Posts Tagged ‘Kelvin Atkinson’

Nevada Think Tank Files Court Complaint Challenging Ability Of Government Employees To Serve In Legislature

By Sean Whaley | 3:02 pm November 30th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A conservative Nevada think tank today filed a complaint in district court against Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, saying the separation of powers clause in the state constitution prohibits government employees from serving in the Legislature.

Denis works for the state Public Utilities Commission as a computer technician. Attorney Joseph Becker with the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation said his client William Pojunis is qualified to perform, and would like to apply for, Denis’ job.

Attorney Joseph Becker, left, and his client William Pojunis, take questions after filing a separation of powers complaint today against Sen. Mo Denis. / Photo: Nevada News Bureau.

If NPRI wins its case, Denis and several other state lawmakers who work for state and local government and the Nevada judiciary could be forced to pick between their jobs and legislative service.

Becker said the PUC’s employment of Denis violates the state constitution’s separation of powers clause in Article 3, Section 1.

“Nevada’s constitution is perfectly clear: One individual cannot serve in two branches of government,” he said. “Allowing one person to exercise power in two branches of government leads to numerous conflicts of interests and invites corruption. It also destroys the checks and balances that were built into Nevada’s government to protect citizens from power-hungry politicians.

“Applying this principle to this case has significant implications for this state,” Becker said. “We have 63 legislators and something close to 20 percent of them are affected by this provision. They are working in situations that we believe are unconstitutional. When the court holds in our favor, those lawmakers would either have to leave their executive or judicial branch employment or leave the Legislature.”

Denis said today he could not comment on the complaint because he has not seen it.

“I’ve only been hearing pieces of it,” he said. “At some point I will have a comment.”

The PUC had no immediate comment on the complaint either.

NPRI has one strong ally in its court action. Gov. Brian Sandoval, while serving as attorney general in 2004, issued an opinion that also determined that the separation of powers requirement in the state constitution precluded state government employees from serving in the Legislature.

Written at the request of then-Secretary of State Dean Heller, Sandoval’s March 1, 2004 opinion said in part: “It is the opinion of this office that Article 3, Section 1 of the Nevada Constitution bars any employee from serving in the executive branch of government and simultaneously serving as a member of the Nevada State Legislature.”

Sandoval did not find that the separation applied to local government employment, however.

Heller, now a U.S. senator, challenged lawmakers who also worked for the government in 2004, but the Nevada Supreme Court said it could not consider the case, which was brought against the Nevada Legislature, because it is the Legislature’s responsibility to determine the qualifications of its members.

Becker said NPRI’s case is different because it is challenging the PUC’s ability to employ Denis given the separation of powers clause and his election to the state Senate. The complaint was not filed against the Legislature, he said. The complaint was filed in Carson City District Court.

Pojunis, 66, came to Carson City with Becker to file the complaint, but did not directly answer any questions. Becker said NPRI was approached by Pojunis and decided to take the case. Pojunis is currently unemployed.

Some of the other lawmakers who potentially could be affected by a court ruling supporting the NPRI position include Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who works for the Washoe County court system,; Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury, R-Las Vegas, both of whom work for the Clark County School District, and Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, who works for Clark County.

Becker said the legal action is not politically motivated.

“This is about him (Denis) holding a position as a civil servant that he is not constitutionally allowed to hold,” he said.

The Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, which calls itself a public interest legal foundation, was established a year ago by NPRI. This is the first case brought by the organization.

Andy Matthews, president of NPRI, said the separation of powers clause is a vital part of state constitutions across the country.

“And when you have decisions that are being made in the Legislative Branch that can impact Executive Branch functions, Executive Branch agencies, it’s very important to make sure that the people who are making those decisions in the Legislature are doing so from the standpoint of what is best for the people of this state and what constitutes good policy, not because of some conflict of interest they may have as a result of their service in the Executive Branch as well,” he said.


Attorney Joseph Becker with NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation says the case has significant implications for the state:

113011Becker1 :24 leave the Legislature.”

Becker says the case is not political:

113011Becker2 :14 correct on this.”

Andy Matthews, president of NPRI, says the separation of powers clause is a vital part of state constitutions across the country:

113011Matthews :24 branch as well.”

