Recently, elected officials met at Holland & Hart’s Las Vegas office to discuss the changing world of politics and the types of policies they expect to see in the coming years.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings are designed to bring leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
How do party politics impact the effectiveness of elected officials?
Michael Schneider: It used to be that after the elections you check your party at the door and you went in and worked for the betterment of Nevada. That doesn’t happen enough. There’s blatant partisan politics from the opening bell to the end. It heightened this past session. I don’t see how that does any good for the state when you can’t negotiate anything.
Dina Neal: I’m hoping its going to get better, so I’ll be the optimist on this, but there were some issues in terms of dialogue. We were prevented from having good dialogue which I felt could have improved the outcome on certain bills. As freshman, who hope to come back, we plan to change that outcome because we do believe in issues and we do believe in setting a policy agenda and at least working on the things that we have in common.
Irene Bustamante Adams: I agree that I did see some of the things that Mike [Schneider] mentioned and that was eye opening for me as a freshman legislator, but I also am hopeful and optimistic because of the large group of freshman that came in this session. We were all learning at the same time the same things, and just the collaboration with the other side, I see it and I feel very positive for what the next couple of years will bring.
John Hambrick: I love the freshman class, but it troubles me to hear you were restricted. I received sage advice and I try to pass it on. If you believe in a bill vote for it, regardless, vote for it. If you dislike it, vote against it, regardless, but if you don’t have a dog in that fight, vote for the caucus. At some point you have to have some loyalty, but your first loyalty is for the people we work for.
Cresent Hardy: I think we had a good leader in our republican caucus that always said that if you like the bill vote for it, if it’s a bad bill don’t vote for it. Some people I had to deal with, it had nothing to do with whether it was a good idea or bad idea, it was politics and I was disappointed to see that happen.
Lynn Stewart: We get along a lot better than congress does, there’s not that strong animosity. Also, I think it depends on the committee. The chairman of the committee sets the tone, if it’s going to be partisan or more cooperative. I was on four committees and in two of the committees there was a great deal of cooperation, on the other two, not as much. It depends a good deal on the chairman and his or her attitude and philosophy.
Jason Friedman: We’re certainly not the same as our colleagues in D.C., but there were some instances where we weren’t able to make the kind of progress that we needed to make because of that tone. If we had all the answers and if our perspective was the only good perspective, then we wouldn’t need a legislative process. Nevada can not afford to have it be about just one issue. It can’t just be education, labor or business. We don’t have that luxury. We have to come together with the thought in mind that all of this is related and that we have consequences when we don’t think about that.
What is the public’s perception of elected officials?
Hardy: They think exactly the same thing I thought when I was running for assembly. We’ve got a bunch of hypocritical, self-serving individuals [who are elected]. I was grateful for the opportunity to get to go there. I found out different. People are genuinely concerned. However, because of a lack of cooperation with one another there is no other alternative, but for the general public to look it that way. Redistricting for one, the state is disappointed that we couldn’t dissolve that in legislation. That it was so hard-core politics.
Stewart: I think the general public has a misconception of the legislature. They confuse us with congress all the time. They think we are making big bucks. They think we have a staff. It’s a terrible misunderstanding of how little we get, how much we have to do and the fact that we’re a true citizen legislature. I wish we could get a better understanding of who we are and what we do.
Friedman: I think they’re cynical for some good reasons. I don’t know that we as legislators have stayed in contact with our community as frequently as we could. That silence lends itself to creating that perception. Regardless of politics or perspectives, this service is a tremendous sacrifice. I think the perception that it’s just going out to dinner to fancy places and stuffing money in your pockets is frustrating. We can disagree everyday, but we can’t deny the sacrifice all of us make. I hope that we can better communicate to our constituents that our hearts are in the right place and for our state. We just disagree on how to get there.
Neal: Some of the public perception that I’ve encountered is that there isn’t a holistic view as to how we develop solutions. People are still questioning whether or not we really want a solution for the problem. Issues that have been systemic and we’ve seen them replay over several sessions are examples. They’re always some of the core and hard hitting issues of sustainability and diversification that have been consistent issues replayed every session.
Joe Hogan: We need to think highly enough of ourselves and of the job that we’re trying to do that we’re willing to accept and go against what’s expected with good reasons; not with apologies but with explanations to those who might have expected us to do otherwise.
What is your take on term limits?
Hambrick: I like term limits because I think at some point, people don’t feel it’s something that they have to earn. We have to remember that we owe it to our constituents. I think some special interests have gotten hold in this state. Occasionally there may be a lot of special interest that convince some legislators to the detriment of their constituents back home. We must not lose that perspective. We represent those in need. I don’t know how we could make that happen, but we must work on it.
Hardy: I think that when people have too much time in one spot they start thinking they are somebody they are not. I like the direction it’s headed that someone can’t hold a seat so long that they dominate their view. We are obligated to try to cooperate.
Stewart: I’ve seen some great legislators that have been term limited and we are hurting because they are not there. On the other hand, I’ve seen some that you have to be glad they are term limited. There are good and bad points, but I tip slightly in favor of terms.
