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It’s great work — if you can get it

Dina Titus got one sweet deal.

So did John Oceguera.

Taxpayers? Not so much, as expected.

Being a public employee and a politician always seems to pay off in Nevada, especially for two leading Democrats at different career crossroads.

Titus, who narrowly lost her congressional re-election campaign to Republican Joe Heck in November, reluctantly returned to her tenured faculty position at UNLV in January. She brought justifiable criticism upon herself and the university for teaching just one political science class and hosting a radio show in the spring while collecting an annual salary of $107,855, just as UNLV was grappling with a deep budget crisis by claiming that professors were burdened by rising workloads.

So Titus is cashing out. Her last day at UNLV is Thursday, when she and 47 other tenured professors collect buyouts for participating in the university’s voluntary separation incentive program.

For helping the university avoid faculty layoffs and realize salary savings in the long run (Public entities never seem to find ways to save money in the short run, do they?), Titus and her exiting colleagues each will get a lump sum equal to 1.5 times their base salaries. The parting gifts will cost taxpayers $7.4 million, including $161,782.50 for Titus and $212,196 for her husband, outgoing history professor Thomas Wright.

The timing could not have been better for Titus. It’s no secret that in 2012 she’s likely to run for her former seat in the 3rd Congressional District, or perhaps Nevada’s new 4th District, depending on how their boundaries are redrawn this year. That would have required her to take another unpaid leave of absence from UNLV — for all of 2012, and perhaps fall 2011 to boot — to raise money and aggressively campaign.

Titus doesn’t want to be at UNLV anymore. She wants to be in elected office, working on Democratic Party causes. Because of her political ambitions, Titus has worked just four semesters as a professor over the past 5½ years — she ran for governor in the fall of 2006, served as a state senator in the spring of 2007 and ran for and served in Congress from summer 2008 through December 2010.

Now, instead of taking unpaid leave, she will effectively collect an advance that pays her through Election Day 2012.

If only the tens of thousands of Nevada taxpayers who’ve lost their jobs over the past 3½ years could be so lucky.

“It’s not like I’m going to go away,” Titus told the Review-Journal’s Richard Lake. “I’m going to refocus my energy. I’ll stay in political life, that’s for sure.”

The Titus-UNLV split is a good thing. While UNLV certainly enjoyed having an ally in the Legislature and Congress, it ultimately wasn’t fair for the institution to continue providing Titus with what amounted to a fall-back job. Titus’ limited work and continued political activism created a huge perception problem for President Neal Smatresk: How do you argue that your school’s budget has been cut to the bone and that faculty are overworked when a polarizing politician keeps floating on and off the payroll while delivering little in return?

Oceguera, on the other hand, has never let elected office get in the way of his public-sector paycheck. The Assembly speaker is also North Las Vegas’ assistant fire chief.

The 2011 Legislature was Oceguera’s first session as speaker and last as an assemblyman because of term limits. Over the years, as Oceguera climbed the ranks of both Assembly leadership and his fire department, he always found a way to collect close to full firefighter pay while the Legislature was in session through shift swaps and paid leave.

But it’s one thing to tinker with your schedule when you’re a rank-and-file firefighter or a captain. It’s another when you’re the only assistant chief.

If your position is so unique and important, how does the department function when you’re tied up in politics for five months every other year? Is it really possible to lead a house of the Legislature and a municipal fire department at the same time? And are North Las Vegas taxpayers getting any bang for their significant bucks — Oceguera’s base annual salary is $138,336 — by having their assistant fire chief away so often, protecting union interests and demanding ever-higher taxes?

The 2011 Legislature wrapped up its work three weeks ago, and the city of North Las Vegas reports that Oceguera received $67,383.89 in total compensation from January through May. It’s worth noting that the Legislature does not convene until the first week in February, but lawmakers and party leaders are busy in January with budget hearings and planning.

Oceguera’s January-to-May compensation from North Las Vegas included $4,417 for benefits, $11,306 in paid leave and holiday pay, $19,401 in pension contributions, $3,601 in longevity pay and $25,938 for hours worked.

The website Transparent Nevada reports that in 2009, when he served as Assembly majority leader, Oceguera was paid $151,772 in wages (a figure that excludes benefits), well above his base salary despite serving in a legislative session.

The city of North Las Vegas is practically broke and preparing to eliminate 258 positions — including those of 40 firefighters — yet the city can afford to keep its assistant fire chief on the payroll when he’s hundreds of miles away performing another full-time job for an additional salary?

Oceguera did not respond to questions about his city pay by Friday afternoon. The city of North Las Vegas was unable to provide his time cards by close of business Thursday.

Several years ago Democrat Richard Perkins served as Assembly speaker and deputy police chief for the city of Henderson. He drew full pay from both jobs, too, claiming he was always checking email, making phone calls and working weekends for the police in between his legislative obligations.

To which any taxpayer with half an ounce of common sense would reply: Yeah, right. Lawmakers — especially those from Southern Nevada — barely have time for their families when they’re in session. The Assembly speaker is pulled in more directions than a deer carcass by a pack of wolves.

At least Titus received no special treatment in collecting her buyout — it was offered to all tenured faculty.

Forget for a moment that the Nevada Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, which clearly prohibits public employees from serving in the Legislature, has been ignored for decades. That aside, Oceguera’s arrangement has always been suspicious. But he’s on his way out of the Legislature, perhaps joining Titus in running for Congress.

Can he keep logging hours as assistant fire chief from Washington?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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