Government jobs can pose conflicts of interest for Nevada lawmakers

CARSON CITY - Twenty-four of Nevada's 63 lawmakers face potential conflicts because they or their spouses work for employers that get state funding or whose rules are affected by legislative actions, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Friday.

For example, four legislators and three of their spouses work for the Clark County School District, which gets much of its money from the Legislature.

Two legislators and two of their spouses work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while three hold Clark County government jobs and two are employed by the city of Las Vegas.

State ethics laws and decisions allow lawmakers to vote on matters affecting their spouses and employers. The lawmakers must disclose publicly that they're deciding something that affects themselves or an employer, and can't vote on a matter that would give an employers or themselves a special advantage.

''I think most legislators are pretty careful,'' says Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. ''You don't vote for something that gives a pecuniary advantage for yourself or your employer.''

Nevada has a citizen Legislature in which most members hold outside jobs to support themselves. The Legislature meets 120 days every other year. Legislators hold interim committee meetings at other times.

About 40 percent of legislators occasionally cast votes on matters affecting their spouses and bosses, especially if the employers are divisions of government, such as the school districts and university system.

Financial disclosure statements submitted by legislators to the Ethics Commission at the end of March show 13 legislators and 15 spouses of lawmakers work for public agencies, including local, state and federal governments, and school districts.

In four cases - Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly members Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, Ellen Koivisto, D-Las Vegas, and Richard Perkins, D-Henderson - both the legislator and the spouse held public employment jobs.

Common Cause spokesman Bob May said his organization has no major objection with legislators casting ballots that might help them or their employers.

''Disclosure is the essential thing,'' he said. ''We recognize people in a citizen Legislature have special interests. But they have a right to participate in government.''

But Judy Cresenta, president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, is alarmed that so many legislators and their spouses hold public jobs and cast votes affecting their employers.

Cresenta recognizes legislators must hold outside jobs. Her solution would be to outlaw them from voting on matters affecting themselves or their employers.

Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, consulted legislative attorneys and past ethics opinions before voting on matters in 1999 that could affect her husband, Merritt, a state parole officer.

''Ours being a citizen Legislature means we have to look at things differently,'' she said. ''We have other lives. We have to rely on our own code of ethics.''

Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes said legislators shouldn't vote on measures that materially and specifically affect them or a spouse.

But in a 1993 opinion, the state Ethics Commission said two Clark County teachers - Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, and then-Sen. Lori Lipman-Brown, D-Las Vegas - could vote on teacher salary matters and other education matters.

Raggio doesn't vote on major gambling matters because he holds a gambling license.

''I'm overly cautious,'' he said. ''I recuse myself from gaming matters and on matters my law firm lobbies.''

He said the seven lawyers in the Legislature must be especially cautious. State laws require them to report each instance in which they appear before a state agency on behalf of a client.

Sen. Mark James, R-Las Vegas, was caught up in controversy in 1999 when he backed an amendment to a bill that would have helped powerful lobbyist Harvey Whittemore build a private pier at Lake Tahoe.

James didn't vote on the proposal, but his participation in hearings on the bill led to a public ''Piergate'' outcry. The Assembly cut the controversial elements from the bill.


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