Posts Tagged ‘Nevada Policy research Institute’

Medical Association Applauds Sandoval Medicaid Decision

By Sean Whaley | 11:11 am December 13th, 2012

CARSON CITYNevada State Medical Association President Florence Jameson said today that Gov. Brian Sandoval made a “politically courageous and correct” policy decision to expand the Nevada Medicaid program.

The decision will ensure that there will not be a new class of uninsured Nevadans when the federal health coverage changes are implemented in January 2014, said Jameson, a physician.

This decision assures coverage for low income uninsured Nevadans who would not be eligible for the new health insurance products provided through the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. While controversial, the principal achievement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is the development of a complex scheme for providing health care coverage for most Americans, the announcement said.

The association recommended in September that Sandoval opt for the expansion, but Nevada physicians remain concerned that it does not improve the current Medicaid program, which is significantly underfunded, Jameson said.

The association “urges Governor Sandoval and the state Legislature to address the access to care needs of the patients who are, and will continue to be, covered by the current Medicaid program,” she said.

This medical care access issue is one reason the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian think tank, has criticized the decision.

NPRI Deputy Policy Director Geoffrey Lawrence said that because the Medicaid program systematically under-reimburses health-care providers, many are not taking new patients. This means current Medicaid enrollees – by definition the most vulnerable populations – will now be competing with healthy adults for fewer and fewer doctors. Sandoval’s decision will exacerbate the doctor shortages already faced by the children and the disabled who use Medicaid, he said.

“All this said, one must applaud the governor’s decision to finally institute consumer co-pays and thus introduce some real-world price sensitivity into the calculations of Medicaid consumers,” Lawrence said. “The primary reason for the health-care system’s high costs is the government-induced breakdown of the price system.”

Imposing co-pays is a proven way of encouraging individuals to seek only the care they really need, helping to control cost growth, he said.

Another concern cited by NPRI with the expansion is the increasing cost of the Medicaid program to taxpayers.

State Medicaid spending is already growing at an unsustainable pace and will soon displace K-12 education as the state’s largest budget item, Lawrence said. While Congress has pledged that federal taxpayers will cover a majority of costs for the newly eligible population through 2020, that will likely shift more to state taxpayers in later years, he said.

Nevada Think Tank Publishes “Piglet Book” Citing Government Waste

By Sean Whaley | 2:01 am October 24th, 2012

CARSON CITY – From double-dipping employees to the questionable use of credit cards, the newest edition of the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s “piglet book” released today offers highlights of recent questionable government agency actions.

The Nevada Piglet Book 2012” is authored by Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director for NPRI, a libertarian think tank based in Las Vegas. The third edition comes out as lawmakers prepare to return to the capital for the 2013 legislative session.

In the 40-page report, Lawrence also reviews and raises questions about recent political and policy developments in Nevada, including the successful effort by Gov. Brian Sandoval and others to lure Apple to Reno, and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s efforts to promote green energy projects in the state using taxpayer subsidies.

“While Reid regularly trumpets these deals as ways to ‘create jobs’ in the state, these deals – it’s clear upon review – are really about transferring wealth from taxpayers and electric ratepayers to campaign donors and allied politicians,” Lawrence writes in the report.

He cites the work of fellow NPRI staff in criticizing the effort: “Since 2009, with Reid’s backing, over $1.3 billion in federal taxpayer subsidies has gone into renewable-energy contracts in Nevada. Yet the projects those subsidies fund are projected to create only 288 permanent jobs in the state – a cost to taxpayers of $4.6 million per job.”

Reid has strongly supported green energy development in his Senate career. His website says: “Our country is too dependent on oil and fossil fuels, which pollute our air, place our economy and national security at risk, and contribute to climate change. As the Senate Majority Leader, I am working on building a clean energy future that will help provide Americans safe, reliable, and affordable supplies of clean energy.”

As to the decision by Apple to build a data center in the Reno area after receiving large tax breaks, Lawrence said in the report: “To help it win the tax breaks it sought, Apple hired lobbyist and Sandoval adviser Greg Ferraro to represent the company before the Governor’s Office of Economic Development – where insider Ferraro was already under contract to perform public relations work for $200 per hour.”

This relationship was reported by the Las Vegas Sun in August. Ferraro told the Sun he personally represented only Apple in the dealings that netted the company $89 million in tax breaks, not the state as well.

While some of the information in the Piglet Report comes from reporters and others looking into questions at all levels of government, many issues cited are uncovered by government agencies themselves through audits.

“Most people don’t follow audits, they don’t read them, so they don’t know what they say, and the problems that some of the cities and counties and state have had,” Lawrence said in a telephone interview in advance of the release of the report. “So this is kind of a nice way to make that information more easily accessible to the public.”

The audits are an important source of information on the activities of government agencies, but not all entities, including most counties and many cities, do not have an internal audit function, he said. Getting local governments to invest in such reviews would be a benefit to the taxpayers, Lawrence said.

Lawrence also cites a Nevada News Bureau story in the report regarding some questionable use of welfare cash grants, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), by recipients.

“Over a seven-month period in 2011, Nevada TANF funds were withdrawn in 35 different states, Guam and the District of Columbia,” he said. “About a hundred withdrawals took place in liquor stores. Others took place in casinos and slot parlors. Some occurred in tourist destinations like New Orleans, Hawaii, Angel Stadium, Magic Mountain, SeaWorld San Diego, Knott’s Berry Farm and Pier 39 in San Francisco. While withdrawals of this nature were a minority, they indicate that at least some welfare payments went to fund indulgences – not necessities.”

The book, and other transparency efforts by NPRI, does have an effect on policy makers, Lawrence said. One example was the successful push for electronic reporting of campaign contribution and expense reports by candidates and elected officials, which was sought by others as well in the 2011 session including Secretary of State Ross Miller.

