Sunday, June 28, 2009 | 2 a.m.
From the standpoint of Clark County officials, the 2009 Legislature carried out one of the worst government-on-government thefts in state history.
Over the coming year, the county’s $1.35 billion general fund budget will take a $100 million hit because of moves by the Legislature. The following year, it will lose another $80 million.
Who’s to blame — that is, who beyond the lawmakers who voted to take huge chunks of county tax revenue to balance the state budget?
Clark County commissioners are asking that question and others.
In the finger-pointing that has followed the session, those involved in the process have cited several potential, and sometimes contradictory, reasons: a poor performance by the county’s hired lobbyist; too much, or too little, lobbying by the commissioners themselves; a failure to reach out to legislators leading up to the session; and politics underlying the 2010 Democratic race for governor, which will likely pit Commission Chairman Rory Reid against Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley.
Some say the county was going to take a hit regardless of what it did — Nevada’s budget was in such disarray that state lawmakers were practically obligated to raid its coffers. The state had carried out several rounds of budget cuts before the session. Add to the mix a long-held opinion among lawmakers that local governments are flush. Some could be heard more than once to say Clark County has “more money than God.”
It was clear the county was in trouble.
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers who wondered whether the county could spare the money needed only to remind themselves that county firefighters are on track to receive 3 percent cost-of-living raises during a recession that has forced state workers to take furloughs equal to 4.6 percent pay cuts.
“It stood out there like a sore thumb,” said Coffin, who chaired the Senate Taxation Committee. “ ‘These guys aren’t willing to give, so Clark County must be able to afford it.’ It was mischief, but trust me, in these small group meetings there was no great sympathy for Clark County.”
Some legislators say county representatives responsible for cultivating sympathy for, or at least an understanding of, the county’s issues did a poor job.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, openly criticized the county’s lobbying efforts and in particular Dan Hart, whose company was paid $102,000 to represent the county during the session.
Some legislators viewed Hart as an emissary not just for the county, but also for Reid’s gubernatorial ambitions.
Leslie, a key ally of Buckley, referred to Hart as “that guy the county hired that nobody saw.”
“I had to have someone point him out to me before I knew who he was,” she said.
Hart declined to comment for this story.
In an e-mail to the Las Vegas Sun, County Manager Virginia Valentine was reluctant to discuss the effectiveness of the county’s hired guns.
The county did have some successes, she said, most notably passage of a bill allowing the County Commission to levy civil penalties for business licensing violations. Similar bills had failed in five previous attempts.
“It’s hard to measure how lobbyists performed because it is difficult to tell what would have happened otherwise,” she wrote. “We can’t speak for legislators’ experiences with them.”
Whatever the reasons for it, it’s clear the communication channels between the county and Legislature didn’t always function, and the results for the county were dire.
In an open letter to the county in late May, Leslie detailed an exchange between Sabra Smith-Newby, the county’s director of administrative services, who spent the entire session in Carson City, and lawmakers preparing to formalize the taking of tens of millions of dollars in county property tax revenue.
Smith-Newby was asked during a hearing how the state could offset the county’s losses.
She said the county had offered, as an alternative, revenue set aside for infrastructure improvements, which would be preferable because property taxes fund ongoing county programs. Beyond that, Smith-Newby said, “we don’t have any particular plans to offer you or anything in exchange.”
The next day, however, the county floated another alternative to avoid the property tax hit — giving the state revenue that is normally set aside to address growth.
A Sun reporter called Leslie to ask why lawmakers weren’t considering it.
Leslie said the Legislature knew nothing about the proposal and fired off a letter to the county expressing concern “that information may not be reaching all of the (county) commissioners in a timely manner.”
The letter included a transcription of an exchange between Smith-Newby and state lawmakers that one top county official said made Smith-Newby look “like a deer caught in the headlights.”
“They were throwing her under the bus,” the county official said.
In a three-page reply, Valentine blasted Leslie, pointing out the alternative revenue proposals the county had offered the state, including $50 million the county had set aside for transportation projects.
The state agreed to take the $50 million — and the property tax revenue, too.
In hindsight, Leslie said her intention was to throw no one “under the bus.” But the different ways people interpreted her letter underscored what she called a “breakdown in communication.”
“I look back and reflect and wish that we had a better communication link to the county,” she said.
Before the start of the session, the County Commission adopted a resolution essentially asking that the county and its commissioners to speak to lawmakers with one voice. It passed unanimously, but commissioners apparently interpreted it differently.
A few weeks into the session, Smith-Newby, one of the county’s lobbyists, testified in favor of a bill that would resolve government-contractor disputes without arbitration.
Ten minutes after Smith-Newby finished, Commissioner Tom Collins testified for the same bill, but said he didn’t think it should go as far as Smith-Newby was advocating.
“I don’t agree with everything the county does, and I have a right to say that if I want,” Collins said later.
His testimony hadn’t confused lawmakers, Collins insisted.
Indeed, some legislators said the county would have benefitted from the presence of more commissioners in Carson City.
Leslie said that because Nevada is such a small state, elected officials constitute “a little bit of a club” whose members can “have more frank discussions with each other and we can trust that those discussions aren’t going to be shared with the media.”
Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said she saw commissioners during the session but not often enough.
“In a crisis like this, it should have been all hands on deck,” she said. “Everyone should have been involved.”
Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who as a former regent has friends in the Legislature, said he didn’t visit Carson City because he was told by county staff that his presence wasn’t required.
“I respected that because I didn’t want to get in anybody’s way,” he said.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani spent 16 years in the Assembly. During that time she said it was clear that Clark County is viewed by many lawmakers as “arrogant” — that it “doesn’t think it should have to deal with the Legislature.”
There’s a reason for the reputation, she said.
“We have not reached out and explained how the county works, how it is funded, where things are located,” she said. “It’s all about relationships. Reaching out has to be part of our government plan. These are citizen-legislators, many of them have never even been in the county government building.”
Coffin said it’s ridiculous to blame lobbyists for the county’s troubles when county officials have almost two years between sessions to reach out to legislators.
“You’d be amazed at how little it is done,” he said. “We’re laymen, we’re back to work during the interim and we can forget about issues until the Legislature convenes, unless we’re kept up to date.”
Reid said he met with lawmakers many times before the session. “We talked about collaboration, and I felt we made progress,” he said.
Valentine, the county manager, provided a list of the interim meetings with legislators, including “informational sessions” on University Medical Center, social services, family services and development services and one-on-one meetings with “selected committee chairpersons and leadership.”
The county also e-mailed a survey to every legislator asking what topics they were interested in hearing about.
Not one legislator responded.
Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, acknowledged she knew of the county-sponsored meetings but didn’t attend.
“I work during the day, sometimes at night,” she said. “So it’s hard to get to them.”
Was it lobbying miscues, mixed messages or a failure to reach out to legislators that cost the county?
Looking back, Collins said if he takes issue with one aspect of the county’s dealings with the Legislature, it’s the expectations.
“We went up there with an attitude that we were going to get screwed,” he said. “And if you do that, then stay home because you get what you expect.”
Sisolak says he will ask for a review of not only county successes and failures at the Legislature, but also efforts to inform and stay in contact with lawmakers between sessions.
“I want to do it in a positive way,” he said. “It’s over and done, but what can we do differently next time, because the next time comes pretty quick.”
Leslie thinks the answer the commission comes up with might be ... nothing.
“I don’t think (Clark County) lost the money because the lobbying was bad, I think they would have lost the money anyway,” she said. “We were going to take the money because we needed it.”