There's a quiet move under way that may lead to a legal challenge of Nevada's term limits, approved by voters a decade ago and now forcing many officials into final bids for their current seats.
The behind-the-scenes activity involves both Democrats and Republicans, and the result could be a petition filed with the state Supreme Court by various interest groups - rather than the term-limited officials themselves - to stop the limits from taking effect in 2010.
That's not to say the officials aren't vitally interested. But as they seek re-election for what could be the last time this year, they'd rather not openly participate in something opponents could term "their naked self-interests laid bare," one political observer says.
A voter backlash isn't as big a problem for outside groups because "they're pretty anonymous to the voting public. Elected officials are the ones who are accountable, to some degree," adds University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore.
Eighteen veteran lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, face final races this year due to term limits. Other term-limited veterans include Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus and Sens. Mike Schneider and Valerie Wiener, all Las Vegas Democrats.
Also up for final re-election bids are Republican Sens. Dean Rhoads of Tuscarora and Mike McGinness of Fallon. Buckley is among 12 Assembly members in the same spot. Among others are Democrats Morse Arberry, Sheila Leslie, Mark Manendo and David Parks and Republicans John Carpenter and John Marvel.
The Assembly members serve two-year terms and the senators serve four-year terms. Seven other senators were re-elected for what could be the last time in 2006. They included Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, and Bob Coffin, Maggie Carlton and Terry Care, all Las Vegas Democrats.
Besides the state lawmakers, the Nevada Association of Counties notes that many county commissioners, city council members, mayors, town board members and others are affected by the limits. NACO says 15 of the state's 17 counties will have at least one new commissioner by 2012.
"I'm aware that there are various and diverse interest groups looking at this question," Sen. Townsend says. "As term limits come forward and start to become more clear, those interest groups are finding that maybe this is not as good an idea as it was before, and they have a right to go to court."
"Whatever happens, those of us who are potentially affected will live with whatever the results are."
So who might get involved in the litigation? The state AFL-CIO is one prospect, although Danny Thompson, head of the big union and a term-limits foe, says, "We haven't done anything right now. That's to be determined. We haven't made a formal decision."
Mary Lau of the Retail Association of Nevada says her group is "absolutely supportive" of a legal challenge, although she wants to see the exact wording of the petition. Regarding such a challenge, she adds, "I hope the public will consider it a public service, because it really is."
Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada says his public-interest group hasn't been asked to sign onto a petition, but added, "Absolutely, we would love to join in an effort to repeal term limits."
"We think term limits are anathema to the Democratic process. The best way to have term limits is to vote people out of office," he said.
While the limits don't directly affect him, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also is involved in the developing move. He met recently with both state and local officials affected by the limits, and also reportedly discussed the limits with Secretary of State Ross Miller, Nevada's elections chief.
"It's a policy that's worth discussing," Reid spokesman Jon Summers says. "His concern is twofold, making sure that voters have the ability to choose who represents them while at the same time limiting the power of wealthy special-interest groups."
A Supreme Court petition aimed at voiding term limits wouldn't go unchallenged. Main advocates of the limits approved by voters in the mid-1990s included prominent GOP powerbroker Sig Rogich - and Rogich hasn't changed his mind on the issue.
"I committed to it before and I wouldn't change that commitment now," Rogich said, adding that opponents of such a move could "tie anyone closely associated with this to the fact that they're trying to undo the will of the voters. That's dangerous ground."
Philip Blumel, head of U.S. Term Limits which backed Nevada's 1994 and 1996 statewide votes for term limits, said his group also would fight the effort to cancel the limits.
"We're a single-issue organization. Our goal is to assist people and defend voter-approved term limits," Lumel said. "We certainly would look at the case to see how we could help."
One likely legal argument against the Nevada limits would be that voters are supposed to vote on questions presented "in the same manner" in two consecutive elections to change the Nevada Constitution, but that's not exactly what happened with term limits.
The 1994 ballot question limited terms of all elected officials, including judges, but the 1996 question was split into two parts by the state Supreme Court. One part covered judges and was rejected by voters, and the second part covered the other officials and was passed.
The Nevada limits are among the most liberal in the nation. They allow legislators to serve 12 years in each house. In some other states, the limit is half that. Also, Nevada limits statewide constitutional officers to two four-year terms.
Supporters contend term limits give voters more control and prevent career politicians from locking out newcomers and becoming beholden to special interests. Critics maintain term limits have resulted in a loss of valuable experience, institutional memory and an increase in the power of lobbyists, staff and bureaucrats.
Sooner would be better for a court challenge, as far as term-limited legislative leaders are concerned. With the limits still in place as the 2009 session starts, their lame-duck status could make it tougher than usual to maintain control among ambitious lawmakers who aren't limited and are eager to take over.
If a court effort to repeal the limits is filed in Nevada but loses - as most repeal efforts have in other states - legislators who can't run in one house have the option of filing for a seat in the other house. That's what Sen. Carlton is considering if the limits remain in 2010.
"I don't look at it as moving up or moving down," Carlton said of a possible state Assembly run. "I just look at it as serving on the other end of the building. It's a little bit more crowded, but the work still gets done."
"Government moves really slowly, and 12 years won't be enough time for me to be able to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do."
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