“These transparency issues especially are things that resonate with people on every end of the political spectrum,” Lawrence said. “So it’s easy for the public to get behind each of these measures. It’s perhaps a little more difficult for lawmakers who may not want to make things quite as transparent.”

But for everyone else the changes are clearly a benefit, he said.

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Audio clips:

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director for NPRI, says the report presents an easy-to-read review of questionable government activity:

102412Lawrence1 :24 to the public.”

Lawrence says people of all political persuasions support transparency efforts:

102412Lawrence3 :27 to our benefit.”

 

 

Clean Energy Summit Sparks Political Events, Debate Over Government Role In Renewables

By Sean Whaley | 2:10 am August 7th, 2012

CARSON CITY – With U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s 5th annual National Clean Energy Summit set to kick off today in Las Vegas, the debate over alternative energy development and the government’s role in its future rages on.

The purpose of the day-long event as described on the website is to, “once again bring together clean energy visionaries and leaders, public officials, business executives and entrepreneurs, investors, students, and the media to discuss how to empower the public with tools to promote the clean energy economy; increasing jobs and our energy independence.”

But the role of the federal government in the development of alternative energy has become a major political topic in this presidential election year, with critics pointing to the  closure in July of the solar manufacturing company Amonix in North Las Vegas 14 months after opening.

The company had been awarded $6 million in solar manufacturing tax credits to build the facility, but the company said the credits were never used. The closing was used to criticize President Obama and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who is locked in a tough Senate race with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. But Politico noted in an article that the Bush Administration first backed the Amonix project in 2007.

Federal funding of Nevada renewable projects called into question

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, in an article published today in the Nevada Journal, examined the state’s renewable energy sector and found that over $1.3 billion in federal funds funneled into geothermal, solar and wind projects since 2009 has yielded and is projected to yield just 288 permanent, full-time jobs.

“That’s an initial cost of over $4.6 million per job,” writes Kyle Gillis, a reporter for the NPRI publication. “Despite this, Sen. Reid continues to hype Nevada as the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewable energy,’ even though the renewable energy subsidized with federal dollars and mandated under Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard costs consumers and NV Energy, Nevada’s publicly regulated utility company, up to four times as much as fossil fuels, such as natural gas.”

Gillis said the few clean-energy jobs in the state of Nevada are still precarious even with government support, pointing to Nevada Geothermal Power, a federally subsidized green-energy firm in Nevada. Auditors are raising questions about whether that firm is going to fail, he said.

As of last October, Nevada Geothermal Power had 22 employees in Nevada, and, according to the New York Times, had received $145 million in federal subsidies – composed of a loan guarantee of nearly $79 million for its Blue Mountain geothermal project and at least $66 million in grants to the company itself.

The Times called the company a “politically connected clean energy start-up that has relied heavily on an Obama administration loan guarantee,” and said it “… is now facing financial turmoil.”

Sen. Reid’s position in support of alternative energy and federal assistance is unwavering

Reid says on his Senate website: “Our country is too dependent on oil and fossil fuels, which pollute our air, place our economy and national security at risk, and contribute to climate change.”

He points to the funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for helping Nevada become the nation’s renewable energy leader.

“Through the Recovery Act, Nevada has received over $550 million for a range of energy efficiency, renewable, and weatherization projects as well as hundreds of millions in low-cost financing for transmission and renewable energy deployment projects,” Reid said.

New federally-backed Nevada alternative energy project announced

On Monday Reid was joined by U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager and Nevada Rural Development State Director Sarah Adler to announce a major renewable energy project in Northern Nevada.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also announced the $105 million loan guarantee to Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels, LLC to finance development of a facility to convert municipal solid waste into advanced biofuels. The project is expected to help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, relieve pressure on existing and future landfills, and stimulate economic growth in Northern Nevada through job creation.

The Nevada plant is expected to create an estimated 430 jobs during construction and 53 permanent jobs in Storey County, 20 miles east of Reno. Once operational, the plant is expected to convert 147,000 tons of processed municipal solid waste into over 10 million gallons of advanced biofuels annually using a two-part thermo-chemical process.

“The time is now to embrace alternative American-produced feedstocks that support our nation’s energy independence, provide jobs in rural areas, and support the Obama Administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy,” Vilsack said. “At USDA we are focused on the production of renewable energy from a wide variety of non-food sources, including waste, algae, wood, and switchgrass as a long-term solution to America’s energy needs.”

Alternative energy debate also focuses on oil company tax breaks and Nevada Senate race

The politics of energy development prompted another event Monday, this one aimed at Heller and his history of supporting tax breaks for oil companies.

Sponsored by ProgressNow Nevada, activists gathered near Heller’s Las Vegas office to bring attention to his record on the issue.

Heller in March shifted his position to some extent by urging Congress to close some oil company tax loopholes to help reduce the price of gasoline. He did so in an amendment to S. 2204 called the Gas Price Relief Act. It would, in part, close oil and gas tax loopholes for the major integrated oil companies and provide a permanent reduction in the gas tax.

Berkley has been using Heller’s past votes to maintain the tax subsidies as a campaign issue in the Senate race. An ad running now in northern Nevada, paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, points out that Heller voted “nine times” for Big Oil tax breaks.

The Heller campaign called the ad “payback” to Berkley for supporting the league in voting against a bill to transfer BLM land to Lyon County.

“This ad is a tired, over the top attack,” said Chandler Smith, Heller for Senate spokeswoman, in a statement last month. “Dean Heller actually proposed a bill that would end tax loopholes for big oil companies. Shelley Berkley, on the other hand, voted for a national energy tax that would raise prices at the pump and is personally invested in big oil companies.”

Electricity from coal also part of the discussion

Today, a coalition of health advocates, environmentalists, and members of the Moapa Band of Paiutes is set to rally outside the conference to call on NV Energy to transition from coal fired power plants to clean energy.

