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Desert Companion

There oughta be a law - these 10, in fact...

There oughta be a law

So let me get this straight: It’s legal to possess medical marijuana — but illegal to actually buy it? Lobbyists must tell the public what gifts they’re lavishing on lawmakers — but only during certain months of the year? And in many cases, unelected bureaucrats are deciding how much public employees earn?

We need to fix this. We need to pass some laws.

This tally of suggestions for the 2013 Legislature, which starts Feb. 4, is the product only of my experience covering sessions dating to 2001. Some of these suggestions will surely pass, others are headed for the fate of the vast majority of would-be laws: the dustbin. But all are important, in one way or another, to the state and its future. 

Of course, it’s understood that this list is the beginning of a conversation, and not the end of one. That won’t come until the final gavel falls in Carson City in early June. With any luck, when it does, some of these common-sense laws may be on the books.

10 Truth in Lobbying Law: Do you know what lobbyists are required to report about meals, gifts, travel or other emoluments lavished on lawmakers when the Legislature isn’t in session? 

Support comes from

Nothing. 

There is no requirement for lobbyists to report any spending on lawmakers, save for when the Legislature is actually in session and a month before and after. That leaves 18 months in which gifts may be given freely without fear of disclosure. And whether that gift is a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a trans-Atlantic trip to England, the currency of relationship-building can flow in secret. A bill to prohibit this practice died in the 2011 Legislature, even after it was revealed that some members had taken trips paid for by the since-indicted Internet gambling company PokerStars. Lawmakers said they were for it. Lobbyists said they had no problem with it. The public seemed to be in favor of it. 

So what happened? A quick and quiet death in the Assembly Government Affairs Committee as the session drew to a close. 

It’s not clear who might bring the bill this time — sponsor Sheila Leslie was defeated by incumbent state Sen. Greg Brower in November — but somebody should put an end to the practice of using the calendar as cover. (Another possibility — an outright gift ban. Secretary of State Ross Miller says he’s thinking of bringing such a measure before lawmakers.)

9 “Sign the Damn Contract” Law:
When confronted about the generosity of public-employee contracts, local government officials usually proffer the same excuse: It was not us who authorized that contract, it was an arbitrator’s decision. Blame him, not us. 

But nobody elected a binding arbitrator to watch over the public purse, and the rules that guide arbitrators are ridiculously skewed in favor of spending more. 

Last session, freshman Republican state Sen. Michael Roberson brought a common-sense solution to the floor: In cases of management-labor disputes, eliminate binding arbitration entirely, and force elected officials to make the final call. 

Not only would this force the people we elect to City Hall, the county commission, school boards and other local bodies to be accountable, it would introduce more flexibility, too. An arbitrator must choose either labor or management’s offer, and cannot alter either one. But local government officials could chose the best of both offers, if they thought it fair. 

Unions will still lobby and help get local officials elected, hoping for a break on their contracts. But those politicians will also feel an accountability to the public. Because when we come asking who gave away the store, there’ll be nobody left to point at. 

8 Medical Marijuana Law: Nevada’s medical marijuana law is more a cruel joke than an actual progressive idea. While possession of small amounts of the drug is authorized, patients have no legal way to get it — purchasing marijuana remains illegal, even for patients with a doctor’s prescription. And while the law says you can grow your own, buying even the seeds is illegal. 

The law is currently under appeal, after one District Court judge finally called the entire scheme out for being ridiculous. But Nevada can fix this problem without a lengthy court fight by supporting a bill by Assemblyman-turned-state Sen. Tick Segerblom, who wants to authorize a state-sanctioned distribution system for patients. 

It’s been discussed in past sessions, without success, even though the 1998-2000 initiative petition that legalized medical pot commanded the Legislature to provide a system for patients to get the drug. If Segerblom’s bill passes, it will be welcome relief for sick people, even if that relief comes 13 years too late. 

