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September 23, 2017

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Taxpayers footing $3 million lobbying bill for local governments


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Lobbyists work in their room at the Legislative Building Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 during the 2013 legislative session in Carson City.

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Nevada local government lobbying spending

Nevada’s local governments nearly tripled their spending on lobbying the state government during the past 10 years, according to state taxation department data gathered at the end of every legislative session.

• 2001: $1,169,243

• 2003: $2,486,897

• 2005: $2,585,443

• 2007: $3,696,064

• 2009: $3,618,293

• 2011: $3,039,386

The perception of lobbyists involves polished representatives, paid for by large corporations, plying their influence for the benefit of mining, gaming, retailers and labor unions.

But you pay for lobbyists, too.

Nevada taxpayers are footing more than $3 million for local governments to lobby the state Legislature, according to a Sun review of state records.

On any given day outside the Senate and Assembly, industry lobbyists mix with lobbyists from North Las Vegas, Henderson, the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission and the University Medical Center.

Sometimes they're the same people.

Taxpayers foot these bills as some local governments struggle with financial woes, seek to renegotiate contracts, or push for tax or fee increases at the Legislature.

But local government lobbyists say they provide a vital screen for a rapacious Legislature that tries to sweep your local dollars into the state’s budget. They're expert hired guns who provide an extra defense for local government interests, especially during the recession’s lean budget years.

“There have probably been 50 of those attempts that would’ve shifted money,” said Richard Perkins, a former Assembly Speaker whose firm, the Perkins Company, now has a two-year, $216,000 contract to represent Henderson at the Legislature.

Still, the expense angers some groups that track Nevada government spending.

The cost Nevadans pay for government-to-government lobbying has nearly tripled from $1.17 million in 2001 to $3.04 million in 2011.

That’s enough to hire 66 more teachers in Clark County or employ dozens more public safety officers.

"There is nothing more insulting to taxpayers than local elected officials who complain about not having enough money, but then spend millions of tax dollars hiring juiced-up insiders to go to Carson City to lobby for even higher taxes,” said Geoffrey Lawrence of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a privately financed free-market think tank.

Several legislative observers say that retaining law firms to lobby on behalf of local governments has become more widespread.

“Back in the '70s and early '80s, we had very few governments who had lobbyists represent them full time in Carson City,” said Marvin Leavitt, a former finance director for Las Vegas and a former contract lobbyist for Las Vegas. “They were normally the employees of the government who were sent up there to represent them at the Legislature.”

Now, local governments in Clark and Washoe counties have dozens of contracts — worth $2.77 million — signed with professional lobbying firms. These contract lobbyists often supplement local government employees specifically sent to Carson City as lobbyists.

Local government lobbying expenses dipped during the recession, from its high of $3.77 million. But the growth in lobbying expenses over the past decade has outstripped the state’s monumental population growth.

In addition to fighting off grabby lawmakers, some lobbyists said they must track more bills than they did in 2001 and therefore need to bring on extra help. But there’s no substantial difference between the number of bills legislators sponsored in 2001 and 2011.

The expense also greatly outstrips the inflation rate, which would have accounted for only a $310,000 increase.

The hired guns

Clark County local governments

Local governments in Clark County have signed contracts worth $1.8 million with contract lobbyists who represent local governments in Carson City this session.

• Las Vegas: $396,000

• Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority: $380,000

• North Las Vegas: $246,000

• Henderson: $216,000

• University Medical Center: $180,000

• Southern Nevada Health District: $120,000

• Southern Nevada Water Authority: $82,000

• UNLV: $80,000

• Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission: $66,000

• Boulder City: $16,000

• Mesquite: $16,000

• Clark County: $0

• Clark County School District: $0

Still, contract lobbyists say they bring to bear an arsenal of talent, savvy and knowledge that government employee lobbyists cannot match.

