Counties and cities spent millions to lobby legislators in 2021, despite closure of Legislative Building

Even as the Legislative Building in Carson City remained closed to lobbyists for the majority of the 2021 session, counties, cities and local government agencies spent $2.8 million lobbying the Legislature this year, according to a report that also found local government lobbying expenditures hit their lowest total since 2005.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation in mid-July, is the product of a law requiring all local governments — from cities and counties to police departments and school districts — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.” 

The funds represent expenses for in-house as well as contracted lobbyists employed by local governments, whose duties included testifying on bills, arranging meetings with lawmakers and interest groups, tracking legislation and conducting research on issues.

The $2.8 million spent on lobbying activities in 2021 marked the first time since 2005 that spending dipped below $3 million, and represented roughly 72 percent of lobbying expenditures reported during the 2019 session.

The 2021 session kicked off in February closed to all but lawmakers, essential staff and members of the media, with all others — including registered lobbyists — participating virtually. Despite legal challenges, the Legislative Building did not open to lobbyists and members of the public until April 15, meaning the building was closed to lobbyists for 73 days of the 120-day session. Lobbyists were still able to meet with lawmakers via phone calls and video chats and in meetings outside of the Legislative Building.

Many local governments employed significantly fewer lobbyists compared to the 2019 session, when lobbying spending reached its highest total in more than a decade at $3.9 million.

For example, seven paid lobbyists worked for the City of Sparks during this year’s session compared to 14 two years ago. Amid that reduction, the Northern Nevada city spent $70,000 less on lobbying during the 2021 session compared to the 2019 session.

But for other agencies, lobbying spending remained high in 2021. After spending roughly $255,000 on lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session, the City of Henderson reported spending slightly more on lobbying expenses during the 2021 session.

Representatives of local governments, which in some cases manage budgets that rival the size of the multi-billion dollar state budget, say the lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns about allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may contradict the desires of the public — the reported lobbying expenditures from the Legislature in 2021 represent nearly $23,400 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

“It's political activity that the people who are being represented may or may not agree with, but they're paying for it regardless,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), said in an interview. 

Leading the way in spending were local governments in and around densely populated Las Vegas. Agencies based in Clark County, where 73 percent of the state’s population resides, accounted for 59 percent of spending on lobbying during the session. Local governments and political bodies in Washoe County accounted for 28 percent of lobbyist spending, even though the county is home to less than 16 percent of the state’s residents. 

Local governments across Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County, Eureka County, Lander County, Lyon County, Nye County and Storey County — which are collectively home to roughly 8 percent of Nevadans — accounted for the remaining 12 percent spent to lobby Nevada lawmakers this year. Governments in the other seven counties did not report any lobbying expenditures.

Clark County governments

Clark County, which led all local governments in lobbying outlays ($352,000), spent roughly $162,000 less on lobbying compared to the Legislature in 2019 and employed almost half as many lobbyists. 

County spokesperson Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the county tracked hundreds of bills throughout the session, including a bill affecting short-term rental licensing (such as AirBnb or VRBO), because of the broad responsibilities of the county in implementing the requirements of new laws. That bill, AB363, was amended with language provided by Clark County late in the session, and the bill requires Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County to include short-term residential spaces in their legal definitions of “transient lodging” — meaning they are subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests.

Pappa also noted that only two of the county’s four requested bills survived the 2021 legislative session: SB4 (clarified that the board of county commissioners may impose civil and criminal penalties for illegal possession of fireworks) and SB67 (created a pilot job program to gather data on job order contracts for certain public works projects). Counties, cities and school districts each are allotted a certain number of bill draft requests each legislative session depending on their population.

The City of Las Vegas spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying state lawmakers in 2021 (nearly $227,000 less than the city spent in the 2019 session). Though the city had 11 lobbyists registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau during the 2021 session — two more than in the last regular session — city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote in an email that the city spent $181,000 for more than two dozen city staff across 19 departments to help work on bills during the session.

The city spent an additional $154,000 on contracts with lobbying firm The Ferraro Group for the entire year. Radke also noted that the city “engaged on 552 bills throughout the session” covering a laundry list of topics.

The City of Las Vegas — alongside multiple other local governments, including Washoe County and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) — testified in opposition to AB276 in March. The bill, which failed to pass out of committee, would have strengthened penalties for delaying or denying public records requests and aimed to increase transparency and compliance with the state’s public records law.