The coalition also plans to call attention to NV Energy’s Reid Gardner coal plant operating 50 miles from Las Vegas and next to the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation. The groups allege that air pollution from the coal plant results in $28 million in public health costs every year.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes wants the coal plant shut down.

NV Energy officials say even though the plant was built in the 1960s, “it has undergone extensive technology improvements and is among the cleanest coal-burning facilities in the nation.”

Think Tank Files Legal Brief To Pursue Separation-Of-Powers Case Aimed At State Lawmakers In Public Jobs

By Sean Whaley | 4:21 pm July 30th, 2012

CARSON CITY – A libertarian think tank’s legal team has filed an opening brief in a case before the state Supreme Court seeking to pursue its separation-of-powers lawsuit aimed at state lawmakers who also work in state government jobs.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL) filed the brief Friday in its case Pojunis v. State of Nevada, et al. – a lawsuit brought to restore adherence to the separation-of-powers clause found in Article 3, Section 1 of Nevada’s constitution. It named then-state employee and current state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas.

Nevada state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. / Nevada News Bureau file photo

Shortly after the complaint was filed in November 2011, Denis announced his resignation from his computer technician job with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.

Carson City District Court Judge James Russell then ruled the case was made moot by Denis’ resignation.

The CJCL is seeking to have the case reinstated by the Nevada Supreme Court, citing other lawmakers working in state or even local government jobs that could be affected by a decision in the matter.

Joseph Becker, chief legal officer and director of CJCL, said: “NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation is appealing this case to the Nevada Supreme Court because the separation-of-powers clause at issue in this case is the same clause that the Nevada Supreme Court has written “is probably the most important single principle of government declaring and guaranteeing the liberties of the people.”

While the interpretation of the separation-of-powers clause may be moot in Denis’ case, Becker is arguing there is a compelling public interest in having the case resolved.

The separation-of-powers clause “makes it perfectly clear that a sitting legislator cannot hold a job in the executive or judicial branch of government, and yet, there are at least 14 conflicting attorney general’s opinions on this issue and no fewer than six current legislators who also hold jobs in the executive or judicial branch of state government,” Becker said.

Even Gov. Sandoval has asked the Supreme Court to “[s]ettle it once and for all,” he said.

“Upholding the constitution’s separation-of-powers clause is a fundamental and ‘public’ legal issue, and we urge the Nevada Supreme Court to let this case proceed,” Becker said.

The lawsuit was filed by the CJCL on behalf of Las Vegas resident William Pojunis, who said at the time he was unemployed and was qualified for Denis’ position and wanted to apply for the job.

In his district court filing seeking dismissal, Denis’ attorney said case law shows that Nevada courts only decide “cases that present live controversies.”

“Courts will not retain jurisdiction where ‘a live controversy becomes moot by the occurrence of subsequent events,’ and ‘will not make legal determinations that cannot affect the outcome of the case,’ ” said Denis attorney Bradley Schrager.

Views Mixed On Effect Of New National Public Pension Reporting Rules On Nevada PERS

By Sean Whaley | 11:50 am June 29th, 2012

CARSON CITY – The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has voted to approve two new standards that the group says will substantially improve the accounting and financial reporting of public employee pensions by state and local governments.

“The new standards will improve the way state and local governments report their pension liabilities and expenses, resulting in a more faithful representation of the full impact of these obligations,” said GASB Chairman Robert H. Attmore. “Among other improvements, net pension liabilities will be reported on the balance sheet, providing citizens and other users of these financial reports with a clearer picture of the size and nature of the financial obligations to current and former employees for past services rendered.”

The new rules were approved June 25 and take effect beginning in 2014.

There are differences of opinion about whether the new reporting requirements will mean significant changes for how the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) calculates and funds its long-term liability.

Dana Bilyeu of PERS says the changes won’t be significant in Nevada

Bilyeu, executive officer of Nevada PERS, said the new rules are not expected to change the metrics that form the basis for how the public pension plan liability is currently being funded over the long-term. Pension funding is governed by the Actuarial Standards of Practice, not GASB, she said.

The GASB rules require uniform reporting of pension liabilities for the purpose of providing comparable information, for instance, when states or municipalities sell bonds, Bilyeu said The new rules may lead to confusion because there will be two different numbers used to calculate pension liabilities when they take effect, she said.

The funding side of the public pension plan in Nevada will continue to use assumptions built around plan experience such as an eight percent return annualized over 30 years, Bilyeu said.

The rate for the financial reporting rule will be different, but not dramatically so, in Nevada, she said, in light of current plan experience.

“In Nevada, at least preliminarily, I don’t see a huge difference,” she said. “What they’re trying to do is put standards in place so there is uniformity in reporting in the bond market, as well as for other uses of financial statements.”

For states such as Illinois that do not fully fund their public pension plans on a consistent basis, the reported liability discount rate for financial reporting could be much lower, closer to 4 percent, Bilyeu said.

The concept is designed to allow the users of the financial statements, as in the bond market, to evaluate what the default risk is for the sponsor by showing a measure of how that sponsor pays on other debt, such as pension debt.

Bilyeu said she is concerned that the rate of return used for financial reporting purposes will be used by critics of the public pension program to argue contribution rates should be higher than those calculated now to fund the system using the estimated 8 percent discount rate.

The financial reporting rule will lend itself to much more volatile results over time, she said.

The two different numbers that will be reported in future years are not meant to be comparable, Bilyeu said. In fact GASB specifically indicated that the new pension reporting requirements are deliberately drafted so as not to influence funding decisions, she said.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute says the changes could spur PERS reforms

Geoff Lawrence, deputy policy director at the libertarian think tank, said at the least the new rules will present a more accurate report showing that public that pension liabilities, in Nevada and elsewhere, are much greater than what are being estimated currently.

There is still a lot of uncertainty because the actual rules won’t be available for review until August.

But since the long-time liability of PERS is only 70 percent funded, the new reporting could push the system to imposing higher contribution rates to make it fully funded, he said.

