No dollars for politics

In 1993, when he was planning his first, unsuccessful, run for governor, state legislator Jim Gibbons didn’t have much going for him in terms of name recognition or a legislative record. So he decided to circulate an initiative petition to limit taxes as a way of building an organization and getting his name out.

Instead of hiring a lawyer to draft his petition, Gibbons had it done for him by the Legislature Counsel Bureau, the staff arm of the Nevada Legislature.

When Gov. Bob Miller wanted an opinion on whether he could run for a third term, he didn’t hire a lawyer to do it (or do it himself, since he was a lawyer). Instead, he asked the attorney general of Nevada to provide it, and she did.

We were reminded of these kinds of incidents when the Reno city attorney and the City Council considered going to court to get a legal finding on whether term-limited city councilmembers can run for mayor.

City Attorney John Kadlic said it was important to have an answer to the question before the ballots for the primary election are filed. No, it’s not. Every candidate faces uncertainties. The issue itself is important, but not at the cost of using public dollars for political purposes.

If any non-incumbent candidate wanted an answer to a question affecting his possible candidacy, she or he would have to hire a lawyer. In addition, there would have to be a live controversy. That is, someone would have to file for office first. Courts are not in the habit of making decisions on legality until they have a case on which to rule. If public officials can get legal advice from courts on possibilities and contingencies, any citizen is entitled to the same service.

Candidates who are already officeholders must follow exactly the same procedure as anyone else—file for office and take their chances. Kadlic is dead wrong when he says the matter must be settled before filing for office opens.

Councilmember Neoma Jardon said the question should be settled before candidates start lining up support and raising money. Why? The unforeseen is part of the fortunes of war in politics. Fortunately, a minority of councilmembers stopped the idea.

Moreover, this is not a new issue. This newspaper discussed it last year (“No comment,” RN&R, July 19, 2012). The attorney general issued a non-binding opinion on it in 2008. Longtime city councilmembers had many years to lobby (on their own dimes) the Nevada Legislature to seek amendments to clarify any ambiguity in term limits language. Failing that, if any councilmembers don’t want to take the risk, they should not run.

Elected officials get too cozy with the perquisites of office and start thinking that all the resources of their offices are at their disposal. Congressmembers routinely use their offices for political purposes. In the Gibbons case, the counsel bureau itself encouraged him and other candidates to seek their free legal help. They were giving away resources they didn’t own, probably because they had become too accustomed to the culture of the legislative building, where a staffer takes her life—or job—in her hands by not laying out every perk and privilege a legislator expects.

They all need to get back in touch with real life.