Schaus said the failed bill is a good example of the power imbalance that exists between local governments that have greater access to state lawmakers and citizens and activists who have to work harder to have their voices heard. Schaus pointed out that the transparency bill received support from groups with a diverse range of ideologies — including NPRI, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Press Association — but still failed in the face of opposition from local governments.

“There are going to be instances where governments’ interests don't align with the citizen activists who might be trying to push reforms,” Schaus said. “And that government lobbying can potentially be big problems for folks who are trying to change the status quo.”

Clark County School District also significantly cut back on its lobbying efforts during the 2021 session. After spending nearly $280,000 and employing 13 people to lobby state lawmakers two years ago, the state’s largest school district spent only $45,000 on lobbying efforts and used two paid and one unpaid lobbyist in the 2021 legislative session.

During the session, Brad Keating, an in-house lobbyist for the district, testified in support of SB450. The bill, which passed out of both houses, extends schools districts’ authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval to aid facility modernization projects.

Despite less lobbying spending, the district issued a press release in June stating that the 2021 session “signaled a momentous shift for education” in Nevada and highlighted AB495, which allocates roughly $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars.

Even as overall lobbying spending declined amid the extended closure of the Legislative Building, some local governments in Southern Nevada allocated dollar amounts on par with past years.

For the second straight session, the City of Henderson spent roughly $255,000 on lobbying, including contract expenses with The Perkins Company, a firm run by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins. City spokesperson Kathleen Richards wrote in an email that “Henderson is the largest full-service city” in the state — providing roughly 330,000 residents with standalone police, court, water and other services, unlike other jurisdictions that share resources with Clark County — and that the city tracked “nearly 500 bills'' throughout the session with a potential effect on city operations.

The City of Henderson — which was allowed two bill draft requests during the session — sponsored AB42, which authorized municipalities throughout the state to conduct jury trials for crimes involving battery domestic violence. Richards noted that other priority legislation tracked by the city included two bills that passed out of both houses: AB63, which ensures local government can access certain stabilization funds during any emergency, and SB138, which requires local governments to enact ordinances to conduct planned unit development.

Metro also maintained similar lobbying spending levels across the past two sessions. The agency spent roughly $184,000 at the Legislature in 2019 and nearly $182,000 at the Legislature in 2021, while maintaining a small team of lobbyists that prominently featured in-house lobbyist Chuck Callaway. 

Callaway testified on a wide range of bills throughout the session, including AB440 — a bill that will require police officers to simply issue citations for misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses or violent crimes, rather than allowing officers to decide between detaining the offender and issuing a citation.

In June, Callaway told The Nevada Independent that he was “adamantly opposed to this bill the entire legislative session” because it strips away a police officer’s discretion. The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, with all Republican lawmakers opposed.

Washoe County governments

Though Clark County topped the spending list for the 2021 session, the county government in Washoe — which is home to roughly 1.8 million fewer people than Clark County — spent just $11,000 less than the county government in Clark.

Washoe County spent roughly $341,000 on lobbying the Legislature in 2021 ($40,000 less compared to 2019). Those costs account for lobbyists who worked on behalf of the general county government and the Washoe County Health District, and include nearly $259,000 for employee salaries and nearly $76,000 for contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca and Argentum Partners). 

The county and health district collectively employed five lobbyists during the session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records — down from the seven lobbyists employed two years ago.

County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale noted that Washoe County tracked 600 bills throughout the session, three-fourths of which the county actively worked on.

Meanwhile, large city governments in Washoe County spent significantly less money on lobbying lawmakers in 2021 than they did two years prior. The City of Reno cut lobbying spending by more than $45,000 from the 2019 session, and the City of Sparks cut lobbying spending by $71,000 from the 2019 session.

Rural governments

Some smaller local governments also continued to spend thousands of dollars at the 2021 Legislature.

Churchill County spent nearly $45,000 to lobby lawmakers this year — roughly $2,500 more than the county spent in the 2019 legislative session. The county had eight outside lobbyists registered during the 2021 session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records; all worked at the firm Strategies 360. The county’s seat, the City of Fallon, spent $44,000 on lobbying.

