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California and the West

Part-Time Legislature Suits Most Nevadans Just Fine

Democracy: In Wild West spirit, many say the less government, the better. Critics urge more frequent sessions.

February 05, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARSON CITY, Nev. — When the state's lawmakers gather here today for the start of their biennial session, Maggie Carlton will leave behind her waitress job at a Las Vegas Strip coffee shop. Dean Rhoads will absent himself from his Tuscarora cattle ranch. And Pastor Maurice Washington's flock in Sparks knows it's time for him to serve his other master: the public.

They are members of the Nevada Legislature. No heady career politicians here. The 63 members, elected from Nevada's rank and file, believe they know the pulse of the state because--except for four months every two years--they have, as they like to say, real jobs.

"We're still the Wild West and we still are anti-government," said Richard Perkins, a deputy Henderson police chief who serves as speaker of the 42-member, Democrat-controlled Assembly. "We don't let ourselves get wrapped up in the land of Oz. We don't lose sight of reality. And I think that makes us better politicians, because when we pass laws, we have a sense of how they'll work in the real world, because that's where we spend most of our time."

Nevada's chill toward politicians is the stuff of legend, albeit some of it apocryphal. Most everyone insists that when the state was created in 1864 and its Constitution instructed legislators to meet biennially for two months, Samuel Clemens, then a political journalist for Virginia City's territorial newspaper, remarked: "It's far better the Legislature meet every 60 years for two days than every two years for 60 days."

Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, said no such thing, historians say, but whoever did may well have captured the state's collective sentiment.

"The view of my voters," said Republican Rhoads, "is: The longer we're here [in session], the more harm we create."

Dina Titus, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor of politics and leader of the Senate's minority Democrats, is more cynical. "We only get $60 for postage to write our constituents. Three times we've tried to increase it, and three times it's been shot down. They don't want us to be here, they don't want us to stay very long while we are here, and they sure as hell don't want us to write them and tell them what we're doing."

Although lawmakers in 40 states serve only part time (California being one of the exceptions), Nevada is one of only six states whose part-time legislators meet biennially. The others are Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas.

Nevada's gatherings take on the flavor of a family reunion. During this session, lawmakers will argue and bicker from morning to night over reapportionment and business taxes, health care and school funding. Then they'll get together over at Jack's Bar or the Old Globe tavern for beers. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, a bunch of them play basketball.

Despite the lack of single-party dominance in the capital, legislation that ends up before Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn--a former school district superintendent and gas company chief executive serving in his first elective office--is driven less by partisan loyalties than by rivalry between the urban south and the outback north.

And except for secretaries they hire when they're in session, Nevada's lawmakers don't have personal staffs. They hammer out laws with the guidance of the nonpartisan, full-time Legislative Counsel Bureau.

Lawmakers rely heavily on the hundreds of lobbyists who work the hallways here. When legislators quarrel, they frequently ask lobbyists to step in and help them strike a compromise that both sides can live with.

"You learn to trust the lobbyists," said Joe Dini, a retired operator of a family-run casino who was elected to the Assembly in 1967 and is its senior member. "And the first time they cross you with dishonest information, they're done here."

Lawmakers say they bring their own business sense to the capital, too: Witness the state's delayed entry into utility deregulation.

"We feel for California," said Randolph Townsend, the Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee who runs a Lexus dealership in Reno. He pays a large monthly power bill for his car lot.

"We won't make the same deregulation mistakes," he said. Among Nevada's cures: fast-track construction of new power plants.

Nevada's legislators are careful to guard against scandal. Despite its reputation as an anything-goes state--with its gambling, brothels and bars that never close--old-timers say they have to think back about 20 years to recall a politician who got in personal trouble. He was caught taking a bribe in an FBI sting.

Townsend said he's motivated to remain above reproach not so much to keep voter support but so that car buyers won't shun his dealership.

Even in a state where citizen lawmakers regularly decide bills that may benefit them when they return home--say, teacher-politicians who support teacher pay raises--few legislators exempt themselves from voting, said Lorne J. Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

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