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September 4, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

A modest proposal to fix the Legislature

Besides turning too many left-wingers into authoritative constitutional experts and serially obnoxious Cassandras, a conservative think tank’s lawsuit to clarify the separation-of-powers clause might actually have one salutary effect: Spark a real debate about curing the disease known as the Nevada Legislature.

Even if you disagree with the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s attempt to excise executive branch employees from the capital Legislative Building, no one who has been around that alleged process, save some lobbyists and lawmakers who have profited from it, would not argue it is a sick institution. And no one can possibly believe the only infirmity is computer technicians from the Public Utilities Commission (state Sen. Mo Denis) being lawmakers, although NPRI is right to raise the serious legal question of separated powers. (See my Friday column.)

But the worst and most debilitating feature of the Legislature is that it is part-time, so conflicts, whether with public or private sector employment, are guaranteed. Critics often miss just how cancerous this can be to public policymaking, not just because lawmakers have to serve two masters but because lobbyists exploit the conflicts to skew votes or sully recalcitrant lawmakers in the media.

Thus are laws written that favor not the common interest but the interests of governments or corporations, unreasonably polluted by lawmakers who are either blinded by their conflicting loyalties or all too willing to serve their nonlegislative masters.

So, yes, let’s get rid of public employees in the Legislature. And make no mistake: Local government workers have much more relevant conflicts than any of the executive branch-types NPRI wants to jettison. The scandals have been legion over the years, both public and private, of city and county employees who came to the capital and acted as lobbyists for their governments and often were paid, or took sick leave, to do so. But, so, too, are there myriad examples of influential lawmakers who worked for law firms or were on company boards or toiled in certain professions that clearly influenced how they legislated.

One friend of mine chafes about the biennial prattling by lawmakers, who declare on the floor that they have no conflict because they are affected no differently than anyone else in their profession. But the point is: They are affected. And legislators should have fealty to one thing and that alone: legislating.

So what to do?

Here’s my modest proposal, which is likely to go about as far as Swift’s and might be harder to sell to the public than devouring their young:

• Full time means no conflicts: It is impossible — yes, impossible — for a Henderson employee to ignore the interests of that government if he serves in the Legislative Building. So, too, for an employee of McDonald Carano, which has several lobbyists, to be oblivious to the multifarious interests of the law firm. The former may be illegal, but both are insidious. So instead of paying lawmakers low five figures, let’s pay them low six figures and make them full-time. Give them well-paid staff, too. The result: A better talent pool and, I’d argue, better laws. A citizen Legislature meeting every other year was quaint once; now it’s just anachronistic and ineffectual.

• Sunshine on lobbyists: The argument against full-time lawmakers is not just that they get insulated from the regular folks, but that they are even more susceptible to influence from well-connected lobbyists and their clients. So change the rules: Lobbyists must disclose any expenses on lawmakers and legislators must be banned from accepting only the most prosaic gifts from the paid advocates. Lobbyists would not just have to register for all clients but have to report all contacts with lawmakers.

• A different kind of transparency: This part is critical. All campaign contributions must be reported within 72 hours on the Internet. As I have said ad nauseam, there is literally no good reason why this doesn’t make sense. Please don’t tell me it’s tough to connect to the Web in Winnemucca. This would prevent much real and perceived corruption.

For those who believe absolute enforcement of the separation-of-powers clause will disturb the legislative playing field, get behind this proposal. For those of you in the private sector who want to serve but don’t want the hassle, get behind this proposal.

It doesn’t help Republicans. It doesn’t help Democrats. It just helps.

Anything else, including the results of the NPRI suit, would do what a neutered and conflicted Legislature does nearly every session: Apply a bandage to a catastrophic illness.

Alas, the largest impediment to this idea is not special interests, who will always have influence, but the Gang of 63, which would have to pass these measures. Legislators heal themselves? Not likely.

Perhaps I need to rethink my visceral antipathy to the initiative process.

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