“It looks like GASB is going to allow pension systems that they consider well-funded to continue with the same accounting methods that they’ve used in the past regarding the discount rate,” Lawrence said. “And well-funded pension systems are usually considered those within 80 percent funding level or above. Now Nevada PERS, along with many other states, currently falls below that funding ratio.”

If forced to use a lower discount rate, Nevada and other public pension plans will see their unfunded liabilities grow by tens of billions of dollars, he said.

If a 5 percent return calculation is used for PERS, the liability is closer to $35 billion than $10 billion, and would require much higher contribution rates, Lawrence said.

“I guess the take away for most citizens and lawmakers and so forth is that cities, counties and the state are now going to face higher annual contribution rates in order to work towards retiring that unfunded liability amount which is going to be much higher,” he said.

The contribution rate for this year and next in Nevada is 23.75 percent of a regular public employee’s wage, with half paid by the employer and half by the employee. The contribution rate will be recalculated in November for the next two-year budget. The rate for public safety employees is much higher.

Higher contribution rates mean bigger financial hits to taxpayers.

The new rule will spur some public recognition that pension liabilities are being under reported, Lawrence said.

“We are going to have these two sets of numbers, and one is the official GASB number which most economists are going to throw their weight behind,” he said. “And it’s going to show some disconnect at the legislative level and within PERS administration that is probably going to compel some type of drive towards changing the fund management rules at the state level.”

Changing the state pension plan to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan would eliminate the unfunded liability for the future, but the liability for the current plan will still have to be funded over time.

Nevada PERS, which covers most state and local government workers, is a defined benefit pension plan, guaranteeing a set retirement income based on years of service and salary.

The Pew Center on the States recently reported that the financial health of Nevada’s public employee pension plan is cause for serious concern because it is only 70 percent funded as of fiscal year 2010 with a $10 billion gap. The funding ratio in Nevada is below the 80 percent benchmark that fiscal experts recommend for a sustainable program.

Bilyeu has argued, however, that Nevada has always fully funded its annual pension obligations as calculated by an independent actuary, and that this is a better measure for determining the health of a public employee pension plan than the funding ratio.

Gov. Brian Sandoval says he intends to pursue changes to PERS in 2013

Sandoval on Thursday reiterated his intention to make changes to the pension plan in the 2013 legislative session during an interview on the Nevada NewsMakers television program.

“Of course I’m concerned about our PERS system, the public employee retirement system, and the fact that it is underwater,” he said.

Sandoval said one of his disappointments of the 2011 session was getting a bill through providing for a study of PERS, but only if private sector funding was obtained. That money was not forthcoming and the study did not proceed.

“Right now I’m working to get a study done so that we can have the background, but at the end of the day we know that we have to reform our PERS system because we can’t keep going in the direction that we are,” he said.

There are critics of the new GASB rules

A national group, the National Public Pension Coalition, has criticized the new rules.

“These accounting changes undermine the retirement security of teachers, cops, firefighters and other public workers by making unfunded liabilities appear much larger than they actually are,” said Jordan Marks, executive director of the group. “These unnecessary changes add a new layer of red tape resulting in wasteful administrative costs for taxpayers, enabling politicians to slash the modest pensions of public workers while continuing to let Wall Street off-the-hook.”

The new rules are found in Statement No. 67, Financial Reporting for Pension Plans, which revises existing guidance for the financial reports of most pension plans, and Statement No. 68, Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions, which revises and establishes new financial reporting requirements for most governments that provide their employees with pension benefits. The complete rules will not be available for review until August.

The GASB is the independent, not-for-profit organization formed in 1984 that establishes and improves financial accounting and reporting standards for state and local governments. Its seven members are drawn from the board’s diverse constituency, including preparers and auditors of government financial statements, users of those statements, and members of the academic community.

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Audio clips:

Gov. Brian Sandoval says he will pursue changes to PERS in the next legislative session:

062912Sandoval :10 that we are.”

Geoff Lawrence of NPRI says Nevada PERS does not meet the definition of a well-funded plan:

062912Lawrence1 :29 that funding ratio.”

Lawrence says the new GASB rules could require higher contribution rates to retire the unfunded liability:

062912Lawrence2 :24 be much higher.”

Lawrence says the new rules could prompt changes to PERS fund management rules:

062912Lawrence3 :27 the state level.”

 

 

Nevada Groups React To U.S. Supreme Court Decision On Health Care Law

By Sean Whaley | 1:52 pm June 28th, 2012

CARSON CITY – Nevada groups and organizations weighed in on the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the health care law today, with comments across the spectrum.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian think tank, called it a, “practical and significant blow to individual liberty.”

Photo by Franz Jantzen courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our nation’s founders intended the constitution to greatly restrict the power of the federal government, but unfortunately, this ruling further expands federal authority,” said Joseph Becker, chief legal officer and director of NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation. “Not even King George believed he had the authority to compel colonists to buy the tea tossed overboard in Boston Harbor, yet we now have an expansion of federal authority which, through the force of taxation, mandates as a practical matter that citizens must buy private-sector goods.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at NPRI, said: “Just because the Supreme Court has ruled that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional doesn’t change the damage this flawed policy will do to individuals in America’s health care system.

“The primary shortcoming of the health care industry is that government policies have induced too much cost-shifting and neutered the effectiveness of the price system,” he said. “The ACA just doubles down on this shortcoming by increasing the degree of cost-shifting to ludicrous proportions. Small businesses will pay more, families and individuals will pay more, and states could pay more.”

Nevada State Medical Association (NSMA) President Florence N. Jameson, M.D., a Las Vegas obstetrician-gynecologist and founder of Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada, said in part: “Unfortunately, major health care problems are not resolved by this law. The Congress and the president must continue to work to find an acceptable way to sustain Medicare for seniors and persons with disabilities and the Medicaid program for indigent and chronically ill children and seniors.

