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Laxalt’s mysterious state’s rights contortion

You’d think that Gov. Brian Sandoval would be happier now than he was before the 2014 election.

Back then, the Republican governor had to contend with Democrats in every statewide office and in control of both houses of the Legislature. The red tide of last year swept many of those Democrats out, and left Sandoval atop a state run entirely by members of his own party.

But he’s fought so much with Republican lawmakers and state officers that he may be longing for the calmer days of divided government.

Of all the thorns in the governor’s side, however, none is more acute than Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who has not hesitated to fulfill a campaign promise to sue the federal government early and often. And many of those lawsuits have come despite Sandoval’s wishes.

For example, Laxalt joined Nevada in a Texas lawsuit that contends President Barack Obama doesn’t have the legal authority to suspend deportations of immigrant kids and their parents. (Sandoval preferred the issue be resolved via legislation.) Laxalt joined several Nevada counties in suing over sage grouse conservation rules. (An angry Sandoval said Laxalt was acting on his own, although Laxalt appears to have authority under state law.)

But the latest dustup between the governor and attorney general has serious long-term implications for Nevada’s gambling industry.

Laxalt said this week on the “Ralston Live” television program on VegasPBS that he would sign on to a letter circulated by his counterparts in Missouri and South Carolina that urges passage of laws to restore a ban on Internet gambling. (The Justice Department once interpreted the 1961 Wire Act to prohibit all online gambling, even though the Internet was but a gleam in the eye of the Advanced Research Projects Agency when it was passed. But in 2011, the Office of Legal Counsel decided only sports wagering was banned by the Wire Act.)

Although Nevada casinos have different approaches to online gambling, most want it, which is why the Nevada Legislature took all of one day to pass an Internet-poker legalization bill in 2013. But that business would be threatened if the old interpretation of the Wire Act is restored.

And having the attorney general of Nevada sign on to a letter endorsing that idea would be a very powerful statement indeed.

But first, a couple of things.

Why would Laxalt — up until now a committed state’s rights guy — endorse more federal authority? He told Ralston he sued over immigration because “it is an absolute state interest to make sure a president can’t unilaterally force things on the state.” But it’s perfectly OK for a president to appoint an Office of Legal Counsel chief whose interpretation of law forces Nevada out of the lucrative online gambling business? Even if Laxalt were to argue — correctly — that he’s talking about supporting the passage of legislation through Congress to restore the old interpretation of the Wire Act, he’s still in the uncharacteristic position of advocating against state’s rights.

“There’s a couple giant exceptions to this” philosophy, Laxalt said. Of course there are. Just none that make philosophical sense. (Even if Laxalt doesn’t like the unilateral changing of a longstanding interpretation of law by an unelected appointee, shouldn’t he cheer more freedom for states to engage in commerce, especially his home state?)

Sandoval, for his part, could barely contain his anger. “I am very concerned that anyone representing the state’s legal interests would speak out against current state law in our leading industry,” Sandoval said in an especially strong statement. “At it’s core, this is a state’s rights issue and I disagree with the attorney general that a federal government, one-size-fits-all solution is in the best interest of Nevada.”

Exactly. Now is no time for a pro-gambling state’s federalist attorney general to turn into a moralist Tory. It’s bad for business.

— Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of the show “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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