Solve ethics problems with full-time, professional lawmakers

CARSON CITY — A commenter responding to my Sunday column about a few Democratic lawmakers behaving badly complained that, in the past, I’d used "curse words and worse" to castigate Republicans who’d done the same things.

Guilty as charged, although to be fair, at the time I worked for an alternative newspaper that allowed for more colorful metaphors. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that taking a job from the very people you’re regulating as an elected official is a good thing, no matter your political party affiliation. It’s actually very bad, even if state law and the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s attorneys say it’s not.

But beyond the petty and ultimately useless debate of who is worse lies a more important question: What the hell do we do about it?

(Sorry for the curse word.)

Ever helpful, I’ve got a solution. And it may solve more than one problem, now that I think about it.

First, it’s clear that while a full-time Legislature that meets annually isn’t a perfect solution, it’s a far more perfect solution than what we have now. Part-time lawmakers will always have full-time conflicts, and the less scrupulous of our politicians will never stop using their lofty titles to secure benefits for themselves and their employers.

(There are other benefits as well, such as having to budget for a year at a time, and the ability to make changes to that budget as circumstances change. Currently, we project two years out, and to make major changes, you need a special session.)

If we transition to a full-time Legislature, however, we could prohibit almost all outside employment, similar to Congress. But to do that, we’d need to pay a full-time wage. I propose $120,000 per year for an Assembly member, and $140,000 per year for a senator.

In order to save a little money, however, Nevada could easily reduce the size of its Legislature, cutting the Assembly from 42 members to 30, and the state Senate from 21 members to 15.

This will obviously cost more: Currently, Nevada spends about $2.3 million on its Legislature during a session, and virtually nothing when lawmakers are out of session. My full-time plan would cost $5.7 million annually in salaries for lawmakers alone. Annual sessions and full-time aides (say, one per lawmaker, year-round) would increase the cost.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s also increase the pay of constitutional officers to $160,000 per year (that’s the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer; we’d save some money by folding the controller’s office into the treasurer’s). The governor should make $200,000 a year. And, if lawmakers were so inclined, they could include a line that would save money at all levels of government: "Notwithstanding any agreement entered into pursuant to NRS 288 (the collective bargaining statute), no person holding an office of trust or profit under the state of Nevada or any political subdivision thereof shall earn in any fiscal year more than the governor of this state."

Sick leave abuse, overtime abuse, sky-high salaries, no more. But if we’re to make these changes, we also ought to change the laws to create a felony conflict of interest statute. If any elected official is convicted of using the office to enrich himself or herself, a family member, a friend or a business associate, there must be mandatory jail time. It’s the only way the public can start to regain its confidence and ensure trust in elected officials.

Perfect? Far from it. But it’s much better than what we have now, and that’s a step in the right direction.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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