“Governor Brian Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature will have to determine the impact on Nevada Medicaid of the Supreme Court’s decision, but it doesn’t make the funding of the Medicaid program easier,” she said. “It means that they must address again the often unfair way that health insurance coverage fails patients when they have the greatest need for medical care.”

Randi Thompson, Nevada state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, which was the named plaintiff in today’s landmark decision, said: “The Supreme Court may have ruled that the act may be constitutional, but it’s not good policy.

“I agree with the dissenting statement that the Affordable Care Act exceeds federal power in mandating the purchase of health insurance,” she said. “The court confirmed the mandate is a tax on every American. Add the mandate tax to a host of other new taxes in the new heath care law and you have the most costly bill every thrust on the American taxpayer.”

Michael Ginsburg, Southern Nevada director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said: “This law expands coverage to more than 30 million people and eliminates the worst insurance company abuses such as premium price-gouging, discrimination and denial of care for the sick in order to increase corporate profits. This decision makes clear that implementation of the law must move forward at the state and federal level without further delays from partisan political interference – including governors and elected officials.”

Scotty Watts, president of the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans, said: “Today is an historic day for Americans of all ages, an affirmation of a law that helps children, workers, and retirees obtain affordable health care. Americans can now live more secure, knowing that their health and well-being are no longer tied to the whims and greed of the big insurance companies.”

“Today is a tremendous victory for Nevada  seniors, their children, and their grandchildren,” he said. “But we cannot rest on our laurels.  In the 2012 elections we cannot let politicians roll back the progress we have made.”

Nevada was one of 26 states that challenged the constitutionality of the law that resulted in today’s ruling. Nevada was represented by Las Vegas attorney Mark Hutchison, who worked on the case for free after Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto declined to challenge the law at former Gov. Jim Gibbons’ request.

Nevada State Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange said the decision, “offers relief to Nevadans with preexisting conditions, young people who can stay on their parents’ healthcare plans until they are 26 and seniors who rely on lower prescription drug costs.

“However, despite the Supreme Court settling this issue, Mitt Romney is still promising to fight old political battles of the past that would roll back protections from some of the worst abuses by the private insurance industry,” she said. “It’s time to move forward, end the partisan games and get back to work creating good paying middle-class jobs that stay here in Nevada.”

Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said today: “What the court did not do on its last day in session, I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States. And that is I will act to repeal Obamacare.

“Let’s make clear that we understand what the Court did and did not do,” he said. “What the court did today was say that Obamacare does not violate the Constitution. What they did not do was say that Obamacare is good law or that it’s good policy.”

President Obama said in remarks at the White House: “The highest court in the land has now spoken. We will continue to implement this law. And we’ll work together to improve on it where we can.  But what we won’t do – what the country can’t afford to do – is refight the political battles of two years ago, or go back to the way things were.

“With today’s announcement, it’s time for us to move forward – to implement and, where necessary, improve on this law,” he said. “And now is the time to keep our focus on the most urgent challenge of our time: putting people back to work, paying down our debt, and building an economy where people can have confidence that if they work hard, they can get ahead.”

 

Survey Of State Lawmakers, Candidates Shows Support For Continued Government Transparency Efforts

By Sean Whaley | 2:00 am May 23rd, 2012

CARSON CITY – Sixty state lawmakers and legislative candidates who responded to a survey on government transparency largely favor new laws requiring the Legislature to follow the Open Meeting Law and mandating expanded reporting of spending on legislators by lobbyists.

The survey, sponsored by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Nevada Press Association, also saw broad support for imposing a 72-hour time frame so the public can read bills before they go to a floor vote, subjecting local government negotiations with public employee unions to the state Open Meeting Law and assessing penalties for government officials who violate Nevada’s public records laws.

Illustration by David Vignoni, Ysangkok via Wikimedia Commons.

The survey was sent to 153 candidates and eight state Senators who are not up for re-election this year. Forty-one Republicans, 14 Democrats and five minor party candidates responded.

This survey is intended to give the voters a chance to find out where candidates stand on transparency issues including public records, open meetings and campaign finance reforms.

“I think it ought to be a very important issue for voters,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the press association. “That’s why we do this; so that they know who has it on their priority list.”

Advocates of increased transparency in government say the responses suggest that further progress can be made on the issues in the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature.

“We’ve been able to move forward with Open Meeting Law, Open Records Law; the campaign finance does show some improvement,” Smith said. “That’s another thing these surveys showed – there is quite a bit of work to do and there is quite a bit of work the Legislature can do.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at NPRI, said at least 50 of the 60 responses were either in favor of or leaning in favor of the proposals, suggesting there is a good chance for further progress for increased government transparency in the upcoming session.

The new requirements for campaign contribution and expense reports adopted in the 2011 session were part of the 2010 survey, suggesting the effort is having some influence, he said.

“A lot of these other ideas were embodied into bills; they just never passed the Legislature,” Lawrence said. “So hopefully that will happen this time.”

The survey comes just as Republican Assembly caucus leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, announced several transparency reforms he will seek in the 2013 session. Hickey responded to the survey, indicating support for the various proposals with a “lean yes” on applying the Open Meeting Law to the Legislature. He indicated some flexibility may be required for the proposal, given the 120-day time limit the Legislature has to finish its business.

While most survey responses were supportive without qualification, there were also a few “maybes” and some opposition to the proposals.

Former state Senator Sheila Leslie, a Democrat who resigned her seat in mid-term to run for the Senate 15 seat now held by Republican Greg Brower, did not favor subjecting collective bargaining negotiations to public scrutiny.

“I don’t think inviting TV cameras into negotiations with public employee unions is in the best interest of government,” she said. “There needs to be more transparency and communication but making everything subject to the Open Meeting Law is not necessarily good government. This is one of those instances.”

Leslie was not alone in expressing concerns about the proposal.

