By Geoffrey Lawrence, NPRI, September 11, 2023
“I will follow the opinion. I will abstain,” said Nevada’s longest-serving state Senator Bill Raggio. Raggio, who served 40 years in the state senate, including 16 years as Senate Majority Leader, was hip-deep in negotiating a payroll tax hike during the 2009 legislative session.
A lobbyist from the private law firm where Raggio was employed had testified in support of the tax hike during a committee hearing. This appeared to create a conflict of interest for Raggio because his private obligations to his law firm might tilt his public discretion as an elected lawmaker.
Ever the conscientious lawyer, Raggio sought an opinion from legislative counsel on the matter and was advised that he should abstain from voting on the legislation.
This was the perhaps the last notable example of a Nevada lawmaker choosing to abstain from a vote in recognition of their private conflicts of interest.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers openly doled out tax dollars to private companies in which they held a direct, personal interest.
Senate Bill 525, dubbed the “Christmas Tree Bill” because it contained so many giveaways, totaled more than $58 million in legislative appropriations to a range of 57 different private organizations.
Nearly all of these grants contained no meaningful restrictions on the use of funds. In fact, the most common purpose listed within the bill for each grant was to support each recipient’s “programs” without providing further detail. Grant sizes ranged from $5,000 to $15 million.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal revealed that Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow was hired shortly after the legislative session by one of the recipient organizations, Arc of Nevada, as its new executive director.
The organization received $250,000 in the Christmas Tree Bill – its first receipt of state funds ever.
This incident drew immediate public backlash and prompted Gorelow to announce she would not run for re-election.
In a subsequent editorial, the Review-Journal lamented that legislative counsel had advised that Gorelow didn’t need to abstain from a vote on the Christmas Tree Bill nor even make a disclosure about her possible conflict because the bill “affects most citizens in the state.”
This, despite the fact the money was being channeled to specific groups and her private interest in one of those groups was obvious.
However, while the Gorelow incident has drawn headlines, this wasn’t the only undisclosed conflict of private and public interest among Nevada lawmakers:
- Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, who leads the legislative Nonprofit Caucus, also serves on the board of the same organization to which Gorelow is linked.
- Assemblyman Cameron Miller is president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, which received $100,000. That organization also runs a small business development center, which received a separate grant for $1 million. Miller is also a director of the Economic Opportunity Board of Clark County, which received $100,000.
- Senator Carrie Buck serves on the advisory council at Spread the Word Nevada, a nonprofit that received $500,000 to purchase books to promote childhood literacy. Buck doesn’t appear to draw a salary from this organization, but her private affiliation would likely have merited an abstention from voting under the guidance given to Bill Raggio.
Not only did lawmakers grant tax dollars to organizations from which they would become direct beneficiaries themselves, they also gave money to organizations with heavy partisan political clout.
The largest recipient was the Culinary Training Academy, which received $15 million from state taxpayers to construct a new facility.
The academy is affiliated with the Culinary Union, which represents casino workers in Southern Nevada. The union claims to run the “largest political program in Nevada” and is the central cog in the so-called “Reid machine” that exists to elect Democrats to public office.
Current Nevada Congressman and former state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford is formerly the CEO of the academy, from which he drew a $150,000 annual salary for an average work week of 25 hours.
The Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, where former Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley is chief executive officer, was among the recipients, receiving $250,000.
According to the organization’s 2021 tax filings, Buckley received $234,009 in salary that year, so the grant would be enough to cover her salary.
Since leaving the legislature in 2010, Buckley and her campaign accounts have, in turn, donated nearly $600,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations in Nevada, according to contribution and expense reports maintained by the secretary of state.
In addition to this patronage, current Assemblywoman Venicia Considine is employed as director of development and community relations at the Legal Aid Center. She did not recuse herself from the vote on SB 525.
Indeed, her job title would indicate a direct conflict because it implies she is paid, in part, to lobby on behalf of her private employer, the Legal Aid Center, while also casting direct votes as a public official.
It’s inevitable that part-time lawmakers, who must earn a living outside of their elected office, will occasionally face a conflict of interest between their private and public commitments.
But the standard used to be for lawmakers to abstain from voting on items where they’re conflicted or to at least publicly disclose the conflict.
This standard doesn’t appear to have disappeared – in fact, it is still codified into the current version of the Nevada Assembly Standing Rules (Rule No. 23) that are approved by lawmakers at the outset of each session.
Sadly, it appears lawmakers have just stopped following their own rules regarding legislative ethics.