Newspaper column: Lawmakers seek to shirk duty to set their own salaries

Nevada Legislature (R-J pix)

Perhaps the lesson of 1989 lingers.

In that legislative session, Nevada lawmakers were so bold as to pass a law that increased their pensions by 300 percent. Though the eventual retirement payouts amounted to only a few hundred dollars per month, voters were outraged by the audaciousness of the self-serving money grab.

Under that 1989 law, pensions for part-time lawmakers were to rise from $25 a month per year of service to $100 a month per year of service — a mere drop in the multibillion-dollar state budget.

But a petition was circulated to put the repeal of the pension hike on the ballot in 1990.

Smarting from the voluble voter backlash, Gov. Bob Miller called a special session in November of 1989 and lawmakers quickly repealed the pension increase and Miller signed it two hours later.

Despite the repeal some lawmakers feared the pension grab remains ”a campaign issue that hurts everybody who voted for it.’’

Only four legislators opposed the 300 percent pension increase for themselves, and despite the repeal in special session many of the senators and assemblymen who originally voted for the increase were later voted out of office.

So, in 2015 state lawmakers hatched Assembly Joint Resolution 10, which proposes to amend the state Constitution to create a citizen compensation commission that would set their salaries, as well as the salaries of statewide officials, justices, judges and county elected officials. It overwhelmingly was passed by lawmakers in 2015 but must be approved again this session before it would go before the voters in 2018.

The Constitution currently states that such compensation is set by law, meaning the legislators set their own salaries and expense reimbursement. That currently amounts to a salary of $146.29 a day for 60 days of each 120-day session, plus $140 a day to cover expenses each day of the 120-day session, for a total of just more than $25,000 each legislative year.

This compares favorably with a number of other states with part-time legislatures — such as Kansas which pays $88.66 a day plus $140 a day in expenses and Wyoming at $150 a day in pay plus $109 a day in expenses. (Pay no heed to neighboring bank-breaking California where full-time lawmakers are paid more than $100,000 a year plus $176 a day in expenses.)

Under AJR10 the governor would appoint a seven-member commission with various expertise as prescribed by law. Members would draw a salary plus benefits. They would be tasked with comparing the salaries of elected officials with the salaries and benefits of persons employed in the public or private sector who have similar qualifications.

The fiscal note on the resolution proclaims there would no effect on state or local government, which should raise suspicions right there.

According to Ballotpedia, one of the arguments for passage of AJR10 was advanced by Republican Assemblywoman Vicki Dooling, who is no longer in office. She proffered: “I am bringing this resolution forward because I believe it is difficult for elected officials to have a serious and fact-based discussion about their own compensation. Too many interest groups criticize and bring pressure. They regard this as self-serving and fail to recognize the amount of time and effort it takes to serve our fellow citizens. Even when the Legislature created an advisory commission that is still in statute, that commission’s recommendations had to be submitted to the Legislature for enactment. In the end, legislators were still forced to discuss and act on their own salaries.”

And answer to the voters, just as they did in 1989? There’s the rub.

Actually a number of states have created compensation commissions so lawmakers might wash their hands of the grubby task of setting their own pay. One of the more recent ones is Minnesota. According to news accounts, Minnesota lawmakers had not received a raise in nearly two decades, fearing a voter backlash. Instead, in November 2016 more than three-quarters of state voters amended the state Constitution to create a compensation commission.

This past month Minnesota’s pay panel voted 13-1 to increase their lawmaker salaries by 50 percent, from $31,000 a year to $45,000.

Nevada voters should keep that in mind should AJR10 make it to the ballot here next year. If lawmakers think they deserve a raise, they should have to persuade the voters directly, and not dodge their duty.

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: AJR10 died this week when it failed to get a vote in the Assembly … unless it is brought back as an emergency or some other ruse.

Governor helpfully parades out a former governor who actually spent huge sums to improve education

It was mighty nice of Gov. Brian Sandoval to dredge up and drag onto stage a living, breathing illustration of just how effective his plan to spend nearly a billion dollars on educational improvements will be.

During Wednesday’s hours-long orgasmic paean to the perks of plucking $250 million a year in higher business license fees from the private sector, Gov. Brian Sandoval invited three former governors to testify for his Senate Bill 252, which is basically margin tax lite, a thinner version of the tax proposal rejected by voters in November by 80 percent to 20 percent. One of those formers was Bob Miller, who served as governor from 1987 through 1998.

Miller pushed for and the 1989 Legislature approved a class-size reduction in grades first through third.

