Sunday, April 28, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, has authored two bills that would directly benefit the company that employed him up until the start of the legislative session this year.
Denis has sponsored Senate Bill 316, a measure that would require all construction and demolition sites to dispose of their waste at a materials recovery facility, if there is one within 30 miles of the site.
In addition to furthering Denis’ goal of promoting more recycling in Nevada, the bill also would guarantee a lucrative waste stream for companies such as his former employer, Lunas Construction Cleanup, which sorts single-stream construction waste into recyclable material and garbage meant for the dump.
The bill would prohibit construction waste from going to a landfill or — somewhat ironically — recycling centers, which are allowed to pass to landfills only up to 10 percent of the residue from their waste stream.
Up to 50 percent of waste accepted by a materials recovery center can go to a landfill.
A second measure authored by Denis, Senate Bill 315, would require the Southern Nevada Health District board to include a member who represents a recycling business.
The bill stems from Lunas’ failed attempt to obtain a seat on the board last summer. In July, Denis testified at a board meeting on behalf of Lunas employee Doug Dobyne, who had sought a seat on the board as the at-large business member.
Instead, the board selected Tim Jones, a consultant for MGM.
Now, Denis wants to change the law to prevent the at-large business member from being associated with a casino and to require the board to include a recycling representative.
“Sixty-eight percent of their agenda items were recycling related,” Denis said. “Yet, the board had no members who had any recycling experience whatsoever.. If they are talking that much about recycling, which has a lot of new businesses, they really should have somebody on there with a recycling background.”
Critics argue, however, that businesses regulated by the board shouldn’t have a seat on the board. The Clark County Commission, for example, tried to amend Denis’ bill to require all board members be elected officials.
The amendment failed when the Senate Health and Human Services committee declined to consider it.
Denis was hired by Lunas as an information technology specialist in December 2011. After he was hired, however, Denis said the company asked him to also do some government relations work for them, which is how he ended up representing them at health district meetings.
“They don’t really have a government relations person and they asked if I was interested in going, so I said sure,” Denis said of the small, family-owned business. “You know how small businesses are, everybody kind of is asked to just step up and do whatever.”
Denis was laid off just before the session started because the business was cutting back on expenses, he said.
Denis said he doesn’t consider his work on legislation that would affect his former employer a conflict of interest.
“I talked to our legal counsel and I was told we are a citizen Legislature,” Denis said. “I didn’t introduce it until I knew it was OK to do that.”
Lawmakers’ private professions often inform their legislative work — to varying ethical degrees. In a particularly egregious example in 2005, former state Sen. Sandra Tiffany, R-Henderson, introduced legislation that would have allowed her to sell state-owned surplus vehicles without a license. She later faced ethics charges and lost a re-election bid.
Two years ago, former state Sen. Allison Copening, D-Las Vegas, worked assiduously on bills to regulate homeowners associations, while being employed by one herself.
Republicans often complain about legislators who work for government agencies taking votes on taxes and budgets to fund those agencies.
In most cases, the Legislative Counsel Bureau has opined that a legislator has no conflict of interest if the bill they are pursuing would not benefit the individual lawmaker more or less than anybody else.
Denis argued preventing lawmakers from legislating within their professional fields would undermine the idea of a citizen Legislature.
“To say anybody in here can’t use their experience from their work to come up with legislation would be incorrect,” Denis said. “That’s why we are a citizen Legislature. Where it would be a conflict is if we were full-time legislators.”
Still, lawmakers must balance what makes for good public policy and what might be good for their employer’s bottom line.
Health district officials said Denis’ bill requiring construction sites to dispose of their waste at a materials recovery facility would prohibit sites from using a recycling center. That could hurt dozens of small recycling centers in the Las Vegas area that recycle specific materials such as concrete or asphalt.
“It would eliminate their waste stream,” said one health district official. “They could go out of business or have to reapply as an MRF, which is a lot more expensive.”
Denis said it costs up to $1 million to be properly permitted as a materials recovery facility — referred to as a MRFs (it rhymes with Smurf) in waste management parlance. Such facilities deal with both garbage and recyclable material.
Denis said it was never his intent to adversely affect anyone’s business and that he would be open to considering changes to include recycling centers.
There are eight MRFs in the Las Vegas area and none in the rest of the state.
Republic Services, the waste management company with an exclusive franchise to dispose of municipal waste in Las Vegas, opposes Denis’ bill.
Bob Coyle, Republic Services vice president of government affairs, said the bill would significantly increase the cost of doing business for contractors. It costs about $350 per load to dispose of waste in a landfill, he said. Sending that waste to a MRF for sorting and recycling would cost about $200 more per load.
“We just feel at this point with the construction industry just barely coming out of a devastating recession that it is not a good time to mandate that they have to process all of this,” Coyle said.“They always have an option to do it on their own.”
Denis argued the bill would further the public good by keeping more waste out of landfills. He also acknowledged that his legislation was designed to protect MRFs that made more of an investment to get permitted than smaller recycling centers that were encroaching on the waste streams.
“It’s a good way to encourage recycling,” he said. “And it’s creating jobs. Especially for the guys that spent a million dollars on their MRFs, they want to be able to do their jobs.”
Coyle said Republic Services also opposes Denis’s bill to require a recycling industry representative serve on the health board.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who sits on the board, also opposes the measure.
She believes only elected officials should be allowed on the board, which issues regulations and imposes fees. She questioned why the county’s amendment to do just that wasn’t given more serious consideration.
“This has been a pet peeve of mine,” she said. “The health board is very dysfunctional with 13 members, seven of whom are unelected. I personally believe people who are duly elected should be imposing fees and approving regulations.”