“No man can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)
Should employees of state or local governments be allowed to serve in the Nevada Legislature? The Nevada Constitution clearly says no, but a 1971 ruling by then-Attorney General Robert List allowed the practice, and it has snowballed ever since. During the 2003 Legislature, 16 of the 63 lawmakers were public employees. Nevada Business Journal asked Richard Perkins, Speaker of the Nevada Assembly and also a deputy chief for the Henderson Police Department, to give his opinion on the subject. Mr. Perkins makes some good points, and readers are welcome to turn to “Speaking for Nevada” in this issue to see his side of the story.
However, consider all the political wrongdoing that has come to light in the last few months. Clark County employees Kathy McClain and Kelvin Atkinson have been fired for calling in sick while they were actually working as Assemblymen in Carson City. That’s bad enough, but Assemblymen Morse Arberry and Wendell Williams did the same thing as employees of the City of Las Vegas, at least as far back as the 2001 session. Arberry, who used to work in the city’s Neighborhood Services Department, billed the city’s taxpayers for more than 25 hours of work per week while the Legislature was in session in 2001. When Williams was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he agreed to repay the city $6,725 for hours he did not work while serving in the 2003 Legislature, and he also agreed to repay $1,822 for personal calls made on his city-issued cell phone. The city suspended him for two weeks without pay.
Imagine you are an employer. One of your staff calls in sick and you discover later that he spent his “sick” days working at another company. Further investigation showed he charged over $1,800 in personal calls to the company phone. Would he be suspended for two weeks? In the real business world, he’d be gone in New York minute.
But, we have to remember we’re not talking about the real world – we’re talking about Nevada politics. Williams, a North Las Vegas Democrat first elected in 1986, is the Assembly’s speaker pro tempore, its second-highest position. As an Assemblyman, he lobbied fellow legislators during the last session to support a program he administers for the city. Naturally, the city was grateful – apparently grateful enough to look the other way when he cheated on his timecards.
As chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Williams also has his fingers on the community college’s purse strings. Imagine the pressure he was able to exert on John Cummings, lobbyist for Community College of Southern Nevada, to convince him to hire a young female friend of his. And when Cummings was dissatisfied with her job performance and wanted to fire her, Williams reportedly leaned on University Chancellor Jane Nichols to enlist her support in keeping his friend on the payroll.
Of course, not every public employee serving in the Legislature takes advantage of his or her position to expert undue influence or to get paid for the same hours by two different employers. Most take unpaid leave from their other jobs while the Legislature is in session. But, the temptation must always be there to try to please your local employer while you’re supposed to be serving the state. What if the voters in your district want to keep state spending down, but you know your boss at the city or county would be really angry if you voted against a bill that would provide funding for one of his pet projects? Do you please your constituents or your boss? Remember, the Legislature meets for only four months every other year, except for special sessions. During that time, you’re in charge of your boss’s paycheck, but the rest of the time, he’s in charge of yours.
Steven Miller, of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, points out that public-employee unions support candidates from their ranks. These people then vote for wage increases for public employees (including themselves) paid for by the taxpayers. “Public-employee lawmakers and most of the public-sector agencies that employ them are involved in a joint conspiracy against the taxpayers of the Silver State,” said Miller. “The public agencies generally like their pact with the pols because it provides more power in the state Legislature than they otherwise would merit.”
Former Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones, who was in office in 2001 when Arberry and Williams were serving in the Legislature, was quoted in the October 26 issue of the Las Vegas Review Journal as saying,”What the city’s going to get from the Legislature is increased funding so constituents are better served. There’s never going to be a conflict with constituents being served.” This perfectly illustrates the mindset of our elected and appointed government officials. Ms. Jones and others like her see no conflict of interest in those who are double-dipping at local and state levels, because the more funding constituents (that is, voters) get, the better for everyone. More funding means happy voters. These people are excited about growing government ever bigger “to serve the public.”
This reminds me of the old Twilight Zone episode about the friendly aliens who come to earth with a book called “To Serve Man.” Only when it was too late did the earthlings discover it was a cookbook. The funds to please these local voters come from my pocket and your pocket. If my taxes are raised, am I better served? I don’t think so.
It’s time to reconsider whether we want people with divided loyalties in our Legislature. Some public employees seem to have figured out how to serve two masters without succumbing to the temptations inherent in the situation. But, let’s a close look during the next elections at the records of all of the candidates and make sure we elect people who will have our best interests at heart.