“I along with many people in this room have been fighting to modernize our education system through both reforms and the creation of a stable broad-based funding source, and this session is the best opportunity we will likely ever have to reach this goal,” Miller testified before a joint meeting of the state Senate and Assembly taxation panels. “In the 1990s our focus, mine and the Legislature, was on class-size reduction and early childhood programs like family to family and family resource centers, enhancing technology in our classrooms and a study on standards assessment accountability, but here we are today, and as most of you know, the statistics are depressing about our state’s education system.”

He went on to cite the facts that students are reading below grade level and 30 percent aren’t graduating from high school.

Since 1990 the state has spent close to $2.5 billion on Miller’s class-size reduction — which like Sandoval’s plans for all-day kindergarten, early childhood education and various special million-dollar programs was a no-brainer at the time — but the results have been nil. In fact, in some cases the results have run counter to what was expected.

A 2001 report by the Legislative Counsel Bureau found that, while principals, teachers, and parents were very positive in their attitudes toward class-size reduction, achievement data did not produce exceptional results. Students in larger classes outperformed those in the smaller classes.

Twenty-five years and billions of dollars later Miller is back and saying the system is broken and we need to spend billions of dollars more on special programs.

Two ideas Sandoval has put forward, but without much specificity, might improve things: stop promoting third graders who cannot read and provide incentive pay to teachers whose students show improvement on assessment tests. Neither costs anything more than is currently being spent.

Test scores for reading (blue) and math (red) for Washoe and rural schools by class size

Test scores for reading (blue) and math (red) for Washoe and rural schools by class size

Test scores for reading (yellow) and math (green) by class size in Clark County

Test scores for reading (yellow) and math (green) by class size in Clark County


James Guthrie, who served as Nevada’s  State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2013 to 2014, said in an article posted on Nevada Policy Research Institute’s website:

The governor’s budget would spend additional millions on timid reforms such as expanded preschool, English language learning, opportunities for gifted students, staff for low performing schools, opposing cyber bullying, facility construction and more personnel for the State Education Department.

These proposals appear to be guided more by political expediency — greasing squeaky wheels  — than a goal of effective education. Moreover, by proposing to spend public dollars in less than fully productive ways, the governor’s plan risks the future of tens of thousands of students now trapped in underperforming schools.

The absence of a clear focus on a few high-return strategies wastes money, hurts students and squanders opportunity.

To counter low academic achievement, Nevada must recruit and retain larger numbers of effective teachers, place them where they are most needed and reward them for high performance. No new technology, textbook, class-size reduction, professional development or physical facility can substitute for effective teachers.

By identifying the most effective 10 percent of Nevada’s teachers and offering to pay them $200,000 a year in exchange for additional teaching and mentoring responsibilities, Nevada could become a magnet for teaching talent. As a state, we would have our pick of the nation’s best teachers. This entire plan can be accomplished with existing financial resources by repurposing dollars currently wasted on class-size reduction.

Nevada’s public schools lack accountability. No adults feel pain when children persistently fail.






Pundit’s ties to Miller family belatedly recounted

Laxalt and Miller before a debate. (AP photo)

In case you missed it, as I most certainly did, a account shortly before the election recounted ties between television pundit Jon Ralston and the family of attorney general candidate Democrat Ross Miller, who surprisingly lost to Adam Laxalt Tuesday.

The story by Ciara Matthews points out that Ralston, who frequently boasted of his role in reporting a leaked “evaluation document” from Laxalt’s former law firm calling him a train wreck and unsuited to practice law, was prominently mentioned by Ross Miller’s father, former Gov. Bob Miller, in the acknowledgements section of his book, “Son of a Gambling Man.”

Sounds like Ralston practically ghost wrote the book:

From Bob Miller's autobiography

From Bob Miller’s autobiography

Count the glowing adjectives.

I’m told the book breezes past some of the former governor’s relationships with less than savory Las Vegas characters of that era.

The Watchdog report is full of interesting links and twitter feeds.

Friends of Ross Miller using anti-free speech state law to try to gag opposition group

Some pals of Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, son of former Gov. Bob Miller, are trying to gag of a Republican-leaning group airing an ad on TV and the Internet ridiculing Miller for taking $60,000 in gifts while in office — living the high life, as they put it.

State Government Leadership Foundation is the group running the ad and a website called

Nevadans for a Brighter Future filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Election Division — which will doubtlessly kick it to the attorney general due a rather obvious conflict of interest — claiming SGLF is violating NRS294A, a state law to demands anyone spending money on a candidate, election or issue register as a political action committee with the Secretary of State and file reports detailing spending and donations.

The gifts outlined in the ad include free tickets to UFC fights, shows on the Strip and a Beverly Hills conference, according the Las Vegas newspaper.

