Las Vegas Sun

November 30, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Why lobbyists are confused by what one Nevada lawmaker is up to


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Senators James Settlemeyer, left, and Michael Roberson talk at the conclusion of a Senate floor session Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 during the 2013 legislative session in Carson City.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Here’s the question everyone here at the Legislature is asking: What’s Michael Roberson’s game?

The question arises because twice in the past two weeks the Republican Senate leader has taken on powerful interests. First, he sprang a surprise whenhe proposed eliminating the mining industry’s protected constitutional tax status and offering a mining tax alternative to the business margins tax that will likely go to the voters in 2014.

Then, he proposed legislation that would have the Public Utilities Commission oversee the Southern Nevada Water Authority instead of its current board of elected officials, who are seen as usually doing the bidding of the water authority. This was seen as a direct attack on the water authority’s powerful manager, Pat Mulroy, who has influential allies on the Las Vegas Strip.

So, first he takes on mining and its bevy of lobbyists without much of a heads up to his fellow Republicans and friends of mining in the Assembly, and then he challenges the water boss who is a friend of Big Gaming.

“Too many people in this building play it safe,” he told me.

Roberson said he thinks the mining policy is the right one, and it helps that a tax increase on mining has widespread support among voters in the south.

On water, his legislation is a response to the water authority’s rate hike last year, when small and medium-sized businesses (read: Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce) thought the game was rigged against them in favor of residential and big (meaning Strip) water customers.

“I wanted at the very least to start the discussion,” he said. He said the board’s elected officials are too often being spoon-fed data and analysis from the water authority and the utility commission would be better suited to regulate water. “Water is scarce. If rates will continue to go up, we need an open and fair process” for future rate increases and other important water policy issues, he said.

Here in the capital, not much is taken at face value, so no one believes that Roberson’s just doing what he thinks is best for his constituents, and/or that he’s trying to find common ground with Democrats because he wants to get things done and make sure Carson City doesn’t become like Washington, D.C. After all, last session he was a conservative bomb thrower.

I asked a bunch of experienced lobbyists, longtime observers of the process, and no one quite knows what he’s up to.

“I’m not sure I can gauge anything that he’s doing,” said one.

Another, who is one of the most hardened cynics of all — and I know a few — is baffled that Roberson is being so aggressive, grabbing headlines when everyone knows it’s the inside game that matters. And when it comes to the inside game, he’s angering a) his own party, b) Democrats who are embarrassed that he’s stealing their issue, mining, and c) Mulroy.

My best guess is that he wants to establish some populist, pragmatic bona fides to help Republicans begin the long process of broadening their base beyond white men in a state that looks increasingly diverse and Democratic.

Roberson told me he wanted to be “crystal clear that I won’t support cuts to education,” which is the kind of talk pleasing to all those parents who live in his suburban Henderson district. He’s up for re-election in 2014, but, of course, he says that’s not on his mind.

But there’s another aspect of electoral politics he may need to consider: a primary challenge.

“He wasn’t here when Ann O’Connell lost to Joe Heck,” a lobbyist noted to me dryly, referring to the conservative state senator who lost a Republican primary after she crossed the gaming industry.

“Could a Tea Partier run to the right of him?” the lobbyist asked. “I should think.”

This sounds to me like an unsubtle message that the senator may need to watch his back.

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