Attorney General Brian Sandoval gave the Nevada political world a lot to think about in March when he announced public employees could not legally keep their jobs while serving in the state Legislature. The opinion, while not totally unexpected, forced several incumbent politicians to re-think their long-term prospects. According to the opinion, they could still file and run for office, but winners would have to decide whether to keep their day jobs or give them up and serve in the Legislature.
Obviously, giving up their sole means of support is not an option for several of these legislators, especially since they are paid very little for legislative service. So what do they do next?
As of our publication date, several options were being considered. One of the affected politicians could file suit and challenge the ruling in court. Sandoval has welcomed this, and even said he wrote the opinion so it could easily be turned into a legal brief. Several parties are pondering this, but there are also political ramifications to this action. Would voters be put off by a politician seeking to keep both jobs, even though a relatively thorough legal opinion said it was unconstitutional? No matter what a court says, opponents will use this to pummel incumbents.
The decision said public employees working for local governments could continue serving in the Legislature without giving up their jobs. That means firefighters, cops and nurses can continue to serve. However, Sandoval said recently that if his opinion is challenged in court, he will also ask the judge to rule on the constitutionality of local public officials serving.
Both political parties are affected by the ruling. State Senator Ray Rawson, a Republican, has already announced he will give up his $190,000-a-year job teaching dentistry at the Community College of Southern Nevada, unless the decision is overturned soon. Senator Dina Titus will have to decide whether to continue as a tenured professor at UNLV or as a legislator. Others affected by the ruling are Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani (D-Las Vegas), Assemblymen Mark Manendo (D-Las Vegas), and Jason Geddes (R-Reno). State Senator Ron Knecht (R-Carson City), works for the Public Utilities Commission and would also be affected.
The debate on whether public employees can serve as legislators is not a new one. Some claim the Nevada Constitution, which was written in the 1860s, says they cannot. In the mid-1970s, former Attorney General Robert List wrote an opinion saying they can.
One thing is certain: this issue will be used again and again to try to defeat incumbents in the 2004 election cycle.
Southern Nevada Surprises
Two races that appeared to be slam-dunks this year have suddenly become rather interesting. Longtime State Senators Ann O’Connell (R-Las Vegas) and Joe Neal (D-North Las Vegas) suddenly face primary challenges from credible opponents.
O’Connell will take on physician Joe Heck in the Republican primary in District 5. The veteran senator has never been toppled, but Heck will likely find support among gaming and business industry supporters who are angry with O’Connell over votes she made last session.
Neal will face off against Cedric Crear, who grew up in his district and has strong family roots. Like Heck, he’s likely to find friends among the gamers. Neal has, for the past several sessions, tried to raise gaming taxes.