Reno Republican Assembly 31 candidate David Espinosa said: “Negotiations, by their nature, are sensitive matters that an open meeting inclusion would transform into an entrenchment of sides, and an opportunity for grandstanding and demagoguery. I would instead support all efforts to openly disclose the starting positions of both sides of the negotiation, and the final position of each of the representatives of the local government.”

Lawrence said the issue is more problematic for some candidates and elected officials because of the support they get from public sector labor unions, which generally oppose such proposals.

Others are more bipartisan in nature, such as the proposal to require reporting of spending by lobbyists on lawmakers all year round and not just during each legislative session.

Leslie sponsored the bill in 2011 that would have required lobbyists to report all spending on lawmakers, not just spending during a legislative session. Senate Bill 206 passed the Senate unanimously but died in an Assembly committee without a vote.

Smith said the goal is to keep moving forward with incremental successes.

“To me it should be obvious that open government is a bipartisan kind of thing that people can agree on that that’s what we want,” he said. “There’s not always agreement on exactly how you get there. But as long as people think it’s important and are willing to work on it, then we will move forward with some of these things.”

-

Audio clips:

Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association says the survey results should be very important to voters:

052312Smith1 :12 their priority list.”

Smith says the surveys show a lot more work needs to be done in the areas of government transparency:

052312Smith2 :26 Legislature can do.”

Smith says open government is a bipartisan issue:

052312Smith3 :21 of these things.”

Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director at the NPRI, says the survey has some influence with lawmakers:

052312Lawrence1 :24 happen this time.”

Lawrence says opening public employee labor negotiations to public scrutiny is one of the more problematic transparency issues:

052312Lawrence2 :29 that position, probably.”

 

 

Nevada Attorney General Says Catalyst Fund To Help Economic Development Is Constitutional

By Sean Whaley | 5:15 pm February 21st, 2012

CARSON CITY – Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto today issued a legal opinion concluding that a $10 million Catalyst Fund created by the Legislature to help aid in business expansion and economic development does not violate the state constitution.

“The Nevada Constitution does not prohibit the state from disbursing Catalyst Fund money to regional development authorities that by definition must be local governments, or prohibit local governments from disbursing Catalyst Fund money to companies,” the opinion released today says.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. / Nevada News Bureau file photo

The opinion, requested by Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, was first reported by Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston.

The fund was created as part of a bipartisan plan by Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature to promote economic development and job creation in Nevada.

The constitutionality of the fund has been questioned by the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The conservative Nevada think tank cites Article 8, Section 9 of the state constitution, which says the state shall not donate or loan money to corporations except those created for educational charitable purposes.

Nevada Think Tank Announces New Case Aimed at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Sean Whaley | 11:00 am January 16th, 2012

CARSON CITY – A conservative Nevada think tank today announced the second case taken on by its Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), this one aimed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allegedly flooding a Pahrump church camp through negligent and illegal work on two streams.

The action is being taken on behalf of Victor Fuentes, a 1991 escapee from Cuba who in 2004 formed a church with his wife Annette in Las Vegas called The Ministerio Roco Solida Church, or Solid Rock Church.

“I’m very disappointed with the federal government right now because, coming from Cuba, I know what an overrun country by the government can do to its people,” Fuentes said in a telephone interview. “That is the reason I came to the United States of America. Because my country is overrun by the Communist regime of Fidel Castro.

“And what is happening right now is all our liberty and freedoms are being taken away from me specifically with what the government has done to us and our property in Amargosa Valley,” he said.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s CJCL is filing a negligence claim for damages on behalf of his church with the federal agency.

Joseph Becker, chief legal officer and director of CJCL, said the claim for the flooding damage will be at least $86,000 based on one professional estimate. But the permanent loss of the streams is a much more complex issue that the center is still investigating, he said.

“I mean, at a minimum, if you are going to take property, constitutionally it would have to be in a public interest and you have to pay for it,” he said. “We’re not sure they can demonstrate a public use and certainly we know they didn’t pay for it.

“And even aside from that issue, of course, the first claim, that being the negligence claim, you can’t reroute water in a negligent way such that it floods private property,” Becker said.

In 2006, Fuentes purchased a 40-acre, Wild West-themed camp in the Amargosa Valley for $500,000, using a combination of member contributions and his own money. After purchasing the property Fuentes spent another $700,000 refurbishing buildings, installing a septic system and retrofitting elements of the camp — which was renamed “Patch of Heaven.”

By 2010, Fuentes said the property was booked “nearly every weekend” with church groups and campers. The main attractions of the camp were two spring-fed streams flowing through the property, and a swimming pond.

Victor Fuentes at Patch of Heaven.

In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began rerouting the streams away from the camp. The case alleges the streams – which had flowed through the property since the 1800s – were diverted to go around the camp, cutting off its recreational and baptismal waters.

The agency completed the rerouting project in early December 2010. On Dec. 23, just before Christmas, rain raised the stream waters over the federal agency’s constructed banks, flooding Patch of Heaven. The camp was submerged in mud and muddy water, severely damaging the buildings and other property.

“It was devastating,” Annette Fuentes said. “Seeing all the work we put into [the camp] ruined by some type of government negligence was unbelievable.”

In addition to the structural damage, the Fuenteses say the overall value of the camp property is now significantly less. Not only has the camp been deprived of its water source, but it is now on a government-created flood plain.

Patch of Heaven flooded.

The Fuenteses reached out to several government officials for help, but received few responses.

“The government acts like a separate entity from the people – they are there, and we are here,” Victor Fuentes said.

In an article in the Pahrump Valley Times in 2009, a federal official said the work was intended to restore the streams to their original channel.

The article quoted Cynthia Martinez, manager of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge complex, who said the alignment is the result of a 15-year management plan. The plan was discussed at public meetings in 2008, including one at the Amargosa Valley Community Center, Martinez said. She said the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t rerouting the channel but restoring it to its original path.

The restoration of the channel is designed to help the speckled dace, an endangered species of fish, Martinez said.

