Newspaper column: New senator wants to shred First Amendment

Nevada’s newly elected U.S. senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, has already taken up the cudgel against the First Amendment previously wielded by her predecessor, Harry Reid.

She put out a press release recently announcing that she has joined with other congressional Democrats to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that would overturn Supreme Court rulings that have held that it is a violation of the First Amendment to restrict the amount of money corporations, nonprofits, unions and other groups may spend on political campaigns and when they may spend it.

In its current incarnation it is being called the Democracy for All Amendment. In previous years it bore the unwieldy acronym DISCLOSE Act — Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. Reid frequently took to the floor of the Senate to pound the table for the amendment and disparage the Koch brothers’ political spending as the embodiment of evil.

“The U.S. Constitution puts democratic power in the hands of the American people — not corporations or private companies,” the press release quotes Cortez Masto as saying“Since the Citizens United decision, big corporations have gained unprecedented influence over elections and our country’s political process. I am proud to be a cosponsor of this legislation; it’s critical that we end unlimited corporate contributions if we are going to have a democratic process and government that will truly work for all Americans.”

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, a 5-4 Supreme Court struck down the part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prohibited organizations such as Citizens United, a political action committee, from expending funds for electioneering immediately prior to an election. In this case the Federal Election Commission blocked the 2008 broadcast of “Hillary: The Movie,” which was critical of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

During the arguments in the case, the Justice Department attorney defending the law admitted the law also would censor books critical of candidates, though newspapers and other media, most owned by large corporations, were exempted from the law and may criticize, editorialize and endorse or oppose candidates freely. Some corporations are more equal than others.

Cortez Masto’s statement concluded, “The Democracy for All Amendment returns the right to regulate elections to the people by clarifying that Congress and the states can set reasonable regulations on campaign finance and distinguish between individuals and corporations in the law.”

The problem is that free speech is not free if the incumbent government satrapy can curtail its dissemination.

Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this in his majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC: “As a ‘restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign,’ that statute ‘necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.’ … Were the Court to uphold these restrictions, the Government could repress speech by silencing certain voices at any of the various points in the speech process. (Government could repress speech by ‘attacking all levels of the production and dissemination of ideas,’ for ‘effective public communication requires the speaker to make use of the services of others’).”

The fact the expenditure is coming from a group instead of an individual does not negate the First Amendment guarantee of the “freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely,” because it “also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”

An assembly is not just a crowd of people on the street, it is also an organization.

Reid in one of his many diatribes on the subject said: “But the flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the greatest threats our system of government has ever faced. Let’s keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons. It is time that we revive our constituents’ faith in the electoral system, and let them know that their voices are being heard.”

This implies the voters are too stupid to hear an open and free-wheeling debate and not be influenced by the volume or frequency of the message.

Lest we forget, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was outspent by Hillary Clinton by two-to-one — $600 million to $1.2 billion.

Censorship is unAmerican and unnecessary. Cortez Masto should abandon this assault on free speech.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Voter registration version of don’t ask, don’t tell

After President Trump proclaimed to the world that the only reason Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million was that 3 million or more ballots were cast fraudulently — by noncitizens, by the dead or by Box 13 in Alice, Texas, where ballot stuffing first elected Lyndon Johnson to Congress, perhaps — the media dutifully reported that there is no evidence, no proof, no foundation for such a claim.

Even Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske put out a statement saying her office was unaware of any “evidence” to support claims of voter fraud here.

“There is no evidence of voters illegally casting ballots at the most recent election in Nevada,” reads a statement posted on her website. “The Secretary of State’s office is aware of attempted fraud related to voter registration in Nevada; however, with the help of local election officials, we were able to investigate and make one arrest.”

There is no evidence because voters are not required to prove they are citizens or to show valid ID to prove they are who they say they are. How many people after the fact are going to come forward and volunteer that they voted fraudulently?

Recently a former newspaper columnist, Vin Suprynowicz, dredged up a 2012 column by fellow columnist Glenn Cook that found there really is “evidence,” but only if you really look for it and actually, you know, ask questions. (I also wrote about it at the time.)