Host Of Renewable Energy Bills Could Mean Higher Utility Bills For Nevadans

By Andrew Doughman | 1:13 pm May 19th, 2011

CARSON CITY – The argument goes like this: every Nevadan would only pay 50 cents per person for a great renewable energy program.

Energy lobbyist Ted Ko even held up two shiny quarters during a legislative hearing to make the point.

But legislators are considering more than a dozen renewable energy bills this session,  and some lawmakers fear that a few dollars here and there will add up to significantly higher utility bills for their constituents if all of these bills pass.

“Pretty soon that 50 cents is $5 because there’s a lot going on … By the end of today’s discussion, we are going to have seven or eight bills that are ‘just 50 cents each,’ so it adds up,” said Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, at a legislative hearing last week.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, also a Democrat from North Las Vegas, said many of her constituents live in older, larger homes and pay more than average for energy. Ko used 50 cents because it represents 0.5 percent of an “average” utility bill, the rate that people would pay under Senate Bill 184.

Kirkpatrick said her constituents could pay much more.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a $100 bill in my life. … It’s not 50 cents to my constituents,” she said at a hearing last week.

Other bills being considered at the Legislature would raise subsidies for solar and wind and start a new subsidy for the purchase of electric-powered vehicles. Anybody receiving energy through a utility company would pay for these.

That is in addition to a 2009 program providing hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies to be paid out over several years.

And Nevadans already pay more than the national average for their energy, says Dan Jacobsen of the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection.

At the same time, Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislative leaders regularly tout the prospects for the renewable energy sector in Nevada.

Sandoval recently said he wants Nevada to be “the renewable energy capital of the world.”

Providing subsidies and government programs to attract investment in renewable energy could have many benefits for Nevada.

Renewable-energy factories in Nevada could provide high-paying manufacturing jobs and boost property tax revenues for local governments.

The renewable energy sector could also bolster Nevada’s ailing construction industry and provide jobs.

Lobbyists for renewable energy companies say that the long-term economic gain outweighs the cost of incentives that ratepayers subsidize.

“We definitely want to avoid a situation that would impact ratepayers to their detriment,” said Rose McKinney-James, a lobbyist for the Solar Alliance.

She said it would be dangerous to imperil the young renewable-energy industry by “pulling the rug out” rather than slowly weening the industry off subsidies.

“The challenge is this: how fast do you go and how much do you ask the base ratepayer to subsidize this?” Jacobson asked.

Ratepayers could see about a 2 percent increase on their utility bills if these bills pass, Jacobsen said, describing the impact of each bill during an interview last week.

NV Energy is already seeking a 5 percent increase for Southern Nevada customers and a 3 percent increase for Northern Nevada customers for “lost sales compensation” as customers have conserved more energy.

The utility company expects the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada to deliver a ruling on the proposed rate increase sometime next week.

In the meantime, legislators plan to whittle down the number of bills they are considering. They could carve up the bills and strike a compromise before the Legislature hits its looming deadline for passing bills.

“We definitely can’t do them all,” Atkinson said of all the bills.

Alliances, Politics And Honor Trump Policy In Legislative Vote

By Andrew Doughman | 9:15 am May 6th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Assemblyman John Ellison had a choice.

He wanted to push the red button, but he was supposed to push the green button.

The seconds ticked by on the floor of Nevada’s Assembly. In the wide angle shot, the other 41 members eagerly cast their votes. In the close-up shot, Ellison’s hand hovered over the green and red buttons. He hated it, but he punched the green one.

He had made a promise to vote ‘yes,’ and he voted ‘yes’ this time after voting ‘no’ the day before.

“The honor, that ate on me for two days,” he said after the vote. “If you’re word in here is no good, you’re no good.”

Politics and policy are never fully divorced at the Nevada Legislature. Bills are the bargaining chips in shifting, cross-party alliances that hinge upon trust and honor.

Whether deemed artful negotiation or political skullduggery, such trades may only grow more prevalent as legislators wheel and deal to close the budget.

Longtime lobbyist Carole Vilardo says bills live and die by “public perception, political palatability, policy and politics.”

“It’s part of the game,” says lobbyist Susan Fisher.

And Ellison had already broken the rules once. The Elko Republican had voted down Democratic Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson’s bill when he had promised to vote for it.

The result was a 27 – 14 split vote, one vote shy of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Ellison’s initial ‘no’ vote caused the bill to fail the first time.

