Legislature could be in for big time shake-up
The Nevada Legislature could be in for its biggest shake-up in years because of controversy over a record 2003 tax increase, double-dipping by state lawmakers who hold local government jobs and political power plays that target entrenched leaders.
The possible political victims range from green first-termers in the 2003 session to cagy veterans like Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. Raggio might have an easy re-election campaign but the longtime lawmaker must wage a statewide fight to preserve a Republican majority in the upper house and hang onto enough support within the GOP caucus to retain his top leadership post.
The elements at work as the 2004 election year nears are reminiscent of reaction to the 1989 Legislature’s controversial 300 percent pension increase – a plan that was quickly repealed because of public antipathy but not before it inflicted heavy political damage.
In the elections that followed, nearly half the Assembly and Senate seats up for grabs went to newcomers, and the pension controversy was cited as a reason for many of the incumbents not being returned to Carson City.
Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas said the political rhetoric over taxes and lawmakers’ pay will be loud. But he said the swirl might not overcome the voting edge that many Assembly Democrats enjoy in their districts because of incumbent-friendly 2001 reapportionment.
Republican lawmakers who opposed the $836 million tax plan approved in 2003 will have an advantage with voters, Jelen said – though he sees it as an unfair one.
“They can take credit for holding the line on taxes without having to live with the consequences of actually doing that,” he said. Programs in education and other areas would have been badly damaged without new tax revenues.
Democrats and Republicans who voted for higher taxes might be targeted by antitax “true believers,” but GOP incumbents probably will suffer more because they’ll have to go through bloody primary battles, Jelen said.
Leaders like Raggio might face their biggest challenges after Election Day when the political caucuses vie to establish leadership of the Senate and Assembly.
“Between the south wanting the power, the ideological differences and just the way some of these races are going to end up, it’s going to be a tough battle for Sen. Raggio,” said Eric Herzik, an interim dean and political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Jelen said the issue is far from settled because “Bill Raggio didn’t get where he is by being stupid.”
“Formidable forces are arrayed against him, but I wouldn’t write him off just yet,” Jelen said of Raggio, who turned 77 on Thursday.
Raggio, first elected to the Senate in 1972, shrugged off a brewing challenge from incumbent southern Nevada senators who opposed higher taxes.
He said he hasn’t made up his mind on a re-election bid and won’t until early next year.
“I’m not going to make something out of what I see as a non-issue,” he said. “At this point I’ve been assured I have the support of the majority of the caucus, and that’s the way it is at the moment.”
“If they think they can get a better leader, they can do it,” Raggio said.
Raggio’s tenuous caucus majority could shrink depending on the outcome of such races as longtime ally Ray Rawson’s re-election bid.
Assemblyman Bob Beers, champion of fiscal conservatives who opposed the 2003 tax increase, has said he’s challenging Rawson, R-Las Vegas, because he feels “betrayed” by Rawson’s favorable vote on the tax plan. Beers acknowledged he’ll be strongly opposed by casinos, unions and public employee groups.
Another Raggio ally, Democrat-turned-Republican Ray Shaffer of North Las Vegas, is being challenged by former Assemblyman John Lee, but not over taxes. Lee, a Democrat, thinks Shaffer is vulnerable because he switched parties in late 2002 and left the 2003 session early to go on a Hawaiian cruise.
Shaffer’s party switch gave the Senate Republicans a 13-8 advantage in the 2003 session. Assembly Democrats had a 23-19 margin in the 2003 session.
Several incumbents – mostly Assembly Democrats, including Speaker Richard Perkins – have been caught up in the controversy over government workers serving in the Legislature.
Perkins, Henderson’s deputy police chief, is fighting a move to find him in violation of the Hatch Act if he files for re-election. The act prohibits partisan political activity by those who supervise or administer federal grant money.
Perkins also was drawn into the “double-dipping” flap because he logged 19 hours a week as the city of Henderson’s deputy police chief through most of the 2003 Legislature and two special sessions that followed. Perkins has denied any impropriety, saying he spent a few hours on police work on his days in Carson City, using e-mail and telephones to supervise three subordinate captains, and worked at the Henderson police station many weekends.
The pay flap focused at first on Assemblyman Wendell Williams, D-Las Vegas, who agreed to repay $6,765 of his salary as an administrative officer in the Neighborhood Services Department after officials questioned the time he worked for the city while serving in the 2003 Legislature.
Also, first-term Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson and Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, both Las Vegas Democrats, lost their regular jobs with Clark County after officials determined they worked on legislative matters while on the county’s time clock during the session.
Assemblyman Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, also figures in the flap. A former administrator in the city’s Neighborhood Services Department, he logged an average of more than 25 hours of work per week while the Legislature was in session in 2001.
In northern Nevada, Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, collected two paychecks for government jobs during the two special legislative sessions, when she said she worked simultaneously as a lawmaker and specialty court administrator. She’s seeking a legal opinion about whether she broke a policy or law.
Assemblyman Ron Knecht, R-Carson City, kept his teaching position at Western Nevada Community College, accepting $1,710 for teaching microeconomics two nights a week.
And the University of Nevada, Reno paid the group health insurance premium for Assemblyman Jason Geddes, the university’s environmental affairs manager, during his unpaid leave.