Cook spoke shortly before the election that year with two immigrant noncitizens who had been registered to vote by a representative of their union, Culinary Local 226 in Clark County. They spoke English but didn’t read it very well. They told Cook the Culinary official who registered them to vote didn’t tell them what they were signing and didn’t ask whether they were citizens. Later, Culinary canvassers started seeking them out and ordering them to go vote.

Cook verified their identities, their lack of citizenship and their status as active registered voters.

The two said they did not have to show a photo ID to register and merely showed a Culinary health insurance card and a power bill.

“One would establish identity and one would establish residence,” then-Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax told the columnist. “Just like every other voter in Nevada, they will not be asked to prove citizenship.”

The Culinary political director denied the union canvassers do such things.

Shortly before the election this year The Associated Press reported that the Culinary union in Las Vegas had registered 34,000 of its members to vote and had reassigned 150 of its members to full-time political work, intending to knock on 200,000 doors and confront their co-workers in casino cafeterias and by phone. The union also chartered buses to shuttle casino workers to an early voting site during their paid lunch break, and handed each a boxed lunch.

According to a New York Times account shortly before the election, 56 percent of the Clark County Culinary union’s 57,000 members were Latino. No indication how many were citizens.

According to Pew Research Center, in 2014 Nevada had the highest ratio of illegal alien workers in the nation at 10.4 percent.

Cook spoke to just two people who should not have been registered to vote and should not have been pressured to vote nor pressured to vote for the union ticket. How many more there might have been is unknown, because no one is asking.

And, while we are not speculating about the impact such votes might’ve had on the 2016 election, we will note that Hillary Clinton lost in every county in Nevada except Clark and Washoe, while newly elected Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto lost in every county save Clark, as did the new Congressional District 4 Rep. Ruben Kihuen.

Nevada lawmakers should take the opportunity in the coming session to require proof of citizenship and a photo ID. Our current honor system is just too risky, especially in close races.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Retirement system officials should respect transparency

What do you do with a rogue government agency that spends billions in taxpayer dollars but constantly dissembles, denies, deceives, dodges and dithers to avoid public scrutiny and does so by spending still more taxpayer money?

For years the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) has attempted to conceal from the public any specifics about the amount of public funds that are being doled out to retired public employees. PERS spends more than $1.5 billion a year on pensions and by standard accounting methods has an unfunded liability of at least $40 billion.

In 2011 in a suit filed by the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled PERS records — including the name of a retiree, the amount of retirement payment, name of the agency where the retiree worked and hire and retirement dates — were subject to public inspection under the state public records law.

PERS officials appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that such records are indeed public, but the agency was not required to “create” a record it did not already maintain.

Some PERS records were released and the Nevada Policy Research Institute posted that information on its TransparentNevada.com website.

In 2015, after the judge in the Reno newspaper case chastised PERS for “stonewalling” and possible lack of “truthfulness,” PERS lobbied the Legislature to specifically exempt its records from the public records law.

When that failed PERS altered its recordkeeping procedures so that records were filed by Social Security numbers only and without a name attached. Social Security numbers are “non-disclosable” by law.

NPRI filed suit.

“By replacing names with ‘non-disclosable’ Social Security numbers in its actuarial record-keeping documents, PERS has attempted to circumvent the 2013 ruling of the Nevada Supreme Court requiring disclosure,” explained Joseph Becker, the director of NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, at the time of the suit.

This past week another Carson City judge again slapped down PERS for refusing to release the names and pensions of its 57,000 public employee retirees under the state public records law.

District Judge James Wilson chastised the agency for being deceptive, noting that the law “does not require an agency to create a public record, but neither does it bar an agency from creating a record. PERS quoted in part Nevada Public Records Act: A Manual for State Agencies 2014 which states in part: ‘An agency is not required to organize data to create a record that doesn’t exist at the time of the request.’ The part PERS left out from that sentence in the Manual is: ‘but may do so at the discretion of the agency if doing so is reasonable.’ PERS failure to indicate it was quoting only part of the sentence seems a bit deceptive.”

Judge Wilson further noted that the state Supreme Court has since ruled in another case that “when an agency has a computer program that can readily compile the requested information, the agency is not excused from its duty to produce and disclose that information.”

