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No vote on transparency bill lets lobbyists keep paying tab

CARSON CITY — Tonight if you see your state senator and a lobbyist dining on Châteaubriand and drinking red wine in a fine Las Vegas restaurant, it’s a safe bet they aren’t going Dutch treat. The lobbyist will pick up the tab and no one ever will know he did.

With much fanfare in April, legislative leaders called for approval of a plan to make government more transparent to Nevadans. A few weeks later, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to require lobbyists to report their year-round expenditures on legislators.

But the Legislature adjourned without taking final action on that transparency bill. An Assembly committee let it die without a vote. Not taking a vote on a bill is an old technique to keep the voters in the dark when their legislators oppose bills popular with the public.

The nondecision kept in effect the current open season for lobbying. Lobbyists can hunt legislators without any outside interference through the 2012 election cycle — when all Assembly members and half the state senators will be elected — and until the beginning of the next session on Feb. 4, 2013. State law requires them only to report what they spend on legislators during the four months the Legislature is in session every other year.

"Once the session ends, there are no rules," said state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. "Some legislators like it that way, legislators of both parties. I am not impugning anyone’s integrity. All I am saying is these expenditures should be disclosed."

Leslie vows to introduce her Senate Bill 206 again in 2013, but doubts it will pass then, or anytime in the near future. Too many legislators of both parties like the status quo where they can be treated like royalty in between sessions by lobbyists without anyone knowing, she said.

"Until there is more of a public uproar, this bill is not going to pass," Leslie said. "Public distrust of government is at all-time high. This would help win back the public trust."

MINING CONVENTION CITED

Leslie did not specify any bills that passed or failed because lobbyists bought legislators expensive dinners. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, however, contends that happens all the time. In particular, its own lobbyist says the wealth and clout of the mining industry has protected miners from moves to increase mining taxes.

"The mining industry has a ton of money," said Jan Gilbert, the lobbyist for the alliance, which represents unions and other liberal-leaning organizations. "They have a weekend junket for legislators after sessions at Lake Tahoe. Why are they spending all that money if not to influence how legislators vote?

This year’s Nevada Mining Association convention at Harvey’s included a round of golf at the Edgewood Golf Course, rated by Golf Digest as one of the best courses in the United States. Fees are $200 a round.

Those who do not golf were treated to a tour of the $55 million Thunderbird Lodge, an estate along the Nevada shore built in 1936 by playboy George Whittel Jr. A raffle was conducted to determine who would get rides on the $3.3 million, 55-foot Thunderbird yacht, a wooden boat built in 1940.

A pool party and a poker tournament also were conducted. About 30 legislators attended this year’s event, according to Mining Association President Tim Crowley, and more legislators have attended in past years.

Crowley said legislative lawyers consider the convention an "educational networking" experience for legislators and reporting would not be required even during legislative sessions.

"We match up people (mining representatives) with legislators so they can learn more about our industry," Crowley said. "Miners are not familiar with policymakers and it gives them a chance to meet with each other."

He added there is nothing sinister about the convention and because mining is one of the top industries in the state, legislators take the opportunity to learn more about it.

But the alliance contends what mining or anyone else spends on legislators, during or outside a legislative session, needs to be reported so Nevadans can decide for themselves whether it is right or wrong.

"Two years ago we put out a press release trying to shame legislators against attending," said Gilbert, who reported spending nothing on legislators during the session. "We aren’t trying to imply they are in the pockets of mining, but what they are spending on legislators should be reported."

Leslie’s bill would have required lobbyists to identify what they were spending on each legislator every three months during the 20 months when the Legislature is not in session.

ASSEMBLY MEMBERS BALKED

After the state Senate voted 21-0 on May 23 for the lobbyist reporting bill, it was referred to the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. Following a May 26 hearing, it died there without a vote.

"We had done so much reform already that there was a reluctance to tackle this issue this time," said Legislative Operations Chairman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas. "It came to us late. We felt it should be an issue for next session."

Minutes of the hearing show Assembly members Cresent Hardy, R-Mesquite, and William Horne, D-Las Vegas, questioned requiring lobbyists to report expenditures in the interim period.

Hardy said he was a personal friend of Mike Murphy, the Clark County coroner who worked as a legislative lobbyist, and had gone out to dinner with Murphy and his wife.

"I had relationships with a number of individuals in this building long before I became a legislator," Hardy said. "Sometimes I buy; sometimes they buy."

Horne noted he is a friend of lobbyist John Griffin, a former legislator.

"Our sons were born during our freshman legislative session," he said. "Our sons have gone to each other’s birthday parties. Are we reporting this? This starts getting into minutia."

WHAT OTHER STATES REQUIRE

Gilbert testified for the bill. She pointed out that Nevada is one of five states where its Legislature meets only every other year. Of those, Texas, Oregon and Montana require lobbyists to report all expenditures made at any time on legislators. North Dakota and Nevada do not.

"People do not respect lobbyists as a profession," added Paula Berkley, a Food Bank of Northern Nevada lobbyist who spends no money wining and dining legislators. "Lobbyists have earned somewhat of a bad reputation because of the lack of transparency. Any opportunity to counteract that is good in the long run."

In a recent interview, Gilbert said the Assembly hearing room was packed with well-financed lobbyists and none of them testified for or against the bill. She suspects their silence was meant as a show of disapproval for legislators to see.

Leslie said her bill should not have frightened legislators or burdened lobbyists.

"If the individual is a lobbyist, and that person is buying you dinner, that dinner must be disclosed. It doesn’t mean that you cannot do it, but it does have to be disclosed the same way it has to be disclosed now during the session," Leslie said.

If a legislator didn’t want to be an item on a lobbyist’s spending report, then she suggested they pay for their own meals, drinks or golf games.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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