session.
The city of Las Vegas pays the firm Ostrovsky & Associates $115,200 annually for lobbying.
Washoe County, the second-most populous county in Nevada, uses a combination of county workers and outside lobbyists from the Lewis and Roca law firm.
John Slaughter, director of management services for Washoe County, said the outside help means county workers can provide expertise about the inner workings of the county and the professional lobbyists can concentrate on working with the Legislature.
Unlike county workers, lobbyists dedicate time to maintaining relationships with legislators between biennial legislative sessions.
"That is a big part of it," Slaughter said. "I don’t think anyone will deny that lobbying is all about relationships, being able to have a familiar face with the legislator."
Maxfield said lobbyists also bring to the table knowledge of the political challenges facing legislators while county workers, no matter how smart and talented, are focused on policy.
"A lobbyist deals with politics more than anyone else," he said.
"It is the way of life and that is how people deal with legislation; it is all political."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.