It took a parliamentary procedure for a wily Democrat to resurrect the bill. So when it returned for a vote before the Assembly, Ellison was under even more pressure to keep his word.

“He got a chance to fix his vote and keep his commitment, which is very important in this building,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

Atkinson, a North Las Vegas Democrat, wants to establish a low-cost auto insurance program through his bill. All Nevadans would pay an extra 50 cents on their auto insurance policies to help subsidize the pilot program in Clark County.

Ellison’s vote for that fee increase earned him the title of a Republican “voting badly” from conservative activist Chuck Muth.

Muth employs as a lobbyist Janine Hansen, who ran an unsuccessful campaign against Ellison during the 2010 election.

Out in Elko, the electoral fights pit conservative against even more conservative, giving Ellision good reason to restate last week that he is a “very, very conservative person.”

“This was a thing of honor, not a thing of taxes,” he said.

Ellison cast his vote last week on a deadline day for the Legislature. The Assembly slogged through floor vote after floor vote. Legislators voted to adopt amendments to bills hours before they voted on them.

Under so much pressure, legislators could not always make a bill’s policy merits their paramount concern.

“It was just a last minute confusion – my biggest fear was the confusion and the promise,” Ellison said.

Ellison’s rural constituents would get nothing but a 50 cent fee increase from Atkinson’s bill.

But Atkinson had a favor to return to Ellison.

As chairman of a committee, Atkinson is the arbiter of which bills live and die. So when Ellison finally voted for Atkinson’s bill, Atkinson kicked Ellison’s bill downstairs to the Assembly floor. The bill lived.

“I believe, in this building, all you have is your word,” Atkinson later said. “If he [Ellison] had not honored his commitment, would I have sent his bill down [out of committee]? Probably not. …You shouldn’t be rewarded for making false promises.”

Ellison’s bill would relieve some rural businesses of fees from Carson City-based regulators and allow local governments to conduct some inspections locally.

Democrats fast-tracked Ellison’s bill through a fiscal committee last week. Now it is eligible for a floor vote on the Assembly.

For all the talk of partisan rancor, most votes do not fall along party lines. Legislators dissent. They tepidly endorse and unanimously approve. They break ranks and make promises, and in Ellison’s case, they get criticized by colleagues.

“There was some behind the scenes arm twisting,” said Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley. “…A lot of people have their pet legislation they want to slide through and they’re able to hold their noses and vote for a bill that they don’t like in exchange for a vote on their bill.”

Two other Republicans voted for Atkinson’s bill. One, Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Las Vegas, claimed that he liked the bill because it was coming to Clark County.

The other, Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, said he made an honest mistake.

“ I mistook the bill,” he said. “I made an error. …I’m new and I’m a freshman and even though I try my darndest, that one got by me.”

For Ellison, the experience rattled him. He later said he just wanted to vote and “get out of here.” The fate of his bill, he said, was the last thing on his mind.

“I didn’t care if they sent it to the moon,” he said.

Democrats, though, also kept their word. Ellison’s bill could come up for a vote soon. Meanwhile, Atkinson’s bill is alive and well in the Senate.

Fisher, the lobbyist, said that these negotiations are not only part of the process, they work.

“In the end, they both got what they wanted out of it: win-win,” she said.



Tow Truck Bill Focus Of “Huge Lobbying Effort”

By Andrew Doughman | 7:56 am May 5th, 2011

CARSON CITY – It has been called the most lobbied bill during the legislative session, and it is has nothing to do with taxes.

All the fuss is about changes to the tow truck and auto salvage industry.

In one corner are a wealthy business owner who often contributes to political campaigns, the auto insurance industry, the AFL-CIO and a former Speaker of the Assembly whose clients include  a now-indicted poker company.

In the other corner are tow truck companies, salvage yards, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and a group called the Nevada Tow Car Council.

Somewhere in the middle are two groups: citizen members of the Nevada Assembly, some of whom professed to know little of about the auto industry during a hearing yesterday, and average Nevadans who pay auto insurance and may someday have a vehicle towed.

At stake are potentially lucrative, monopolistic deals for business groups.

Senate Bill 407 would change how tow companies treat vehicles that end up in accidents in Clark County. Tow companies currently take those vehicles to their lots, where people can find their vehicles later.