And while several rural county governments completely cut spending — Storey County and White Pine County did not report lobbying expenditures in 2021, after reporting spending $17,000 and $14,000 respectively in 2019 — others kicked up spending. Lander County, for example, reported spending $40,000 on lobbying at the Legislature in 2021, after reporting no lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session. 

Even as spending dropped across the board during the 2021 session, Schaus said those expenses should be “extraordinarily lower” than they are.

“In today's day and age, with the technology that we have … it does not take very much for a local government to get in contact with a lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, here's some of our interests for this session,’” Schaus said. “And that’s stuff that's already taking place, even before you take into account the official lobbying costs of sending somebody off to Carson City.”

Michael Schaus is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Counties, cities spent millions lobbying the Legislature

The interior of the Nevada Legislature

Local governments and cities spent more than $3.9 million lobbying the 2019 Legislature, according to a state report that found total lobbying spending by governments hit the highest amount in more than a decade.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation, is the product of a law that requires all local governments — everything from cities and counties to police departments, school districts and hospitals — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.”

After hitting a pre-recession high of $3.99 million during the 2007 Legislature, the $3.9 million spent on lobbying activities in 2019 marked the second highest spending totals reported since the disclosure law was passed in 2001 — good for nearly $32,600 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

Local governments, which in some cases have budgets that rival or even eclipse the state’s budget, say that lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills — law enforcement, open meeting laws, financial administration and public records — that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns with allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may go against the wants of the public.

“What governments are promoting or pushing with lawmakers isn’t always in line with what taxpayers or citizens are going to want, and yet, us taxpayers are still funding it no matter what, even if we disagree with it,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) said in an interview.

Initial reporting of lobbying expenditures were due a month after the end of the legislative session, but following several Nevada Independent requests to top lobbying-spenders, the Department of Taxation revised its report and issued a new version this week.

Leading the way are local governments based in and around Las Vegas; seven of the top 10 spending local governments or political bodies during the 2019 legislative session were based in Clark County, which accounted for more than 64 percent of the $3.9 million spent on lobbying by local governments. Washoe County accounted for nearly 26 percent of lobbyist spending, while the state’s 15 other counties accounted for just 9.2 percent of the dollars spent to lobby state lawmakers (eight counties did not report any lobbying expenditures).

Under the law requiring disclosure of lobbying expenses, local governments are required to itemize under categories including transportation, salary and wages, lodging and meals, gifts and other entertainment, and to identify the local government budgetary funds that the expenses were charged against.

State lawmakers passed a near-total ban on gift-giving by lobbyists to state lawmakers in 2015, but the amounts spent on lobbying have continued to creep up over the past few legislative sessions.

In the city of Las Vegas, for example, total lobbying spending was reported at nearly $562,000, the highest of any local government. Although the city had nine people registered as lobbyists, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records, its primary lobbying efforts came from its in-house city-employed team (Ryan Black, Shani Coleman and Kelly Crompton) and a contracted lobbyist; The Ferraro Group, which has an $80,000 contract with the city government.

City spokesman Jace Radke said in an email that numerous other city employees, including city manager Scott Adams, had registered as lobbyists to work on specific issues that affected city governance. He said that the lobbying team “tracked/engaged” on 394 of the 1,157 bills introduced during the legislative session and worked on the three bills introduced by the city (AB5, AB73 and SB11).

“The lobbying team worked on a variety of proposed legislation that included homelessness, affordable housing, purchasing requirements, workers compensation, cannabis compliance, criminal/civil justice reform, economic development, elections, energy, taxes, public records, public works, transportation and a variety of appropriations within the city limits,” he said in an email.

Several other top-spending local governments also used a combination of contract lobbyists and in-house employees. Henderson employed The Perkins Company — founded by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins —  under a $40,000 contract, plus roughly $215,000 in salaries, lodging meals, airfare and other expenses for in-house lobbyists and staff.

Henderson lobbyist David Cherry wrote in an email that the city was involved in a wide number of bills, including measures affecting the school funding formula (SB543), a Southern Nevada working group on homeless issues (AB73), changes to Open Meeting Law (AB70), removing sunsets on the “More Cops” sales tax (AB443) and an advisory ballot question to switch to ward-only voting in Henderson (AB282).

