Are Southern Nevada’s delegates to the Legislature looking out for their interests? Surprisingly, a new legislative scorecard compiled by UNLV political science professor David Damore finds that some lawmakers from Northern Nevada are friendlier to the South’s interests than our own politicians.
You can read the scorecard for yourself here: The 2011 Southern Nevada Legislative Scorecard.
Essentially, the document reports that while Southern Nevadans make up 68.2 percent of the entire Legislature, and 90 percent of legislative committee chairs, the Southern portion of the state continues to subsidize the less populous, less prosperous North in a redistribution-of-wealth scheme.
A survey of 10 bills from the last Legislature shows Northern lawmakers such as Assembly members Teresa Benitez-Thompson and David Bobzien, both D-Reno; Debbie Smith, D-Sparks and state Sens. Shelia Leslie and Ben Kieckhefer, both R-Reno, have friendlier Southern Nevada voting records than do some Southern Nevada representatives.
On the “least supportive” list are Assembly members John Hambrick and Richard McArthur, R-Las Vegas, Crescent Hardy, R-Mesquite and state Sens. Elizabeth Halseth and Barbara Cegavske, both R-Las Vegas, and Michael Roberson, R-Henderson.
(Halseth, in fact, tied with Nye County Assemblyman Ed Goedhart as the least Southern Nevada friendly lawmakers in the entire Legislature. She didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment today.)
Not a party thing
Lest you think the registered non-partisan Damore is picking on Republicans, consider that Republican Assembly members Mark Sherwood, Scott Hammond, Lynn Stewart and Melissa Woodbury all scored well, as did state Sen. Joe Hardy. And when you consider that Sherwood and Hammond share district lines — and thus constituents — with Roberson and Halseth, the issue becomes less partisan.
“In short, these comparisons strongly suggest that support for Southern Nevada interests is not a function of partisanship, but rather reflects differences in how these legislators perceive their constituencies and these constituencies’ needs,” Damore writes in the scorecard.
And while some of the 10 votes selected involve taxes (including extending a sales tax to pay for a third “straw” to Lake Mead and extending a package of expiring taxes to balance the state budget), Damore says the issue isn’t pro- or anti-tax. Instead, it’s about properly distributing existing taxes.
“This isn’t about the size of the pie. It’s about ingredients and the slicing of it,” he says.
Roberson admitted there were funding disparities between Northern and Southern Nevada, but said intrastate squabbles will be naturally eased by term limits and redistricting, which will shift some legislative seats from northern and rural parts of the state to voter-rich Clark County.
But he said the comparison between the two regions wasn’t helpful. “I don’t think it makes sense for any of us to play one part of the state against the other,” he said. “We’re all Nevadans.”
“I think you do represent your district,” added Roberson, who was elected in Henderson in 2010. “But I think every state senator has a duty to represent the interests of the entire state.”
And, after being told the scorecard included rankings for votes on extending the tax package and extending the “third straw” sales taxes, Roberson said raising revenues wasn’t a good way to determine if a lawmaker was helping constituents.
“I’m convinced David Damore’s premise is the more you tax Southern Nevadans and the more you spend, the more you’re looking after the interests of Southern Nevadans,” he said. “And I vehemently disagree with that.”
Damore says the tax votes — especially the “third straw” sales tax vote — was selected because of its obvious regional impact. Without water, Las Vegas is finished.
But even if taxes were to remain the same, the funding disparity between the two regions persists, he says. And that’s why small government political philosophy doesn’t necessarily impact the rankings.
“Yeah, you can have small government. Could the south just get its share of that government?” asks UNLV sociology Professor Robert Lang, who’s also familiar with the scorecard research. According to Damore, the South is home to 73 percent of the population, generates between 80 and 85 percent of the economic output but gets back around 66 percent of those resources.
That impacts every person in Southern Nevada who drives on a road, waits in a line at the DMV, sends a child to a K-12 school or a state community college or university.
And it’s especially apparent in mining. While Southern Nevada taxes its No. 1 industry — gambling — on its gross win (in addition to the myraid taxes that all businesses pay), in the North, mining still enjoys the constitutional protection it achieved when miners wrote the state constitution, during the civil war.
This session saw the first real effort to change that; Senate Joint Resolution 15 kicks off a five-year process to amend the constitution to remove the 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals. If it’s approved again in 2013 and by the voters at the 2014 special election, the mining industry may eventually be subject to additional taxation.
Roberson — who voted for that resolution — says he’s open to discussing disparities in taxation, as well as the well-known funding gap between UNLV and UNR.
But he defends his record, even with a low ranking on Damore’s legislative scorecard. “Does anyone really think that Sheila Leslie cares more about Southern Nevada than Michael Roberson?” he asks.
Editor’s note: I’ll write more about the scorecard in my Sunday column in the print edition of the Review-Journal.