Speckled dace. / Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

“The reason the refuge was established was for threatened and endangered species. One of the restoration techniques we have is to restore their native habitat. That means going back and reconstructing outflow channels from all these springs back in their hydrologically correct direction,” Martinez said.

But Becker said he has maps from the late 1800s showing the water flowing through the property in the same location before it was “hijacked” by the federal agency.

It is the second action taken by the CJCL. In November it filed a lawsuit against the state of Nevada and the Public Utilities Commission alleging the employment of a state lawmaker violated the state constitution’s separation of powers clause.

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, left the job about the time the lawsuit was filed, but the case is being pursued by the CJCL because of the ramifications for other lawmakers serving in state or local government public jobs.

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Audio clips:

Joseph Becker, chief legal officer and director of CJCL, says the federal government cannot act in a negligent manner:

011612Becker :26 floods private property.”

Victor Fuentes says he is disappointed by the actions of the U.S. government:

011612Fuentes1 :19 of Fidel Castro.”

Fuentes says his freedoms have been taken away by the actions of the federal government:

011612Fuentes2 :12 in Amargosa Valley.”

 

Allegations Of Gerrymandering Fly As Legislators Address Redistricting

By Andrew Doughman | 10:50 am March 16th, 2011
CARSON CITY – When it comes to redistricting this year, the line from the Assembly Republicans goes like this: the “fair” process is unfair.

They say the process resulted in gerrymandering in 2001, when the boundaries of political districts were last redrawn.

“It was gerrymandered to death,” said Assemblyman Mark Sherwood, R-Henderson.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea started a sentence like this: “Clearly, the way it was gerrymandered in 2001…”

The Assembly Republicans have data from the most recent election that they say shows that the current districts are unfair.

More Nevadans voted for Republicans than Democrats in the state’s 42 Assembly races last year.

But Democrats won 26 races to the Republicans’ 16.

Furthermore, Republican candidates earned more total votes than Democratic candidates during the past decade’s Assembly races.

But Republicans won fewer seats.

When electing representatives to the Assembly for the 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011 sessions, Democrats won 130 elections while Republicans won 80. Click to enlarge. (Legislative Counsel Bureau)

The past decade has produced a 3-2 Democratic advantage in the Assembly.

After the 2010 election, Victor Joecks of the Nevada Policy Research Institute wrote that the current Assembly districts are unfair.

Among other things, he noted that the largest Republican-controlled district has more voters than the eight smallest Democratic-controlled districts combined.

But Democratic Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who is leading the Assembly’s redistricting committee, shrugged off the claims.

“If you don’t have anything else to argue, argue it,” he said. “Districts have to be equal population. You’re not going to have equal votes.”

“Common sense is wrong.”

Legislators drew all 42 Assembly districts with almost equal populations in 2001.

Every 10 years, legislators redraw the political districts based on the most recent Census data. They put equal numbers of people in each district.

It is people, not voters that define “fair.”

Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, employs experts to help legislators edit the boundaries of districts.

He said legislators are mandated to draw districts of equal population. The voter population in each district may differ, sometimes markedly.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has already said he wants the Legislature to draft a plan based on equal district populations or he will veto the plan.

“What is counted and what is important is the number of people, not the number of votes cast,” said professor William Eubank of the UNR political science department.

Two districts might have equal populations, but several factors affect voters numbers in each district. Some people cannot vote: children, teens under the age of 18, prisoners and some immigrants. Other demographic factors also predict whether an eligible voter actually will vote.

So what about that 3-2 split in the Assembly when Republican candidates got more votes?

“It’s one of those things that common sense tells you is wrong,” Eubank said. “But common sense is wrong.”

The Growth Problem

Even so, populations grow or shrink, leaving once-equal districts warped.

Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden,  is part of the bi-partisan group “Fair Vote.”

He said the current system is not “fair.”

“I don’t believe the last reapportionment was fair to both parties,” he said. “We did not take into account, which I think we’re obligated to do, growth.”

Take Assembly Districts 13 and 22 for example. Republicans dominate both districts. When they were drawn in 2001, they comprised the outlying areas of Las Vegas.

Assembly Districts 13 and 22, at left and along the bottom of this image, are among the largest in the state because they absorbed population growth in Clark County between 2000 and 2010. (Nevada Legislature)

Now there are more than 220,000 people in each. Another Clark County district, Assembly District 11, contains 42,000 people. Based on the 2010 Census, a district should have 65,000 people.

So it’s a Goldilocks problem. After 10 years of population change, no district is “just right.” Most are either too big or too small.

Republican legislators point to these districts as proof of gerrymandering, suggesting that in 2001, Democrats schemed to lock urban growth in a few Republican-leaning districts. This would restrain Republicans from gaining more seats.

Making the districts equal by population could still help Republicans in urban districts because it would spread out Republican voters currently in those two massive districts.

“If we get districts balanced with people, then the votes will follow,” Goicoechea said. “We’re going to get 65,000 people in each Assembly district and call it good.”

If only it were so simple.

Assembly Republican Suggests Tax Reform Debate

By Andrew Doughman | 10:46 am March 8th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, says he is interested in changing the state’s tax structure.

He wrote in a weekly newsletter he might consider broadening the state’s tax base, an idea that he has talked about with UNR economics professor Elliott Parker.

“The good professor understands scientifically what we all know intuitively – that the golden goose of gaming in Nevada will never again lay the same revenue egg that the Silver State has enjoyed for so long,” Hickey wrote. “Parker’s proposal for a small tax on the state’s new service economy – is worthy of serious consideration.”

Parker has suggested that the new tax could be coupled with a corresponding decrease in the sales tax. This would prevent the government from collecting more revenue. In theory, it would spread the tax burden around to a greater number of sectors.

“These kinds of revenue-neutral but long-term sensible approaches might attract members of the GOP to the table,” Hickey wrote.