He also wrote that the city opposed an “overreaching” public records bill, SB287, that was supported by civil liberties groups and press organizations, but staunchly opposed by municipalities and local governments. The bill passed after a last-minute amendment to quell the fears of local governments was introduced and adopted on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

But the behavior of local governments against the bill elicited concerns from groups such as NPRI; Schaus, the organization’s spokesperson, said that the hiring of lobbyists to oppose a bill nominally supported by the public was one of the ways that local governments influence the legislative process

“It’s not like they were out there legitimately representing the interest of the people they ostensibly should be serving, they were there very much pushing their own interests, their own agenda, even when it ran contrary to what most citizens seem to want,” he said.

But high spending totals don’t necessarily translate into a major — or even unified — lobbying presence. Clark County, which spent more than $514,000 on lobbying expenses, had three in-house lobbyists and no contract lobbyists during the session, but the total also includes lobbyists working for the county public defender’s office, district attorney’s office and District Court, each of whose lobbyists often appeared at odds during the legislative session on various criminal justice bills.

County spokesman Erik Pappa said in an email that the county’s lobbying team tracked more than 630 bills throughout the session, and that although the county’s position on most bills was neutral, it still required vast resources to track the many changes made to bills during the legislative session that affect the many regional services — Medicare and Medicaid funding, health care services — that the county offers.

“Even though a position was considered neutral, it was carefully monitored as the title/subject is of interest to Clark County and an amendment at any step of the process could result in shifting County’s position to opposition or support,” he wrote in the email.

Similarly, Washoe County — the local government with the fourth-highest amount of lobbying expenditures at more than $381,000 — reported spending more than $230,000 on employee salaries to lobby the state Legislature, plus $126,000 in contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca Rothgerber, Christie’s Alfredo Alonso, Lisa Gianoli and Crowley & Ferrato). 

But those totals include lobbyists for multiple branches of the county — more than 20 county employees reported lobbying at some during the session, throughout nine different county departments from the district attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, public defender’s office and even animal control.

“During this session, Washoe County monitored and/or worked on almost 70 (percent) of the bills introduced during the session with a total of 301 bills that passed and were signed by Governor Sisolak which had (an) impact on the county,” county spokeswoman Amy Ventetuolo said in an email. 

Even some smaller local governments had a lobbying presence in Carson City. White Pine County, with a population of around 10,000 people, spent nearly $14,000 to hire a lobbying company (The Perkins Company) during the legislative session.

White Pine County Commission Chairman Richard Howe said the decision to hire lobbyists stemmed from one issue; the inability of the county to get the state to pony up funding for an updated county courthouse. The county’s courthouse was built in 1908, and since at least 2003 the county has sought funding for a new courthouse with improved security features to better facilitate the hearings and trials that arise from incidents at Ely State Prison, which houses nearly 1,000 prisoners. 

According to documentation provided to lawmakers, the current courthouse’s lacking safety features — prisoners use the same elevator and bathroom as members of the general public and court employees, and the holding cell is in a staff break room — presented a danger to both court employees and the public, as a public library, middle school and senior center are across the street from the courthouse.

An appropriations bill (SB149) sponsored by rural Republican lawmakers giving the county $10 million for a new courthouse got a hearing but failed to ever advance out of a budget committee. But in the waning hours on the last day of the session, members of the Assembly budget committee unveiled an amendment allocating $53.7 million in last-minute spending — including $5 million for a courthouse in White Pine County.

Howe credited the county’s lobbyists, the Perkins Group, for getting the funding in at the last minute (Mari St. Martin, former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s press secretary and lobbyist for The Perkins Company, is an Ely native) He said that the county was able to move some funding around and begin construction on the new courthouse last week — something that wouldn’t have been possible without the state funding and without having a lobbyist present during the legislative session.

 “White Pine invested a small amount of money...and got a $5 million return. We got nothing over the other years. We got a lot of lip service, but no actual hard dollars,” Howe said. “We used our heads, and we accepted the fact that there’s some things we can’t do, that other people are smarter and better at it than us. Using a lobbyist, you spend a dime to make a dollar.”

Public careers, private lives: Part-time lawmakers must navigate inevitable conflicts

Every two years for four months, 63 lawmakers travel from all corners of Nevada where they meet as members of a part-time, citizen Legislature.

Most leave behind spouses, children, and careers, but bring a rich diversity of experiences — and, sometimes, conflicts — from back home.

