RENO, Nev. — Luring the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas was a big deal in Nevada — so big that the state Legislature took an unprecedented step when it convened in emergency session last year.
The decision to approve a $750 million tax increase to build a stadium was deemed so crucial that the Senate and Assembly waived the self-reporting requirements for lawmakers to reveal potential conflicts of interest. The resolution was approved on a voice vote with no opportunity for public comment.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said the action was warranted because the legislation was of “immense public importance” and would “have significant impacts on the general welfare and prosperity” of the state.
“The resolution explains that the Senate’s ethics rules do not require any member to make disclosures or abstain from voting on the bills because each members’ interest are not greater than the interest of the entire class of persons affected,” Roberson said Oct. 11, 2016.
That meant no lawmakers recused themselves, including Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno. Kieckhefer served as vice chairman of the joint session that approved the spending bill rules even though he works as director of client relations for a major law and lobbying firm whose clients included the Oakland Raiders.
Kieckhefer defended his vote. Even without the waiver, he said he didn’t believe he had a potential conflict because he has no involvement in the lobbying wing of the firm.
“I work for the law firm. The lobbying shop is a separate legal entity,” said Kieckhefer, who once worked as a reporter for The Associated Press. “There’s a wall that was put up between them before I even started there.”
Critics of Nevada’s part-time, citizen Legislature say the extraordinary move was a prime example of why the state should elect full-time legislators not dependent on outside jobs.
Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of mostly labor, minority and social justice advocates, said he would have objected at the time if he had the opportunity.
“The Nevada Legislature openly flaunts the absolute lack of rules governing their conflict between serving the public or serving their employers,” he said.
That line is often blurred in citizen legislatures nationally.
In a nationwide review, the Center for Public Integrity and the AP found at least 76 percent of state lawmakers around the country reported outside income or employment in 2015. While that might give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those income sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
Nevada is one of just four states with legislatures that meet every other year. Montana, North Dakota and Texas are the others.
Nevada’s governor can call special sessions to address emergencies. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval did so in 2015 to approve $1 billion in incentives to persuade Tesla to build its battery factory east of Reno, and again last year to help build the Raiders’ stadium.
The Legislature did not waive conflict-of-interest rules for the Tesla vote, even though it could turn out to be a richer deal in providing tax revenue.
Michael Stewart, deputy research director for Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau, said the Senate’s permanent rules free senators from reporting potential conflicts on issues of “immense public importance.” He said the resolution for the Raiders stadium vote went further by specifying the stadium measure was of such importance. Two-thirds majorities were needed in both houses to pass the tax hike.
“I don’t see that particular language has been adopted in the past,” said Stewart, who researched rules adopted in previous special sessions.
Andrew Barbano, a union leader who opposed the stadium’s public financing, said “the deal drips with cronyism.”
Nevada lawmakers typically are left largely to determine themselves whether they have conflicts in cases where they might benefit personally from legislation. Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, is among those who say Nevada’s business and political climate is different than others.
“I tell people we don’t believe in conflicts in Nevada. It’s just the way we do business,” Segerblom said.
He doesn’t have a problem with dual jobs held by Kieckhefer or anyone else.
“He’s not getting a benefit financially,” Segerblom said. “If the voters don’t like him, they can kick him out. But as we define conflicts, that’s not a conflict.”
Kieckhefer said switching to a full-time Legislature is a “terrible” idea.
With a part-time, citizen Legislature, lawmakers “know what it means to have to support a family in the real world outside of government,” he said. “If the most important thing in life is keeping my job as a politician, that would influence my ability to do my job significantly more than what I do now.”