Legislators-turned-lobbyists prompt curb on revolving door
When former assemblymember and senator Sheila Leslie left the Legislature, her experience and record would probably have made it relatively easy to line up some lobbying clients. She initially decided not to lobby.
“After losing a very close election in November 2012, lobbying in the 2013 session was the last thing I wanted to do,” she said. “It was a relief to be able to focus on just one full-day job managing the [Washoe County] specialty courts and to be relieved from mandatory attendance at all those community events, dinners and political duties. I loved getting my private time back.”
Instead, she took on an even more disreputable task—writing for the Reno News & Review as a weekly opinion columnist. In January this year, she took on a new job as behavioral health coordinator at Washoe County Social Services. She is involved in some of the same kinds of issues she promoted as a legislator, such as mental health and drug problems. As part of that job, she’s monitoring the status of legislative measures. It doesn’t really involve lobbying, but she registered, anyway.
“Part of my job is to track bills in the Legislature that affect the Department and make sure we follow up quickly on fiscal note requests and legislative inquiries,” she said. “Although I am seldom in Carson City and don’t lobby much at all, I registered as a paid lobbyist to maintain complete transparency since I do occasionally talk to legislators, assist with the development of bills, and consult with the county’s legislative team. I will be testifying for the first and perhaps only time tomorrow on a bill that directly affects my current job—Assembly Bill 289, creating an interim study on the regionalization of mental health services.”
While Leslie handled the situation in a way that would likely draw praise, there are legislators who do not think the matter should be left up to members of the Legislature themselves, that there should be a cooling-off period before they can lobby.
Assemblymember Pat Hickey, a Washoe Republican, has introduced Assembly Bill 273 to prohibit legislators from serving as paid lobbyists during the first Nevada Legislature after they leave office.
Nevada’s legislature meets only every other year. A.B. 273, as drafted by the legislative bill drafting office, would appear to bar lobbying only during the regular legislative session, effectively making a cooling-off period that lasts until the first week of June after the legislator leaves office. That would allow him or her to lobby during any special sessions that occurred during the biennium.
When we called that to Hickey’s attention, he responded that he “may have to fix that”—suggesting that his intent is a two-year cooling-off period.
His bill would allow unpaid or volunteer lobbying, such as is done by community groups and charities. In addition, it would not affect those who must lobby as part of their jobs.
During this year’s Legislature, at least 14 former legislators are registered to lobby. (So, incidentally, are two former governors, a former state treasurer, some former legislative staffers, and some former state agency chiefs.)
In a letter to constituents, Hickey wrote, “Some may say this is a bill about the perception of the undue influence of money and power upon politics. Maybe so, but it’s a perception with a lot of truth behind it. For instance, let’s say I’m a lobbyist who is a former legislative leader, and you’re a current lawmaker for whom I helped raise substantial funds for reelection. Now let’s see whether you can look me in the eye and keep a straight face while saying you won’t be at all influenced by who I am and what I ask of you.”
Such measures usually end up running afoul of the very officials they are intended to cover. Hickey sponsored a similar measure at the 2013 legislature, one of two measures that sought to impose cooling-off periods that year. “Both bills attempt to break the infamous ’revolving door’ cycle that permeates much of politics,” said Nevada Center for Public Ethics president Martin Dean Dupalo at that session.
But Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, a Clark County Democrat, said, “I’m trying to figure out why we’re doing this.” Atkinson said it would cause an “injustice in our own state” if legislators could not take the skills they learned as lawmakers and employ them in the marketplace.
Hickey responded, “I think it does say to the public, and importantly to ourselves, that we should be clear from either the perception or the temptation to use … your last term of office to prepare yourself, ingratiate yourself, to a future employer.”
The second bill that year would have extended a cooling-off period to local governments and the Nevada Board of Regents. “Simply, we wanted to hit the revolving door,” said Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas. “We didn’t want a county commissioner to lobby their own county commissioners.”
Neither measure was approved.
According to the National conference of State Legislatures, “At least 33 states have enacted a “cooling-off period” before a former legislator can come back to work at the legislature as a lobbyist.” But those laws are of limited value to Nevada for comparison purposes. Only three other state legislatures meet every other year—Montana, North Dakota and Texas. Texas and North Dakota don’t have cooling-off statutes and Montana’s statute doesn’t apply to legislators.
Arizona, another small Western state like Nevada, does have such a law though its legislature meets annually. It provides a cooling-off period of one year during which former public officials—legislators included—cannot be paid lobbyists, but only on issues a legislator was personally involved with. All other topics are fair game.
The Arizona law also says that no public official can “disclose or use for personal profit information designated as confidential.”
Hickey said his bill doesn’t prevent legislators from lobbying, only delays it. “While the bill doesn’t permanently seal the door shut, it does require a one session break before a former Nevada lawmaker can walk into the Legislature with a blue paid lobbyist badge on his lapel.”
This week, Leslie said she still supports a cooling-off period.
“I personally think a cooling-off time period is appropriate … to avoid the appearance of impropriety, especially during a legislator’s last session under term limits, as someone might be positioning him/herself for a full time lobbying position immediately thereafter.”