Nevada’s lawmakers are tasked with squeezing two years’ worth of legislative business — including approving an $8.9 billion budget — into 120 days. Nevada is one of only four states with a Legislature that meets every other year; the other 46 have annual sessions.

The benefit of a citizen legislature, at least in theory, is that lawmakers bring a variety of career and life experiences to the lawmaking process; unlike career politicians, they must live with the laws they create when they return. The reality is more complicated.

“I think that’s the ideal, but unfortunately I think what has become of the citizen Legislature … [is] only people who have the ability to actually serve, versus maybe the most qualified people to serve,” said Democratic former Assemblyman Justin Watkins, adding that the peculiarity of Nevada’s system “results in people that have an idea towards a career in politics, not a career that they then apply into politics.”

And then there are conflicts of interest. Doctors, for example, may bring a wealth of real-world knowledge to the table when it comes to crafting health-care policy, but also create laws that could directly benefit them in their line of work.

The short session, coupled with the facts that lawmakers are relatively inexperienced compared to those in decades past and have limited staff, pushes off a significant amount of power to Nevada’s full-time governor and lobbyists who roam the halls of the Legislature.

Although they understand the ideal of laypeople making up the Legislature, some former lawmakers say they’d prefer the role was full-time so they could give it their all.

“It would be easier honestly if it was a job,” said former independent state Sen. Patricia Farley, “so if you went and did it, it was your profession.”

Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray with her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Careers and conflicts

In Nevada, the Legislature is often an entry-level job. Politicians typically get their start in the Legislature and later run for the Las Vegas City Council or the Clark County Commission, positions that represent a larger number of constituents than does a state Assembly or Senate seat.

“In most any other state you would leave, say, the City Council and run for the Legislature,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department.

Although the part-time model is attractive because it doesn’t involve full-time professional politicians, the reality is not always so rosy. Lawmakers’ day jobs mean the Legislature is rife with conflicts of interest. While lawmakers typically disclose obvious conflicts of interest on legislation, they only sometimes abstain from voting.

This session, Democratic Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and another employee of Southern Nevada’s most powerful prosecutor, Democrat Melanie Scheible, will sit on it. The committee will deal with issues that their boss, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, has expressed clear positions on: the death penalty and Marsy’s Law, for example.

Two Republican doctors, Sen. Joe Hardy and Assemblywoman Robin Titus, will again join legislative health committees and deal with bills that will affect their day-to-day operations — such as ones regulating opioid prescriptions.

And two Democratic educators, Brittney Miller and Selena Torres, will be members of the Assembly Education Committee. They’ll bring with them a wealth of subject-specific knowledge, but also potential conflicts as they vote on bills that will directly affect their day jobs — including a budget that gives them raises.

There will also be less obvious potential conflicts. For instance, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is director of client relations for the lobbying firm McDonald Carano, which is already slated to represent dozens of clients this session ranging from a water authority to two medicine boards.

Some lawmakers will also continue to hold jobs in state and local government as they serve in the Legislature, something that has been a legal point of contention over the years. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has been outspoken on the topic, argues that all public employees are members of the executive branch and that also serving in the Legislature violates the separation of powers principle.

“The nice thing about a citizen legislature is you have people who really have to live under the rules they are then creating. You don’t have an elitist class that then gets to impose rules and exempt themselves,” NPRI spokesman Michael Schaus said. “Of course that benefit kind of goes out of the door when you do have people who are part of the government.”

NPRI filed a lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Heidi Gansert last session for working as the University of Nevada, Reno’s executive director of external relations. Schaus said that the plaintiff in the case — a man who said that he believed he would be able to fill Gansert’s position were she not occupying it — decided not to go through with an appeal after a lower court dismissed the case.

This session, more than a dozen lawmakers will work for state or local agencies or are retired public employees drawing government pensions. That group includes state Sen. Dallas Harris, an administrative attorney with the Public Utilities Commission; Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, a Reno firefighter; and state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a retired public educator.

Though NPRI takes particular exception to public employees serving in the Legislature because of the power that executive branch wields, others argue that it’s no different than the conflicts created by those in private business.

“You do have government workers who get conservatives all upset,” Herzik said. “Meanwhile, they have no problem with the head of the builders association down south, or Mark Amodei, who was in the Senate and [president] of the mining association.”

