In 2012, several Nevada legislators were fined because they failed to report using campaign contributions to pay for rent and food and other expenses that everyone else pays for with their own money.
And that’s OK! Well, legal anyway. Legislators can spend campaign contributions on that stuff while they’re in Carson City, legislating. So long as they report it.
When Reno Gazette Journal reporter Anjeanette Damon, who was working a brief stint at the Las Vegas Sun at the time, broke the stories, I have to confess I was all “whoa! what?” — not because legislators had failed to report the spending, but because it had never occurred to me, Nevada’s most perpetually naive man, that lawmakers could use campaign contributions to pay rent and buy food and otherwise support themselves while the Legislature was in session.
After all, Nevada campaign finance law says state lawmakers can’t collect campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session.
But spending campaign money during the session? Hey, get elected to the Legislature, and you too can spend money dumped your way by Nevada’s largest and most powerful industries for your own personal use while you’re doing what those industries say.
Kelvin Atkinson — remember him? — resigned from the state Senate 30 days into this year’s session to spend more time with his prison guards. Atkinson pleaded guilty to spending roughly a quarter million American dollars of campaign funds on nice things, like leasing a luxury automobile, and opening a downtown Las Vegas bar.
Dang. If only he had reported them?
Just kidding. Nevada campaign finance law isn’t that loosey-goosey. You can’t use campaign money to lease a Jaguar (the car; the cat neither, presumably) or kickstart your bidness, not even in Nevada. (Though surely over the years the latter has been done. With wild success. Multiple times.)
But legislators can depend on the kindness of campaign contributors not just to finance their campaigns, but to finance their material existence while they are making laws.
Atkinson did it. And he did report those expenses. During the 2017 legislative session, he spent $900 a month from his campaign fund on rent in Carson City.
During that same legislative session, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s campaign spent $7,400 with a Gardnerville real estate company, and another $4,000 with a Reno furniture rental outfit, for what his spending report designated as travel expenses. Former Republican state Sen. Michael Roberson (remember him?) spent $10,000 in campaign cash on a Carson City hotel in the first six months of 2017 when the Legislature was in session.
It’s all legit.
State law says that candidates can’t use campaign money for personal use. But the law doesn’t define “personal use” and Nevada is basically operating from a state Attorney General’s opinion written in 2002(!), according to folks in the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. That opinion riffs from federal law at the time, which prohibits spending campaign money, to quote the AG opinion, “to fulfill a commitment, obligation, or expense that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or” — and this is the magic part — “duties as an officeholder.”
When legislators coddle gambling and mining and payday lenders and the apartment industry and all the rest (while people are paid low wages in jobs with crappy, erratic schedules and no benefits and not even sick pay and getting ripped off by banks and landlords etc.), legislators are fulfilling their “duties as an officeholder.”
That means they can legislate for campaign contributors by day, and then after a nice meal and maybe a glass or three of a slightly hearty red (it’s cold in Carson City), rest their precious legislative noggins on pillows paid for by those same campaign contributors at night, proud of yet another hard day’s work.
But… but… the blue wave!
Oh stop it.
- Democrats took taxes off the table before the current legislative session even began, assuring that education and health and social services will be underfunded yet again.
- The sick pay bill introduced earlier this week is the mirror image of the severely modest version (3 days? Seriously?) deliberately designed to be wimpy enough that maybe a Republican governor would sign it two years ago.
- Legislators will approve, and Gov. Steve Sisolak will sign, some increase in the minimum wage this year. A lot of states and cities have been raising the minimum wage lately. Look for Nevada’s increase to be among the most measly of the bunch.
- Evidently no one believes legislators will do what many other states have done and cap payday loan interest rates, even though Nevada’s rates are among the nation’s highest.
- A group of politicians who campaigned oh so earnestly on their deep commitment to public education (i.e., your governor and Democrats in the Legislature) are showing only tangential interest in doing anything to thwart the growth of charter school management firms, partners and affiliates, which are sucking $340 million a year out of traditional public schools.
- The underlying premise of legislative efforts to address Nevada’s affordable housing crisis, by some measures the nation’s worst, is whatever can be done must be done to help … developers.
Blaming all of Nevada’s policy failures on the influence of campaign contributions would be simplistic. But denying that campaign cash drags, pushes, and shoves lawmakers around would be ludicrous.
The movement to publicly finance elections (remember that?) took hold, to varying degrees, in 14 states. But it’s never been much of a thing in Nevada. It’s obvious why elected officials would be against it. Perhaps voters could take matters into their own hands, through a ballot initiative (it worked for background checks). A campaign for public financing could feature pictures of Atkinson (and, for that matter, Las Vegas City Council campaign contribution heiress Michele Fiore).
Public financing isn’t a silver bullet. The rich and industrial can still wield influence, either by letting political action committees take care of their candidates, or by that old stand-by, making sure the politician, or someone in the politician’s family, gets a real nice income from some job, preferably one with no inbox. People do stuff like that.
But, um, we ought to maybe do … something? The Brennan Center for Justice by the way touts what it describes as “a clear, simple proposal — consistent with all Supreme Court rulings — to counter special interest spending.” Candidates raise money from small donors, and then that’s multiplied with public matching funds. Spending that kind of campaign money to pay the rent in Carson City might be a tad less egregious, because it would be public money. (Which is also what legislators could use to pay rent if we had a full-time Legislature like a grown-up state. But come on. It’s not as if the Nevada Legislature is as important as elected officials who get full-time salaries, like Las Vegas City Council campaign contribution heiress Michele Fiore.)
While we wait for Nevada policymakers to enthusiastically call for publicly financed campaigns (ha ha I crack myself up), perhaps some changes of a more mild variety could be considered. A modest start: Define “personal use” of campaign contributions as “not including legislative session personal and living expenses.”