He also dismissed as “hypothetical and speculative” claims that disclosure might subject retirees to cybercrime, noting that the opinions buoying this argument were based on releasing data such as gender, birth date and address, which were never requested.

NPRI’s attorney Becker said in a statement, “NPRI is delighted that the court has once again weighed in strongly on the side of transparency, and once again with respect to PERS. As evidenced by the recent lawsuits against the agency, the courts need to crack down on government entities, such as PERS, that thumb their noses at the Nevada Public Records Act’s requirements for disclosure.”

He noted that the court seemed especially sensitive to the fact PERS officials had changed their recordkeeping methodology in an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling.

Not only did PERS spend tax money to fight the current lawsuit, it now must spend more tax money to pay attorney fees and costs to NPRI.

There are several vacancies coming up on the PERS board this year. We encourage Gov. Brian Sandoval to use this opportunity to appoint members who abide by the letter of the law and respect the public’s right to transparency in how its money is being spent.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Update: On Tuesday the PERS board voted unanimously to appeal this court decision.

 

Gift Clause case is shunted by judge

A Carson City judge has dismissed on a technicality a lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional the governor’s so-called Catalyst Fund, which has doled out nearly $20 million in recent years to companies that promise to hire workers.

The suit was brought by Michael Little, owner of a company that converts recycled landscape trimmings into biomass, a renewable energy source. It claimed a $1.2 million handout to competitor SolarCity, which at the time installed solar panels on rooftop, violated the Gift Clause of the state Constitution, which prohibits the state donating or loaning money to any company. SolarCity has since pulled out of the state due to an adverse ruling by the Public Utilities Commission making that business unprofitable.

Little is represented by the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), a division of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The Nevada Appeal reports the judge dismissed the case because CJCL failed to add Clark County and SolarCity as parties to the case as he had instructed.

But CJCL attorney Joseph Becker told the judge SolarCity was not added because it has left the state. What happens next is unclear.

 

Plaintiff Michael Little

The Nevada Constitution specifically states: “The State shall not donate or loan money, or its credit, subscribe to or be, interested in the Stock of any company, association, or corporation, except corporations formed for educational or charitable purposes.” Voters have three times rejected amendments that would have removed the Gift Clause.

 

Becker explained in an interview a year ago that CJCL is in the business of trying to set precedent that serves the public interest.

Gift clauses started appearing in state constitutions in the mid-1800s after state governments in the East invested heavily in private companies building infrastructure such as canals and railroads that went bust. The states of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan were bankrupted as a result.

“We needed a vote of the people to change the Constitution, which never happened, but now suddenly its OK for the state to do something that up until now, even they insisted, would take a constitutional amendment,” Becker said earlier.

Editorial: Billions for billionaires, pittance for parents

We now know the pecking order in Nevada.

In his State of the State speech this past week Gov. Brian Sandoval boasted that the Tesla gigafactory near Sparks, in addition to making batteries for electric cars, would also be making electric motors and gearboxes, adding 550 workers.

Left unsaid was who would pay for the police and fire, schools and other government services those workers would need, since Tesla was given $1.3 billion in tax breaks and credits, as well as promises of millions more to improve roads, by lawmakers in a special session in 2014.

Tesla is owned by billionaire Elon Musk.

Nevada takes care of billionaires.

Nevada lawmakers in a special session in 2015 agreed to dole out $215 million in tax abatements and credits plus millions in road improvements to entice Faraday Future to build an electric car factory at Apex in North Las Vegas. The company is owned by a Chinese billionaire.

As if on schedule, legislators in 2016 agreed to pony up $750 million in tax money to help build a domed football stadium for the billionaire owner of the Oakland Raiders, Mark Davis, and Sheldon Adelson, billionaire owner of the Sands casino corporation and the Las Vegas daily newspaper. The stadium would also require the state to spend $900 million for road improvements.

Mark Davis and Sheldon Adelson.

Mark Davis and Sheldon Adelson.

Almost as an afterthought, Sandoval tossed out a $60 million sop to the parents who have applied for education savings accounts (ESAs) approved in 2015 by lawmakers. The ESAs were blocked when the state Supreme Court said ESAs are constitutional but the funding mechanism devised by the lawmakers was not.