Children at the Nevada Legislature on March 9, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The citizen legislature

The challenges posed by a citizen, part-time Legislature today weren’t as apparent when Nevada’s Constitution was drafted in 1864. By 1870, the population was only a little more than 42,000 — most of it in Northern Nevada — and state government was a more limited affair.

“Certainly it was the intention of the Nevada founders to have a really limited legislative body, and, for easily 100 years, it wasn’t an issue,” Herzik said. “Nevada had an incredibly small population. Prior to World War II, it was overwhelmingly concentrated in the northern part of the state. Government didn’t do much anyway.”

That changed over the decades as Southern Nevada’s population surpassed Northern Nevada’s. Today, nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s lawmakers hail from the Las Vegas Valley and make the trek to Carson City every other year for the legislative session.

Those from Elko and Pahrump face similar travel difficulties, and even the 30-minute drive from Reno or Sparks can take its toll on Northern Nevada legislators, especially after long days or in bad weather.

Some lawmakers choose to move their families up with them for the legislative session. After much research into schools and housing, Watkins brought up his wife and two daughters — then in 2nd grade and preschool — for the 2017 session.

The family approached it as an adventure, taking advantage of the weekends to visit historic Virginia City and San Francisco and learn to ski. But with his girls getting older and school demands growing, he realized the toll that all the moving would take on their academic performance.

“In a nutshell, that’s the reason that I didn’t run for re-election,” he said. “Whatever challenges we faced with my daughter in 2nd grade, we thought that they were only going to be amplified for a 3rd and 1st grader.”

Other lawmakers shell out hundreds of dollars each weekend on flights home to Las Vegas, though doing so becomes increasingly difficult as the session progresses with committee hearings that stretch into the weekends. For lawmakers with kids at home, that may mean missing important milestones.

“There was a legislator who missed his daughter’s prom because — think about when proms are — they’re closing out the budget and whatnot. He couldn’t get the flight home,” Herzik said. “There’s a terrific burden on these people.”

Watkins said he wouldn’t have considered serving in the first place if he had to live apart from his family — having them with him helped strike a healthier work-life balance.

“I don’t fault anybody who does and I think in all honesty you may be a more effective legislator if you don’t relocate with your family. But just who I am as a person, I just can’t,” said Watkins, who has no plans to return to the Legislature. “If my family had stayed in Vegas, I think that the amount of time I offer to each of those aspects of my life would have been unequal in a way that would have been harmful either to my business or to my relationship with my kids.”

Watkins said his situation was easier because he owns his own law firm. It’s more complicated for people who have to seek permission from an employer and might forgo career advancement for years as they invest in their legislative work.

“Imagine going into an employer and saying, ‘Hey, I really want this job I’m passionate about it but I’m going to leave for four months every two years,” said Elliot Anderson, a former Democratic lawmaker who did not run for re-election and instead is focusing on his legal career, with plans to clerk for a Nevada Supreme Court justice in the fall. “It’s not a recipe for success.”

Farley said it was a struggle to balance her legislative duties with her responsibilities as both a single mom and a construction business owner. As she raced out of drawn-out afternoon committee hearings to pick up her daughters from school or fretted whether the babysitter could keep watching the girls when floor sessions dragged past midnight, she also had to make payroll.

"For me, every decision I make, I have 60 families that could pay ... the ultimate price for that," she said. "I was not only doing legislative [work], but after that I had to look at receivables and payrolls and paychecks, or somebody hit somebody with a trailer. And my business wasn’t benefitting me from being there."

Assemblywoman Amber Joiner and her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmaker pay

Lawmakers are paid $150 for each of the first 60 days of the 120-day session, plus a $140 per diem allowance meant to cover housing, food and other living expenses. In all, that’s just short of $17,000 over a four-month session.

The financial arrangement is what has deterred former congressional candidate John Anzalone from seeking election to the Legislature. The pay doesn’t match what Anzalone makes as a high school principal in Las Vegas, which he said would put a burden on his young family. He would need to take an unpaid leave of absence from the school district to serve as a state lawmaker.

There are also calendar-related challenges. The session runs through early June, meaning Anzalone would miss a critical chunk of the academic year that includes springtime testing and high school graduation. Anzalone said he’s not sure how parents would feel about an absentee principal.