A legislative session in Nevada is like a 120-day round of gladiatorial matches that happens once every two years. Lobbyists kill bills, play tricks and make deals. Legislators shift money away from some local governments and award money to others. To boot, Nevada doesn’t have “home rule,” meaning local governments need to charm legislators into giving them authority to enact relatively simple governance matters.

Given the high stakes and compressed time span, local governments have an incentive to dispatch their best warriors.

“Governments have gradually recognized that things the Legislature does can have a huge effect on local governments,” Leavitt said.

So what do contract lobbyists have to offer?

They say they can use their extensive clientele, many of whom give significant contributions to state legislators, to gain access. Local governments catch a ride on the coattails of the legislative juice machine.

“I’ll pick up things because I’m talking to someone about a Wynn or GE issue,” said Perkins, who represents Wynn Las Vegas and General Electric along with Henderson.

Other contract lobbyists tout the cachet and clout they’ve built with legislators; many lobbyists measure their experience in decades rather than years.

They say their expertise and relationships make access easy. They can play the navigator who helps city bureaucrats and elected officials find their way around the Legislature and make the right connections.

“It’s part of my job to know all the players — north, south and rural,” said Bob Ostrovsky, whose firm, the Ferraro Group, has a four-year contract worth $396,000 with Las Vegas.

The contract lobbyists fashion themselves as hired guns, mercenaries who are worth hiring because they can do the job better than others. Noting the intricate, fast-paced games that the legislative session entails, they say they translate, facilitate, monitor and act to strike for an opportunity or squash a threat.

“This is a very unique environment,” said Jim Wadhams, lobbyist with Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas, which has a two-year contract worth $380,000 with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Their job is to put heads in the beds … my job is to be spotting opportunities.”

Cutting lobbying costs

Washoe County

Local governments in Washoe County have signed contracts worth about $973,000 with contract lobbyists who represent local governments in Carson City this session.

• Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority: $360,000

• Washoe County: $189,000

• Reno: $135,000

• Truckee Meadows Water Authority: $79,000

• Sparks: $55,000

• Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District: $60,000

• Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority: $42,000

• Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County: $29,000

• Washoe County Sheriff’s Office: $24,000

Meanwhile, several local governments like Clark County and the Clark County School District have cut costs by not renewing outside lobbying contracts.

“It's difficult to justify an outside contract like that when you're laying people off,” said Sabra Smith Newby, one of Clark County’s in-house lobbyists.

Clark County retained a contract lobbying firm during the 2009 legislative session and paid about $452,000 for lobbying that year.

It ditched its outside lobbyists for the 2011 session and ended up paying $348,000 in lobbying costs, a difference almost exactly the same as the $102,000 the county paid Dan Hart & Associates in 2009.

"I still don't think you need paid (contract) lobbyists for local governments," said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, a former assemblywoman.

Without an experienced dealer with personal relationships and expert knowledge, was the in-house Clark County lobbying team suddenly reduced to a hapless band of bureaucrats scratching around like blind naked mole rats in the halls of the Nevada Legislature?

“I certainly haven't seen a whole lot of difference,” Smith said. “In fact, I've seen an improvement in our work at our Legislature as we've switched to all employees. We are the most knowledgeable about the things we do because we do them everyday.”

For example, when the state attempted to raid the Clean Water Coalition's $60 million surplus fund, it wasn't a contract lobbyist who killed the deal. The Nevada Supreme Court halted that move.

The Clark County School District paid about $250,000 for lobbying in Carson City during 2011, but they didn’t pay a contract lobbyist.

Instead, it sends district employees to Carson City, a practice it’s continuing this session.

“Our currency is good, accurate information in a timely manner,” said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent with the Clark County School District and chief lobbyist during the legislative session.

During the 2009 legislative session, Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, introduced a bill that would have changed local government lobbying laws. But the bill died in the Senate.

Now, as Assembly Speaker, she’s had testy exchanges with local government representatives, but she has not reintroduced the bill.

“If that’s how they choose to spend their taxpayer dollars, that’s how they do it,” she said. “They’re accountable to their constituents.”

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