Ross Miller

“Fancy parties, exclusive sporting events. Posing with celebrities — even Playmates,” the ad says, while showing photos of Miller with Mike Tyson andHolly Madison. “Ah, one can dream, but for politician Ross Miller it’s reality.”

The ad concludes, “He lives the life. You pay the tab. Tell Ross Miller to stop living the high life at your expense.”

SGLF says it is spending $500,000 to air the ad.

Though Miller is running for attorney general against Republican Adam Laxalt, grandson of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, the ad never mentions the race.

In his complaint letter attorney Matt Griffin says, “SGLF is identified as the party responsible for paying for the advertisement. The content and subject matter of the advertisement constitute ‘express advocacy’ under Nevada law. As such, the funds expended to produce and disseminate the advertisement are ‘expenditures’ under Nevada law.”

He goes to say that each time SGLF engages in any political activity it is breaking the law and it must be forced to follow the law.

Actually, this is the second time friends of Miller have tried to gag the out of state group. Earlier a Jim Lamb on behalf of Miller’s campaign wrote television station managers demanding the SGLF ads be pulled from the air because the ads falsely said taxpayers were the source of aforementioned gifts.

SGLF sent a letter in response to the TV stations. “The whole point of the ad, which is abundantly clear to anyone who sees it, is that Ross Miller has lived a lavish lifestyle while serving as Secretary of State,” the letter reads. “Mr. Lamb does not dispute any of this — he certainly does not dispute that Ross Miller took these gifts, nor can he dispute that Nevada’s taxpayers pay Ross Miller’s six-figure salary. Left unsaid, because the cannot dispute this either, is that Ross Miller received these gifts from special interests because of his taxpayer-funded position as Secretary of State. The facts are clear: Nevada’s taxpayers are paying for Ross Miller to be Secretary of State, and he is using that position to live the high life.”

The concludes by urging the stations to not be “badgered into protecting Ross Miller from the truth.”

But the complaint claims the ad constitutes “express advocacy,” which is prohibited under the law unless you register and file financial disclosure reports. The ad doesn’t even mention that Miller is standing for election, much less expressly advocate for or against his election.

A similar complaint was tossed out of court a couple of years ago because it was found the communication in question was not “express advocacy.”

Carson City Senor District Judge Robert Estes found the Secretary of State’s case against Americans for Prosperity lacking because the statute applies only to those spending money “on behalf” of a candidate.

Americans for Prosperity — funded by Harry Reid’s favorite conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch — sent out mailers in 2012 during the election campaign of Kelvin Atkinson for state Senate. Those mailers criticized Atkinson for co-sponsoring a 2011 renewable energy bill. But the mailers never mentioned his candidacy.

Of course, that is merely a technicality. The real concern should be that this law is palpably unconstitutional. The First Amendment prohibits abridgement of free speech and the 14th Amendment extends that prohibition to states. Requiring registration and reporting of donors and spending abridges free speech. Period.

And the one thing the First Amendment is clearly intended to protect is “express advocacy.”

In the Supreme Court case Citizens United, the court held that groups, corporations and unions may not be singled out and barred from spending their own money in support of or opposition to a candidate or a cause.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a concurrence: “The (First) Amendment is written in terms of ‘speech,’ not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals — and the dissent offers no evidence about the original meaning of the text to support any such exclusion. We are therefore simply left with the question whether the speech at issue in this case is ‘speech’ covered by the First Amendment. No one says otherwise.”

But in an inexplicable self-contradiction, the ruling let stand reporting and disclosure requirements similar to those in Nevada law. How can you remain anonymous if you must disclose?

But Justice Clarence Thomas, in a partial dissent, chided his comrades for this duplicity: “The disclosure, disclaimer, and reporting requirements in (the law) are also unconstitutional. … “Congress may not abridge the ‘right to anonymous speech’ based on the ‘simple interest in providing voters with additional relevant information …’”

But judges in Nevada have concocted a strange interpretation of the First Amendment. Carson City Judge James Wilson, while a Virginia-based for airing ads applauding Gov. Brian Sandoval, wrote: “Irreparable harm will occur to the voters and to the electoral process if broadcasting of the Ad is not enjoined, because voters are being deprived of the information to which they are entitled under Nevada law prior to casting their ballots,” namely, who donated the money to air the ads.

Never mind that Ben Franklin and other Founders often wrote under pseudonyms, that “Common Sense” was first published anonymously, that the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers were published under pseudonyms or that John Locke published his works anonymously.

The concept that Nevadans must not be deprived of certain identifying information is not even in the penumbra of the Constitution.

Free speech is a right, not a privilege that requires a permit or disclosure of donors. The entire Nevada law should be repealed or declared unconstitutional.