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August 27, 2014

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Local governments spend $3 million to lobby Legislature — for tax increases

The party’s over, and now the bills come due.

Local governments in Nevada spent more than $3 million this year lobbying the state Legislature, according to reports filed with the Department of Taxation at the conclusion of each 120-day legislative session.

Some spent top dollar retaining expensive contract lobbying firms while others sent their own employees up to Carson City. The $3 million tab is the collective cost for local governments to buy a seat at the legislative table.

Many local governments cheered their victories — the reauthorization of a redevelopment authority, for example — as justification for the costs.

The $3 million largely covered transportation, lodging and salaries for the representatives of Southern Nevada’s various cities and districts who trek north to Carson City to plead their cases.

“Clark County is (more than) 70 percent of the state’s population, and yet they have to go hat in hand up to Carson City to make their case,” said Eric Herzik, a UNR political science professor, who explained that under state law, the Legislature gets to make many decisions for local governments in Nevada.

Some of the high-profile victories championed by local government lobbyists include:

• Metro Police spent $154,101, and it paid off. The police trucked a trophy back to Clark County: a bill giving the Clark County Commission the power to raise the sales tax by 0.15 percent for the police department. Now five out of seven county commissioners have to vote to approve that sales tax hike.

• The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada spent $42,372 and supported a coalition of groups that helped pass a gas tax hike proposal that also now requires five of seven county commissioners to approve the tax increase.

Las Vegas racked up the largest tab at $393,495, or about $3,280 per day for the 120-day legislative session.

Clark County and the City of North Las Vegas came in second and third with $375,839 ($3,132 per day) and $332,998 ($2,775 per day), respectively.

In an ironic twist, much of the $3 million in tax dollars was spent so lobbyists could persuade state lawmakers to allow for a tax increase.

Clark County representatives say the money paid for staffers who helped shepherd bills into law. For instance, the county sponsored Assembly Bill 1, which allows for emergency dialysis to be covered under the state Medicaid plan.

While North Las Vegas failed to get what it wanted in a move to reconfigure the distribution of a pot of money for local governments, the city did get a multimillion-dollar gift that allowed it access to special water and sewer funds that helped cover the city’s budget deficit.

Local governments also say they play a lot of defense, noting when bills could hurt a city or county, but much of the work goes under the radar. Without declaring objectives outright, there’s no evidence of an underwhelming legislative session for certain local governments.

Local governments also track hundreds of bills, often serving as on-the-spot experts for citizen legislators who spend normal days teaching, plumbing, managing, lawyering and doing things that don’t require an in-depth knowledge of, say, local government finance or public safety.

“There’s a lot of bills that get drafted that could potentially become law, and we’re asked for law enforcement’s input as to whether it’s a good or bad idea,” said Chuck Callaway, director of the intergovernmental services at Metro. “I think for the taxpayers, it’s important that the lawmakers are getting direct information and education from law enforcement officers as to how that could impact public safety.”

Some cities, like North Las Vegas and Las Vegas, hire contract lobbyists. Clark County does not, so most of its costs equate to salaries for full-time staff who would be paid regardless of whether the Legislature is in session.

The county says its employees often double as resident scholars at the Legislature, lending their knowledge to legislators and routing their questions to the county employees who might have the answer.

“The main service we provide to legislators and to the state is providing whatever information they may need about our community, the services we provide, or the policies we follow,” said Sabra Smith Newby, director of administrative services at Clark County.

The $3 million price tag represents only a peek at the million-dollar lobbying industry that pops up in Carson City every two years when the Legislature is in session. Local governments must report their lobbying costs to the state, but private businesses and groups that spend millions of dollars on lobbying do not.

Sometimes those private interests are at odds with the goals of local governments, meaning local governments ignore the Legislature at their own peril.

“It is important that local governments make their case to the Legislature because private firms certainly are,” Herzik said.

Still, the cost of local government lobbying has ballooned during the past dozen years with spending outstripping the inflation rate and leading to a kind of arms race in which no local government wants to be without effective — and sometimes expensive — representation.

In 2001, Nevada’s local governments spent $1.17 million lobbying the Legislature.

A lot of the base cost is structural.

County, city, police and water district employees put on their lobbying caps and monitor hundreds of bills at the Legislature because they have no other choice.

The Legislature makes many decisions for local governments.

That’s because Nevada governs by Dillon’s Rule, which basically says local governments don’t have much power.

The alternative is Home Rule, which, as the name implies, allows local governments to make more decisions.

Under Dillon’s Rule, Clark County governments essentially do the Carson City circuit every two years.

Take North Las Vegas, for example.

It’s well known that the city lacks a firm financial footing.

But it does have money in a municipal bank account dedicated to the city’s sewer and water systems. City residents pay into the fund, and the account basically has a legal lock that prevents anybody from opening it to take money for anything but sewer or water projects.

So North Las Vegas lobbyists journeyed to Carson City, pleaded their case, and traveled back to North Las Vegas with what amounts to a key that lets the city access the sewer and water bank account and take money out for general expenses.

The money will let the city keep parks and libraries open this year.

“The city drastically needed an infusion of money this year to make sure we didn’t have to cut any more services,” said Tim Bedwell, a North Las Vegas employee who lobbied the Legislature this year.

That story and the $3 million in tax dollars that pay local government lobbying expenses is a function of the way Nevada’s government works.

“It gets back to local governments not having the authority or independence to make this decision on their own,” Herzik said. “It’s an added cost for the local government.”

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