Parker has written several editorials during the past months. He has advocated for more government spending rather than cuts, and has equated budget cuts to the Donner Party cannibalizing itself.

“If the Legislature passes a tax on services, but delays it for a couple of years, this would give us time to figure out how to best collect it, and we would avoid raising taxes during the depths of Nevada’s depression,” Parker wrote. “If we borrow against this future revenue to fill the current gap, we are just smoothing out when we spend it. We would not have to repay from moneys we won’t have, and not risk our credit rating.”

Hickey said the professor’s specific, revenue-neutral approach would fit into the Assembly Republican’s list of goals for the session.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank, has also advocated for a similar change in the state’s tax structure. They claim it would spread the tax burden around, although some disagree that it would be revenue neutral.

Hickey said he will not be introducing a bill for a tax on services with a provision for a reduction in the sales tax.

He said the proposal is worth “considering” and “discussing” during this legislative session.

The Legislature is 30 days into its 120-day session, and deadlines are fast approaching for lawmakers to submit bills.

The Case For Cuts: After Criticism, Many Defend Governor’s Budget

By Andrew Doughman | 4:00 am February 7th, 2011

CARSON CITY – They speak of limbs hacked off, death and guts.

In a war of words, critics of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $5.8 billion budget have lambasted his proposed cuts to K-12, higher education and health and human services.

Conservatives have largely stayed silent while the critics lashed out. Now, two weeks after the governor released his budget and on the first day of the 120-day legislative session, they’re ready to defend it.

The “live within our means” crowd has said the governor’s budget, along with any legislative tinkering to iron out compromises, puts Nevada where it needs to be. Advocates for health and education have equated it to a starvation diet. The governor and others say each state dollar can do more.

When you’re at home, and you know you can’t afford something, you just don’t get it,” said Sen. Barbara Cegavske, one of the few Republican lawmakers to raise her voice during the past two weeks of legislative budget-overview hearings.

The governor has proposed 9 percent and 18 percent budget cuts to K-12 and higher education. But even those who have bemoaned the cost of the governor’s cuts have some concessions to make.

I think we have been guilty of hyperbole in the past where, you know, we get the first dollar of a cut and we would like you to believe that the sky is falling,” said Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, which comprises Nevada’s universities and community college. “Here we are a few years later and lo and behold the sky is right where it started out. It has not fallen in.”

Klaich made his comments at a meeting this past week between presidents of universities and community colleges and the Board of Regents, which govern the state’s higher education system. He warned the presidents not to overstate the cost of the cuts.

Later in the session, the extent to which advocates for school, university and human services programs justify their worth could influence how legislators choose what to cut and what to save.

Presenting worst case scenarios doesn’t do any good,” said Dale Erquiaga, the governor’s senior adviser. “Everyone knows they’re not going to try to fill that [budget] gap entirely with tuition [increases], including them. And so to say that they would is disingenuous.”

No new taxes

The governor has repeatedly said he will veto any bill with a tax increase. Democrats would have to rally their legislators as well as persuade some Republican lawmakers to cross party lines in order to have the two-thirds majority required to override Sandoval’s veto.

The governor’s staff remain confident that this is impossible.

They do not have two-thirds to raise a tax,” Erquiaga said.

Not all Democrats have pledged their support for tax increases either. Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, stressed the harmful effects of the cuts during legislative budget overviews during the past two weeks.

His counterpart in the Assembly, Speaker-elect John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, offered more compromising rhetoric.

As the Las Vegas Sun reported this past weekend, the two Democrats are approaching the session with different leadership styles, which could be a contributing factor to how the 120-day session is likely to play out.

Accountability

The admonishments from Horsford and others have not persuaded some legislators. Rather than watch agencies and programs starve, this is the camp that says that the state can get leaner, more efficient and do more with less at the level of spending the governor has proposed.

Freshman Assemblyman Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, said this weekend that people don’t mind some taxes.

They just want to know how is it being spent, are we spending correctly,” he said. “That’s the systemic problem we’re having, the transparency of each of these agencies that we have.”

Although not the single agenda of any one legislator, the no-new-taxes scenario could look like this: Legislators vote to consolidate state agencies, reduce salaries of state employees and revise the state’s pension and benefits plans. They also make it easier to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. That same accountability system and culture, somehow, migrates to state agencies so the state can better track the effectiveness of its spending. Finally, the Legislature decides to shift services downward to county governments, a move that isn’t a burden because the Legislature concurrently gives counties more leeway in how they pay their employees. Counties also add accountability measures at the local level.

If you’ve been watching the firefighters down in Clark County, yeah, somebody should be watching something,” Cegavske said.

County leaders have criticized Clark County firefighters for making liberal use of their sick days, oftentimes when they’re not sick.

Republican leaders Sen. Mike McGinness and Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea have also written a letter in support of the governor’s budget. They argue that taxes are unnecessary because the state can reform “how government should operate.”

Jobs and Business

That philosophy of government harkens back to the Reagan years, when the governor and his senior advisers first entered politics.

Sandoval said that keeping people employed is his “most important” priority in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun. In the same interview, he said a business-friendly, low-tax environment will be the key to economic growth.

It’s a message echoed by conservatives statewide.

The best way to get out of it for those people and everyone is allow people to work,” said Victor Joecks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank.

The governor has, however, used about $1 billion worth of one-time budget shifts to balance his budget. He hasn’t completely relied on cuts. Instead he has proposed to move around local funds and open up accounts that are now locked-in for bond repayment.

But critics have called the governor out more for his cuts than his accounting. Some have suggested a sales tax on services or a business franchise tax as ways to avoid eviscerating the state’s social safety-net and broaden the state’s tax base.

The governor still has strong support going into the session. But, as the Las Vegas Review Journal reports, the record number of freshman legislators and the presence of some key players don’t entirely rule out a tax increase if Horsford and other can advocates are especially persuasive.

The games begin today as the Legislature convenes later this morning.