Hogan: I would rather take a chance on keeping somebody who is very contributory to the state of the body and risk the turkey staying a little longer than he or she ought to.
Schneider: I think term limits are for lazy people that don’t get involved and don’t do their homework. That’s what’s happened with our democracy right now. We have term limits called an election, every two years. If you don’t like them, throw them out.
What is the cost of running for office?
Neal: It’s an extreme sacrifice. You have to find an employer who likes you a lot and who’s willing to give you time to go to these meetings and be gone for four months and that’s very hard to come by.
Hambrick: All our costs are doubling. Every assembly district has almost doubled in size. To run, the cost last year was about $140-150 thousand. I anticipate that’s going to go up to $200,000 plus. In just mailing, I went from roughly $32 thousand to $64 thousand plus.
Schneider: Independent expenditures are also driving the cost. You have these different groups, some from Washington D.C., that come in and spend money and it’s throwing cost way out of line. We saw it the last go round big time where that last month there was a couple million spent in two senate races in this town and it was all outside money. The Supreme Court’s decision just took the lid off and allowed everything to get out of control.
Friedman: We compare ourselves to the Washington D.C. culture, but congress is a full time job. Nevada’s constitution created a citizens legislature so that we would have 63 folks from all facets of our community that reflect our voice as a state. We go to our voters and we raise money to get our message out and introduce voters to who we are. We have to travel back and forth and we have to pay for housing there and housing here, while not getting a check from our regular jobs. So we raise money so that people understand who we are and get to know us and can evaluate us. Also, to be able to make up for the fact we make some $8,000 dollars once every other year for four months.
Adams: The system could lend itself to having people that are only retired or extremely wealthy to serve, but that’s not what our constitution asks us to have. Within the freshman class in the democratic caucus we were all in our late 20’s to 40’s; that’s our prime income potential. We should be making a significant amount, but a lot of us chose to serve our state in this position. It’s a tremendous financial sacrifice. We share personal stories of looking at foreclosures in our homes or being the breadwinner of your family and your spouse wasn’t working and how you balance groceries. I have a deeper appreciation now knowing what it takes to serve. I’m in awe.
Neal: Now, there’s this move that if you work for any state agency you’re getting looked at like a villain.
Hambrick: There’s a pending lawsuit that Nevada Policy Research Institute has put forward about not allowing public employees [to serve] that I’m in favor for. I don’t think they should be in there. For thirty years as a federal employee I could not be involved in partisan politics because of the Hatch Act.
Friedman: For public employees or employees in the private sector it’s a sacrifice. We take at least four months away from our jobs without pay. It’s not easy whether it’s public or private to find an employer that will allow that. To deem somebody ineligible because they found an employer who will allow [the time off], I find disturbing.
What are the top challenges in our state?
Friedman: First is our tax structure; making sure we have a structure that provides a consistent supply for whatever we decide as a legislature our basic needs are. The other is the state’s public education. Education is at the core of a lot of what we do. How do we get businesses to come here or families to stay here? We must provide a stable, quality system of public education.
Stewart: The main problem is the economy. You can divide that into economic diversity: we need to create more industries that are not gaming, tourism or mining. Regarding the tax structure, we need to find a better way to pay taxes without raising them and have a broader base; education is also tied into that.
Hardy: Getting a fair tax structure that works for Nevada so we know where we’re going, how to get there and how we live within our means. We need to learn to live within our budget. We are behind because we relied on one industry. It took us a long time to get to this challenge we’re in and it’s going to take us a long time to pull out, but education and a fair tax structure that we can rely on are top challenges.
Adams: It’s about reinventing ourselves which lends to the economy, education and tax structure. We’re moving in the right direction with the legislation we passed AB449 and SB75 which is investment in capital equity. It’s slower than I would like it to be, but reinventing ourselves would have to be the number one for me. The second would be Nevada’s position on the federal level, because of how much land the federal government owns in our state.
Schneider: We’ve been cheap in Nevada since 1864. We support everything as long as we don’t have to pay for it. We want someone else to pay for it and that’s the problem in our state. We have fewer government employees than any other state per capita. We need to step up and pay for ourselves for a change.
Neal: The two issues are business development and growth in education. Although we’ve always been financially deficient, we haven’t focused as much as we need to on the human capital part. Sandoval just started talking about having businesses doing partnerships within the schools and committing three or four hours to offset some of these staffing issues.
Hambrick: I believe AB449 must succeed and education is built into that because Nevada System of Higher Education is part of economic development. We’re seeing some good come out of it already according to the Governor’s comments.
Hogan: I certainly agree there are problems with our whole tax scheme and public education. The business community and the general population have become accepting of being 49th in just about everything and a lot of people say, “lets not talk about taxes”. I think we need to be a little better at self examination. We need to raise more revenue for those things that are priorities for our future.
Schneider: The number one reason that businesses don’t move here is because of our funding level of education. They say, “How can I get more employees if you’re not funding your university system properly?” That’s our problem and if we don’t address it with revenue we’re going to be here loping along 20 years from now.