Under the law, parents who opt out of sending their children to public schools would be given an education savings account that would equal a portion of the statewide average the state spends per public school pupil, currently that is about $5,700. Low-income parents and parents with special needs children would get 100 percent of that amount, while all others would get 90 percent, or about $5,100 currently.

That money could be spent on private schooling, tutoring, transportation, distance education and/or homeschooling.

“We’ve heard from the thousands of Nevada families about how crucial it is that we give them freedom of choice in the education of their children,” Sandoval said in his speech. “I look forward to building a bi-partisan solution to get this done. It is time to give Nevada families more choice.”

Well, a few Nevada families perhaps.

It turns out the $60 million — $25 million in the first fiscal year and $35 million in the second — would fund about half the 8,000 to 9,000 ESAs already applied for so far in the first year and about two-thirds of them in the second year.

To add insult to injury, a spokesman for the governor said Sandoval is open to limiting who is eligible for ESAs by imposing means testing — the more a family earns, the less the family could get back from its own taxes.

When Sandoval announced his funding proposal for ESAs, Republicans applauded and Democrats sat on their hands, prompting the governor to quip with a chuckle, “I knew it would be a split house on that one.”

In 2015 not a single Democrat voted in favor of authorizing ESAs. Now the Democrats have majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, making that bi-partisan solution look like a pipe dream.

The governor had his chance to fund ESAs in that special session, while Republicans still held majorities in both chambers, in which lawmakers approved $750 million for that football stadium in Las Vegas, but he failed to put that on the agenda. Just not as important as the billionaires.

Nevada doles out billions for billionaires, but pittance for parents.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Lawmakers must finally address public worker retirement reform

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

In his State of the State speech this past week Gov. Brian Sandoval tossed out tax money like trinkets and candy from a Mardi Gras parade float — a couple million here for this or that education program, a few million there for a veterans’ home, millions for a medical school, more millions for an engineering school and pay raises for state employees.

“This session, my budget includes a 4 percent cost of living adjustment and increased funding for health benefits to recognize the shared sacrifice and dedication of our state employees,” the smiling governor said about his spending proposal for the coming two years.

Overall, Sandoval proposed a 10 percent increase in the general fund portion of the state budget, even though the cost of living increase for 2016 was only 2 percent.

What the governor did not address was how the taxpayers are going to pay for the commensurately higher retirement pensions that are tied to the salaries of those state employees.

Nor did he take note of the fact his proposed budget — total budget, not just the general fund — is 49 percent higher than the total budget he proposed when he first took office, while over the past decade the Nevada median household income has fallen 17 percent.

A part of the growth in state government spending has been due to burgeoning pensions for state employees, who upon retirement are guaranteed a percentage of their highest salary level — which officially is 70 percent after 25 years, but can often top 100 percent after various pay add-ons and gimmicks are employed. Public employees in Nevada can retire in their 40s and get paid more in retirement than they were paid for actually working.

In 2008 the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce called on the Legislature to change public employee retirement benefits from the current direct benefit plan to a direct contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), because the expenditures were growing at an unsustainable pace.

In 2011 a report drafted for the Nevada Policy Research Institute by Andrew Biggs, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, concluded the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is vastly underfunded by more than $40 billion.

“What people don’t realize,” Biggs said to a luncheon audience back then, “is your typical public sector pension plan is a lot more generous than what a typical person is going to get in the private sector. Let’s just take a person and run their wages through what they would get from PERS versus what they could get from a typical 401(k) plan combined with Social Security, because public employees here don’t participate in Social Security. They both pay the same amount on average. The total contribution is about the same, but the benefits for someone under PERS — for a full career employee — is somewhere around 50 percent higher.”

In 2015 Reno Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner introduced Assembly Bill 190, which called for reforming PERS, which at the time was costing nearly $15,000 per Nevadan per year and growing.

The changes Kirner proposed would have applied to future state and local government workers and not current ones.

AB190 would have introduced a hybrid — part defined benefit, part defined contribution.

The bill also tied the minimum retirement age for receiving full benefits to that allowed under Social Security, though police officers and firefighters would be able to retire with full benefits 10 years earlier.

