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July 28, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

It’s time to fix the Legislature

The good that legislators do too often is interred by the bad acts they commit, which live on to haunt them during the interim and the next campaign.

As Gov. Brian Sandoval finished deciding Friday which bills lived and died, as post-mortems detailed the offal slipped through at the eleventh hour, as special interests celebrated their victories and mourned their losses, we are left with an anachronistic, biennial horror show that the Motion Picture Association of America could not rate.

Welcome to The Legislative Process, banned in 49 states but still the longest-running show in Nevada. (Yes, yes — I know other capitals have their own quirks and even abominations. But there’s no place like home.)

Having watched this movie and its unending sequels since 1987, perhaps like an insane asylum denizen always hoping for a different ending, I still think The Legislative Process defies description. It’s impossible to deconstruct and far from pure — like the difference between real cheese and processed cheese.

Anybody want to talk about how the cheese gets processed? My gag reflex similarly kicks in when talking about The Legislative Process. But I soldier on.

It is an ossified process that favors opacity over transparency (open meeting law? What open meeting law?), that creates a perception of corruption that becomes reality (a lawmaker tells an NV Energy lobbyist he’s owed a bottle of wine after passing an eleventh-hour amendment the company needed) and one that allows lobbyists skilled at either advocacy or schmoozing (or both) to take advantage of part-time lawmakers often too easily swayed (too many examples to list here).

This is a process designed to produce lawmakers of generally low capacity because nothing much is expected of them. And, with some notable exceptions, they generally deliver on those expectations.

So we have a process that pays lawmakers too little so they can be influenced too much ($10,000 biennially with perks), a process that deliberately constrains deliberation (120 days?) and a process that inevitably will produce unintended consequences (again, too many to list).

Some examples linger from Session ’11:

• Whose arena is it anyway? An arena bill that could have paved the way for a renewed dynamism at UNLV and/or the potential of pro sports behind Mandalay Bay was scuttled by the greed of Las Vegas and poor legislative management. No one can argue that an arena, whether it is one of those proposed by Texan Chris Milam or the UNLV NOW boosters, or by Caesars Entertainment on the Strip, could provide a jolt to the still-struggling local economy. But instead, The Legislative Process produced ... nothing.

• London calling: Assembly Judiciary Chairman William Horne took a junket to London paid for by PokerStars, did not disclose it and then Horne introduced a bill essentially as written by the company that paid for his trip. This is the kind of thing people get indicted for in some places, or at least thrown out of office; here it is SOP — or, to be more accurate, it is called ... The Legislative Process.

Later, it became clear PokerStars had spread around a quarter of a million dollars before the session to lawmakers and other officials, including the governor. I think that’s known as watering the garden so the seeds will grow. The money, it turned out, came directly from the Isle of Man, a foreign corporation, which is frowned upon by federal authorities.

But after the trip and the money were exposed and the casino industry got engaged on an obvious attempt to circumvent state regulators, the bill was gutted and eventually reconstituted as a pathway to Web poker should the federal government legalize it.

Ah, yes. The Legislative Process can be entertaining and sickening at the same time. Perhaps that’s why I still watch after a quarter-century.

But I also hope it will get better. And it could. How?

Three modest proposals to get started:

• Change the rules. Either make sure bills are dead when they are supposed to be dead, or ensure there is a waiting period for any legislation before it is voted upon. It will stop much mischief.

• Pay legislators more and make them full time. That would eliminate conflicts of interest and get better people. Lesser of evils.

• Meet every year. At least for a budget session and to fix any inevitable mistakes in the odd-numbered years. It’s time.

Like bad golfers who keep coming back because they hit one good shot, lawmakers occasionally achieve greatness such as with this year’s campaign finance transparency legislation. And I’m the same way: I see something like that and I inter the bad and think of the good that could come if The Legislative Process just had a few edits.

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