Legislators shouldn’t get a double dip
The Spanish word for what’s going on in the Nevada Legislature is “sinverguenza” – meaning shameless, or without shame. The last time I used this word was in a column I wrote about ex-President Bill Clinton a few years ago. It was appropriate then and it’s appropriate now.
What we’re seeing is some shameless “double-dipping” by elected lawmakers who are drawing simultaneous and overlapping salaries from the hard-pressed taxpayers of this state. It’s like working one job and being paid for two – nice work if you can get it. And it’s another reason why elected officials are held in such low esteem by the general public. In fact, politicians and journalists are two of the lowest-rated occupations in public opinion polls.
So how did this sorry situation come about? Here in Northern Nevada, the poster child for double-dipping is former Washoe County Sheriff Richard Kirkland, who retired to become director of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety. While drawing full retirement salary and benefits from the county, he was also earning more than $100,000 per year with the state. Gov. Kenny Guinn explained that since Kirkland was an “essential employee,” he was entitled to his generous state salary in addition to his full Washoe County retirement package, thereby showing everyone how to ride the state government gravy train.
Many public employees climbed aboard and ran for the Legislature in order to get in on the double-dipping action. After all, if Kirkland could get away with it, why not them? Exhibit A is Assemblyman Wendell Williams, D-Las Vegas, who earns more than $85,000 per year as a “senior analyst” (whatever that is) for the city’s Neighborhood Services Department. While Williams spent more than four months in Carson City earlier this year, he continued to collect his city paycheck along with his legislative salary – $135 per day for the first 60 days plus $85 a day in per diem expenses, a total of more than $18,000. After the media blew the whistle on him, Williams accused them of racism and reluctantly agreed to pay back more than $6,700 of his ill-gotten gains.
Oh yes, Williams also ignored traffic fines and tried to find a state job for an alleged girlfriend. Other than that, he was a model legislator. “(Williams) might lose his (city) job, but he’s surviving this tepid scandal and remains an odds-on favorite to return to the Legislature for many years to come,” wrote Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, which is a sad commentary on Nevada-style politics where taxpayer ripoffs are regarded as business-as-usual.
Two other Southern Nevada assemblymen, Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, and Kelvin Atkinson, D-N. Las Vegas, were fired last month after they violated Clark County personnel policies by collecting their municipal salaries while also being paid by the state. And then there’s Henderson Deputy Police Chief Richard Perkins, a Democrat who doubles as Assembly speaker at the Legislature. Perkins, who dreams of becoming governor and who makes nearly $122,000 per year as a cop, explained that he earned his police pay during the session by working nights and weekends and never taking a vacation. As Smith commented, “Anyone married with kids will have a hard time buying that, Mr. Speaker.” No kidding!
Several Northern Nevada public employees serve in the Legislature, including Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, and Assemblymen Bernie Anderson, D-Reno, and our own Ron Knecht, a Carson City Republican who works for the state Public Utilities Commission. To their credit, schoolteacher Anderson and Knecht took leaves of absence during the 2003 session, but that raises interesting questions: How many of you could take four months off and keep your jobs? And if you could take four months off, how important could your job be?
In all, 16 of our 63 state lawmakers are employed by state, county or city governments, which means that public employees are overrepresented in the Legislature since far fewer than 25 percent of Nevada residents are government employees. So what should we do about these continuing taxpayer ripoffs and obvious conflicts of interest?
I agree with my friend and fellow Appeal columnist Bob Thomas, who has been a voice in the wilderness on this issue for several years. As Bob wrote three years ago, “It’s a conflict of interest when public employees are in a position to influence votes or actually vote on legislation which directly or indirectly affects them.” According to Thomas, the biggest offenders are schoolteachers and legislators who are married to teachers. His solution: Prohibit public employees who are elected to the Legislature from serving on the money committees and from voting on appropriations bills.
In summary, I believe that public employees should be permitted to run for office in order to retain our citizen legislature. But at the same time, they should be required to take leaves of absence while the Legislature is in session and barred from serving on money committees or voting on money measures.
Secretary of State Dean Heller addressed this issue a few days ago by asking Attorney General. Brian Sandoval for an opinion on whether state employees should be barred from elective office under the state’s mini-Hatch Act. I don’t think so, but it’s a question well worth asking and I eagerly await Sandoval’s legal opinion.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former state employee, resides in Carson City.