Kirner argued his bill would have a minimal impact on taxpayers, but the PERS administration claimed it would cost millions to implement. Kirner withdrew the bill so the funding could be studied and he could re-introduce it again this year, but Kirner decided to not seek re-election.

Instead, state Controller Ron Knecht has offered a bill nearly identical to Kirner’s, but it is questionable whether it will get much of a hearing before a Legislature that is now comprised of majority Democrats in both chambers.

This past summer NPRI’s Director of Transparency Research Robert Fellner released a 36-page report warning that if the economy stumbles the PERS “fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

Nevada lawmakers have been kicking this can down the road so long it is now a 55-gallon drum ready to explode.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Will collaboration on sage grouse finally happen?

Nevada has every reason to feel like a slighted wallflower. We keep getting invited to the big sage grouse dance, but never get asked to dance.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney Adam Laxalt and others have complained bitterly that state and local input on how to protect the sage grouse population and still conduct economically productive endeavors on the land the birds occupy have been roundly and almost universally ignored by the federal land agencies.

A lawsuit filed by Laxalt on behalf of the state, several counties, a couple of mining firms and the owners of a ranch against the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management and others used a variant of the word “ignore” 22 times to describe how state and local objections to land use plans were received. In fact a motion filed by the state in that suit points out that after dismissing local input three top Interior Department officials met privately, after the public comment period was closed, with environmental groups to obtain their “buy-in” on a land use plan.

Sage grouse workshop session.

Sage grouse workshop session.

So, pardon us if we scoff at the cheery BLM press release from this past week under the headline: “Collaboration the key to Sage Grouse success.”

The press release announced the creation of Nevada-based working groups comprised of federal and state agencies and key stakeholders “to identify regulatory flexibility and improve communication and outreach between themselves and the public.”

The working groups resulted from a two-and-a-half day workshop in Reno in early December.

“A key part of the workshop was the emphasis on establishing and improving relationships between the agencies and stakeholders, “ said John Ruhs, state director for the BLM in Nevada. “We also spent time getting to know people as individuals as opposed to just identifying them by their interest or agency.”

He was further quoted as saying, “In the case of the amendments for the Greater sage grouse plans in Nevada, a collaborative network of local, state and federal partners is essential for protecting the sagebrush ecosystem while ensuring multiple uses.”

Though Ruhs has a reputation for being a straight shooter — he brokered a deal that allowed Battle Mountain district ranchers to temporarily continue grazing after permits had been denied — he does answer to the federal land bosses in Washington, from whence just two weeks ago came a proposal to ban mining on 10 million acres in the West — a quarter of that in Nevada alone and most of that in Elko County — to protect sage grouse.

Sandoval fired off a retort saying, “Today’s announcement does nothing to protect the greater sage-grouse, but does cripple the mining and exploration industry. It is an unfortunate end to our collaborative efforts with this administration. I am hopeful the new administration will consider the limited ecological benefits of this withdrawal.”

Now senior Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller called the ban an 11th-hour attack on the West by a lame duck president.

“Federal land grabs are never popular in Nevada and the latest one by the BLM is no different. A mining ban does little to help sage grouse and will devastate northern Nevada’s future economic competitiveness,” Heller said in a press release. “I will partner with the next administration to reverse this decision and to ensure the BLM focuses on the real threats to sage grouse, like wildfires, instead of locking up Nevadans’ public lands. Those are the types of efforts, rather than these harmful mining bans, that will benefit our environment while also allowing our economy to grow,” Nevadans can only hope that with the changes coming in Washington these working groups might actually be listened to.

National BLM Director Neil Kornze — a former aide to Nevada Sen. Harry “Lock Up the Land and Throw Away the Key” Reid — has announced he is stepping down on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump is inaugurated president.

Trump, meanwhile, has nominated Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who grew up in a logging town, to head the Interior Department.

That BLM press release announcing the working groups quotes JJ Goicoechea, chairman of the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, as saying, “While this process was just the beginning, there was a collective recognition of key issues to address and an overall feeling that if we don’t collaboratively work toward solutions, we will fail individually.”

Perhaps, with a different band in Washington playing a different tune, Nevada will finally get to dance.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.