Poor get poorer; lobbyists get busier

Northern Nevada media moguls did a great job of covering the unnaturally high rate of cancer in Fallon and the evil monster of pollution, the Sierra Army Depot. But here’s where the media weakens: When it comes to reporting on Nevada’s corporations—and the names, faces and agendas of those who really run the state—many a story goes unconsidered.

In Nevada, as in the rest of the nation, huge industries like utilities, gambling and telecommunications are becoming, well, more corporate—slowly becoming inextricably entwined in our unsuspecting lives.

Here’s a look at a few issues that Northern Nevada residents should pay attention to.

Energy: Got juice?
The good news: On paper, Sierra Pacific Resources has enough power contracted to keep Nevadans in refrigerated beverages through July and August. That’s if the state has an average, not-too-hot summer.

The bad news? In an era of already-high power bills, a bit of poor planning can go a long way toward even more expensive juice.

Nevadans rely in part on energy bought from outside the state. Las Vegans import about half the power they need. Northern Nevadans import about 15 percent. In March, questions arose over whether the struggling company had contracted enough energy to meet summer demand.

When Sierra Pacific Power Company merged with Las Vegas-based Nevada Power Company, the new resulting giant known as Sierra Pacific Resources was supposed to be selling off its power plants. That made it hard, power people say, to plan for future electricity needs.

The company didn’t want to contract to buy more power than it needed, especially if customers were no longer (because of planned deregulation) compelled to buy from Sierra Pacific. And the company didn’t want to be overcharged. So it entered into too few long-term energy contracts.

“Instead of going out and buying block long-term contracts, they went into the market and bought [short-term] increments of power for the summer,” said Tim Hay, Nevada consumer advocate. Hay said April 30 that it looks like the company has enough power contracts to meet the need for an average summer. But Nevadans, already paying lots, may pay even more since, given the sky-rocketing value of energy as a commodity in the West, power is selling for premium prices.

“With perfect hindsight, I could go back and make all the right decisions,” Steven Oldham, Sierra Pacific Resources senior vice president, told the RN&R in March. “I wish I’d have bought IBM in 1960.”

Washoe County: Local reapportionment
Sure, you might have heard about the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts and how much (or little) representation Northern Nevada will have in the Legislature in the face of Southern Nevada’s bulging population. But no one’s asking about how redistricting will be done at the local level.

As local governments take up the task of redrawing city wards and county commission districts, some critics worry that developers and other special interests might be trying to influence the process.

For example, South Truckee Meadows residents speculate that their county commission district, represented by Ted Short, will be redrawn in such a way to suppress the active and vocal homeowners associations and neighborhood advisory boards. South Truckee Meadows residents have packed local government meetings on issues such as annexation, high-density development and a proposed cargo hub at the Reno airport.

Media: What mob ties to Nevada?
The authors of The Power and The Money, a tell-all book about the shadowy past and present of Las Vegas, recently made appearances in Reno and Las Vegas. But their book-signing visit was virtually ignored by the state’s mainstream media. The book offers accounts of the mob’s ties to the city, as well as stark and unflattering accounts of some of Las Vegas’ historical figures, including Las Vegas Sun founding publisher Hank Greenspun, former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Their book has prompted several editorial lashings from the Las Vegas Sun, and Hank’s son and current president Brian Greenspun. Authors Sally Denton and Roger Morris said that they have been “blacklisted” by the media because of the book’s frank content.

One aspect of the book criticizes the Las Vegas media for its “unexplored” coverage of the MGM takeover of Mirage Resorts last year. That criticism was further highlighted in a November-December 2000 story in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Reno: Mayoral ethics
While the ethical quandaries of Southern Nevada elected officials always made headlines in the Las Vegas newspapers, Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin’s conflict of interest with the airport has been relatively ignored. Griffin owned a cargo business and ran the foreign trade zone at the airport up until this January, when he sold them to his manager.

The mayor was admonished by the state ethics commission three years ago to abstain from airport business at the council table, but the mayor continued on several occasions to preside over meetings and hold documented discussions with airport officials behind closed doors about developing a cargo facility. The facility would be built in the foreign trade zone.

Despite the fact that financial disclosure documents showed Griffin drawing income from the two businesses while he owned them, and the likelihood that increased cargo operations at the airport could benefit him and airport trustees with ties to companies involved with the foreign trade zone, the Reno City Attorney seemed to be able to find a friendly interpretation allowing Griffin to keep on truckin'.

Legislature: Lounging in the lobby
What does Sierra Pacific Resources have in common with the Nature Conservancy, the city of Fallon, Kennecott Minerals Co., the Nevada Resort Association and Saint Mary’s? Well, they’re all sharing a lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature. Lobbyist Morgan Baumgartner of Reno is a registered lobbyist for all of the above entities, as well as America West Airlines, the University of Phoenix and Nevada Court Reporters.

We’re impressed. That’s a lot of legislation to keep track of. Fortunately, the biggest of these entities have plenty of registered lobbyists. Maybe that helps in instances where, say, a lobbyist may be trying to push something through for the power company that wouldn’t exactly be great for the mining or casino industry. Hmm.

Still, it’s fun to look through the state’s lobbyist database. The intrepid lobbying McMullens, Sam and Mary Ellen, are registered paid lobbyists for a tidy list of clients, including AT&T, Barrick Goldstrike Mines and the Texas-based gas giant Enron Corp. But they also represent the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the Chain Drug Council of Nevada, the Grocery Industry Council of Nevada, Miller Brewing Co. and the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority. And, oh yeah, they also lobby for Philip Morris and, apparently single-handedly, Sam McMullen got legislators to pull language from a tobacco bill that would have allowed local entities, like school boards, to adopt tougher anti-smoking rules.

That’s OK. When we’re all dying from lung cancer, at least we’ll be able to hop into a REMSA ambulance, dial home from a handy AT&T phone and enjoy a complimentary beer on the way to Las Vegas.

Labor: Peeved at the IRS
Full-time casino employees in food lines? Gosh, maybe if the service workers in Reno—and the rest of Nevada—didn’t have to give so much of their tip money back to the Internal Revenue Service, they could afford to feed themselves.

So what compels the IRS to raise taxes on tips? Why not raise taxes, instead, on casinos? Nevada workers for the Alliance for Worker’s Rights spent about two months trying to figure out what kind of rules govern the raising of tip taxes. Most of their calls went unreturned.

“We’d like to see a review of the whole program,” said Tom Stoneburner of the AWR. “If we’re going to take people’s money from them, we want to make sure it’s based on the realities of today’s workplace.”

The IRS is virtually writing a blank check when reassessing tip rates, Stoneburner said, because the agency can raise tip rates without first conducting fair and impartial studies of the real earnings of workers. Some workers say they are making less in tips but the rates are going up.

“The IRS needs a good dose of reality," said bellman Sal Padilla. "Today, I’m making considerably less than in the past, but the IRS is raising my tip rate by a dollar an hour."