“Yes, in a way you’re working for a greater good, but on the other hand, people want to speak to the principal,” he said.

Nevada’s Legislature is technically part time, but with interim committees meeting throughout the off-season, political observers note that the lawmakers who treat it as a full-time job typically wield the most power.

“Instead of being a more democratic institution, you often have power concentrated in one or two leading legislators because they treat it as a full-time job,” Herzik said.

That’s why the Legislature has a high concentration of lawmakers with more flexible schedules, including retirees, small business owners and lawyers, whose firms are sometimes more than happy to boast that they have a legislator on staff. Others try but find that being a member of the Legislature just isn’t feasible.

“You’ve seen folks like Elliot [Anderson] and Amber [Joiner] and [Justin] Watkins and those folks who you’d think, ‘These are people I’d like to be legislators,’” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “It just wasn’t workable for them. People, they try. But it really affects who can do it.”

Money committee chairs Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, left, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse on May 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Turnover in the Legislature

The difficulties associated with being a lawmaker contribute to the high turnover in the Legislature, a problem exacerbated when voters approved term limits in 1998. Since the limits kicked into effect in 2010 and capped service at 12 years in each house, Nevada has had between 15 to 21 freshman lawmakers join each session. This year, there are 17 out of 63, or 27 percent.

On the flip side, term limits have helped boost diversity within the Legislature. Nevada became the first state last year to have a female-majority Legislature and more than a third of lawmakers are people of color.

“We know that term limits obviously bring in new people, and I don’t think you can dispute how that’s transformed the Legislature in terms of the increased number of women and minorities,” Damore said. “That wouldn’t have happened with term limits.”

But turnover has also decreased the institutional knowledge within the Legislature. Democratic state Sen. David Parks, who is beginning his 12th legislative session, is term-limited and cannot run for re-election to the Senate in 2020. Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who heads the budget committee, is on her 11th session — she ran for her current office after being term-limited in the Senate but will be term-limited in the Assembly after the 2020 election.

Although 17 lawmakers are just beginning their first terms, another 16 are only on their second. That lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers gives veteran lobbyists and the executive branch an upper hand. Lawmakers typically rely on a single staff member, known as an attaché, for day-to-day help, and lean on their caucus’ staff for additional support.

“The governor controls all the data and all the agencies. It really strengthens the governor,” Herzik said. “What we do know in political science is the Nevada governor is not that strong on paper, but in practice he really is.”

Will it ever change?

Proponents of more frequent legislative sessions say it would raise the profile of the Legislature, giving the “people’s branch” more power instead of ceding it to the executive or judicial branches that can act year-round. Opponents say the biennial format keeps costs down, serves as a check on hasty decision-making and allows breathing room between sessions in which to study issues.

“[The Legislative Counsel Bureau] ramps up, like they’re ramping up now, hiring temporary administrative assistants, hiring more analysts and their people are earning overtime like no other,” Herzik said. “But if you went to a more professional yearly legislature, those positions would become permanent and that’s an increased cost and that’s real hard to sell in Nevada.”

A more palatable solution than an annual session might be changing the session to include 120 working days, rather than calendar days, and splitting it into one 90-day session and a shorter 30-day session in the off year — as a proposed constitutional amendment recommended last year. Another suggestion is tying legislator pay to the median income for Nevadans in an effort to help recruit and maintain a diverse pool of lawmakers.

Anderson would like to see the state paying lawmakers a base, year-round salary —  at least $60,000 a year — and health benefits, then prohibiting them from holding outside employment. That would allow lawmakers to delve more deeply into the issues they’ll work on during the session, and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Watkins said he’s not bothered by the pay arrangement, but he wishes the legislative session corresponded more with the school year to ease the burden on parents. His proposal is having a 60-day session in Las Vegas one year, and a 60- or 90-day session the next year in Carson City, where summer weather is far more bearable than in Southern Nevada.

But with any major changes in the legislative structure far off at best, today’s politicians will continue to make the tough decision between pursuing what could be meaningful and impactful public service in the Legislature, and their goals for their personal and professional lives.

"It was difficult to choose between something that sometimes was the most fulfilling part of your life," Anderson said, but "when you realize it’s affecting your ability to save up for retirement, when it affects your ability to have health insurance, when it affects your ability to have a family … you really have to focus on the numbers and sense.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.