[HEAR MORE: How will the 2013 Legislature handle education funding? Find out  on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]

7 “Free Our Roads” Law: It’s a pet peeve of all Las Vegas drivers: Perfectly usable driving lanes, shut down behind orange cones with nary a highway worker in sight. A bill to require all usable road surfaces to be open, except when work is actually taking place, failed last session, but lawmakers should give it another look this time around. After all, this can’t be about worker safety if there are no workers working. And if convenience is the issue, then the convenience of the taxpayers who bought the roads should outweigh the convenience of those the taxpayers hire to maintain them. 

6 Usury Law: Usury — the practice of charging outrageous interest rates — is condemned in the Bible, but not in the Nevada Revised Statutes. Payday loan outfits advertising cheap cash to recession-ravaged workers are sometimes little more than doorways to a never-ending debt treadmill. A bill to limit interest to a national standard of 36 percent APR may still seem high, until you’ve seen what some victims of unscrupulous lenders end up paying. 

5 Immigrant drivers’ licenses: Although this is a hot-button issue for some conservatives, it should not be. Creating a class of license for illegal immigrants would subject them to a driving test (as simple as that is) as well as allow them to legally purchase insurance. The law could be written to make clear that this class of license would not allow non-citizens to vote or get government services to which they are not legally entitled. There are few legitimate arguments against this idea. 

4 “Show Us the Money” Law: Secretary of State Ross Miller has done an excellent job putting campaign finance disclosure documents online via the Aurora system. But deadlines are still too close to elections. A bill to require electronic disclosures of all contributions of more than $200 within 48 hours would not be onerous, and would help the public learn in real time who’s trying to influence elections. The idea has bipartisan support (Assembly Republican Minority Leader Pat Hickey has it on his list of campaign-reform to-dos). And while we’re at it, a change in the forms that requires campaigns to list cash on-hand at the start of a given election cycle would help the public track finances immensely. 

3 Appointed constables: This issue is already on the legislative radar, thanks to “border-jumping” constables working outside their township jurisdictions to make more money. (Constables process eviction notices and serve court papers, and collect fees for those services.) But Las Vegas Township Constable John Bonaventura has made his office a case-study in needed reforms, from allegations of sexual harassment to deputizing lawyers, apparently to pay them for their services after the county commission denied a request to cover legal fees. A good fix would be to eliminate the elected position of constable, and allow the county commission to hire and fire constables. And while we’re at it, one constable per county — instead of one per township — should be sufficient, and would solve the “border-jumping” problem. Fees would flow to the county general fund. 

2 Business tax: In Nevada, non-casino businesses pay no form of income tax. For years, we’ve been told this allows Nevada to attract new businesses and keep prices low. But with the state still suffering the highest unemployment rate in the nation and with prices basically equal to nearby states, both these contentions have earned the status of myth. A tax on business profits would simply put Nevada on equal footing with our neighbors, while supplying revenue to improve the one thing that might actually help spur economic development: improving K-12 and higher education in Nevada. The Nevada State Education Association has collected signatures for a 2 percent business margins tax, although that plan has been sidetracked by legal questions. Whether it’s that plan, or one devised by the Legislature, it’s long past time for this idea to pass.

1 Primary over caucus: In Nevada, everybody knows how to vote in a primary election, but the Byzantine caucus process is still a mystery. Run by political parties instead of the government, the caucuses have descended into chaos, especially the Republican caucus of early 2012, when vote counting took more than a day. Instead, Nevada should switch to a primary. Our state could still retain its early position in the political calendar if we — like the voters of New Hampshire — granted our secretary of state the authority to fix the caucus date himself. Then, if rogue states try to jump the calendar and move ahead, we could move our primary date up in turn. The only downside: Going to the polls three times in presidential election years (once for the early presidential primary, once for a primary election for state and local offices and once for the general election). 

The taxpayers would bear the cost, but we’d get a professional, well-run election instead of a chaotic mess run by amateurs. 

 
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