A proposed amendment to the bill would allow insurance companies to contract with an independent storage lot. If you got in a wreck, your vehicle would go to the insurance company’s lot, where you could retrieve it later.

“I don’t know where all the money is coming from on that bill, but there is a huge lobbying effort on that,” said Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, who heard the bill in a Senate Transportation Committee last month. “There were so many good people on both sides of it that both made good points.”

Dueling Lobbyists Argue Bill Could Create Or Destroy Monopoly

The main proponent of the bill is Bobby Ellis, a businessman who often contributes to political campaigns and owns SNAP towing.

Richard Perkins, a former Democratic Speaker of the Assembly, is lobbying the bill on behalf of Ellis.

Former Speaker Richard Perkins (center), meets with lobbyists and Bobby Ellis, a Henderson businessman, after a legislative hearing. Perkins says Senate Bill 407 does not favor Ellis. "It just gives a level playing field so everyone can compete," he said. /PHOTO: Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau

He said that just two tow companies get all the business for vehicles involved in accidents. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police authorize Ewing Brothers and Quality Towing to tow cars from accident scenes.

“A monopoly is what they have now,” he said, noting complaints of price gouging and abuse.

Those two companies can charge fees ratified by the Nevada Transportation Authority.

The bill would allow insurance companies to contract with companies offering lower fees, Perkins said.

“This really opens it up for people instead of protecting the current monopoly,” he said. “You shouldn’t be a victim of an accident and of a tow company. … If they weren’t raping the public we wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Opponents to the bill note that Ellis is a consultant for Insurance Auto Auctions, which bought his salvage yard several years ago. They say this gives him an in with insurance companies and a reason to contract with Ellis.

Towing company representatives like Paul Enos say that the bill will create a monopoly for Ellis.

Ellis contended that this is not true.

“A lot of people say this is a special interest bill, but I may not even get a contract out of it,” he said.

Opponents to the bill said it has little to do with auto insurance consumers and people who get in accidents. They say that the bill ultimately benefits Ellis and the insurance industry.

“They will absorb the savings, it will never get to the consumer,” said Jason Kent of Quality Towing. “This bill would make us give up the most profitable part of our business.”

Most tow truck companies earn a hefty chunk of their revenue from storing vehicles, said Dennis Milk of Tow Guys towing company.

Some vehicles then move along to salvage yards or auto auction companies, two of which testified against the bill.

Sam McMullen, a lobbyist representing Copart Auto Auctions told a legislative committee “that kind of relationship” between Ellis and Insurance Auto Auctions gave his client concern about the bill.

Sam McMullen, lobbyist for Copart Auto Auctions meets with lobbyists for tow truck companies and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department prior to a legislative hearing. McMullen said Ellis' business relationships "cause concern" for this client. /PHOTO: Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau

Michael Geeser, lobbyist for AAA, said that cost savings may not necessarily pass along to consumers.

“At least it gives us one more choice and a chance to perhaps bring prices down,” he told a legislative committee.

AFL-CIO representative Danny Thompson said the bill would help average Nevadans.

Representatives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said they did not want to become “agents” for insurance companies in directing vehicles to the storage lots insurance companies designate.

Both proponents and opponents agreed on a portion of the bill that mandates the Nevada Transportation Authority to develop a standard set of fees for the tow truck and storage lot industry, which should help Nevadans.

Choice Of Committee Stirs Controversy

Further complicating the matter is the committee to which the bill was sent.

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D- North Las Vegas, is the chairman of the Commerce and Labor committee that heard the bill yesteraday.

Opponents of the bill noted Atkinson is also the recipient of a trip to London paid for by Perkins on behalf of his client, Pokerstars, a company which is now under federal investigation.

Perkins called those implications a “cheap shot” and a “smear campaign.”

Henderson businessman Bobby Ellis was at the Nevada Legislature to support Senate Bill 407. He said the bill is about consumers. "All their (towing industry) gravy and all these charges will go away and it'll help the consumer,

Opponents of the bill pointed at the thousands of dollars Ellis contributed to members of the Commerce and Labor committee.

But groups such as the Nevada Motor Transport Association, which represents tow truck companies and others, also made donations to members of that committee.

If anything, the allegations proved there is money in the fight, and there are a gaggle of lobbyists on both sides who will hope to turn the ear of a member of Nevada’s Assembly before the bill returns for a vote.

The committee has yet to take action on the bill.