The principle of separation of powers is an important part of the Nevada Constitution, which states that no one “charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments [Executive, Legislative and Judicial] shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution.”
Then-Attorney General Robert List issued an opinion in 1971 that public school teachers could serve in the Legislature, even though they were clearly employees of the executive branch of government. In the 40 years since then, not only teachers, but also police officers, firemen, university professors, city employees, and a wide variety of “public servants” have served themselves by voting on issues that affected their government employers. Teachers have voted on education reforms, professors have approved the higher education budget, and public employees have passed measures affecting their retirement and benefits packages. Think how much government spending has increased in the last 40 years, and then ask your- self if this is just a coincidence.
During the recently concluded 2011 legislative session, 13 of the 63 lawmakers were either current or former public employees. A recent report from Nevada Policy Research Institute rated legislators according to their commitment to keeping taxes low, limiting the growth of government, and implementing education reforms. Not surprisingly, only 22 of the 63 law- makers earned scores above 50 percent.
Another issue is double-dipping by public employees who draw their regular salary from a government job while also billing taxpayers for their legislative salary. In the 2011 session, John Oceguera, deputy chief of the North Las Vegas Fire Department, served as Speaker of the Assembly while also drawing full-time pay as a fireman. His work logs for 2009 and 2011 showed him working four, 9 hour days each week for the fire department during most of both legislative sessions.
Unfortunately, Oceguera’s case is nothing new. During legislative sessions from 1997 through 2003, Assemblyman Wendell Williams billed taxpayers for sick pay, vacation pay and holiday pay in order to get paid as a lawmaker while also drawing his $86,000-a-year salary with the City of Las Vegas. He was also charged with submitting false time cards showing him working in Las Vegas on days when he was in Carson City. Williams was eventually fired, but only after being accused of using his influence as chairman of the Education Committee to persuade a community college to hire his girlfriend.
Also in 2003, Clark County fired Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson from his position as a parks department management analyst for drawing sick leave pay while he was serving in Carson City. An arbitrator later ordered the county to reinstate Atkinson and award him back pay. Not only was Atkinson still in the Assembly in 2011, but he chaired the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee, which reviews bills covering circumstances exactly like his own.
Despite the examples of what can go wrong when public employees serve in the Legisla- ture, and despite the Constitution, a bill was introduced in the 2011 session that would have made it even easier for them to do so. State law prohibits a private employer from preventing employees from engaging in politics in their spare time or running for elected office. AB433 would have expanded the law to cover public employers, preventing them from taking any “adverse employment action” against an employee who became a candidate for public office. Although the bill passed both houses, Gov. Sandoval had the good sense to veto it.
We’re all paying the price for 40 years of ignoring the separation of powers clause. It’s time to enforce the Nevada Constitution and demand that public employees be prevented from holding elected office.
Originally published in Nevada Business Magazine: