AG Opinion Adds Turmoil To Legislative Races

Nevada Legislature 2003
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A big election-year shake-up in the Nevada Legislature due to voter anger over record 2003 tax increases appears even more likely now that the state's attorney general has issued an opinion against legislative service by state employees.

Attorney General Brian Sandoval's opinion that no executive-branch employees may serve in the Legislature can used in any litigation challenging the three incumbent Democrats and three incumbent Republicans who now perform such dual service.

Because of the two issues, "there's a committed bloc of voters who want to throw some people out and bring some new people in," University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik said Tuesday.

"This coming election and maybe even the next one could be very expensive and very contentious," Herzik said. "The anti-tax partisans certainly are committed to their cause - and this (dual service) issue raises the stakes."

Monday's opinion, though not legally binding, already is being mentioned in campaign speeches by at least one challenger, Assemblyman Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, who hopes to win the state Senate seat held by legislative veteran Ray Rawson, R-Las Vegas.

Rawson, like four other lawmakers affected by Sandoval's opinion, has a full-time post within the state's university-community college system. The sixth legislator, Assemblyman Ron Knecht, R-Carson City, is employed with the state Public Utilities Commission.

Beers already was using the record $833 million tax increase approved by lawmakers last summer as part of his campaign - and many other candidates are expected to do the same in other legislative contests as election season rhetoric heats up.

Incumbents targeted for their tax votes or dual government service also could be hurt by ballot questions dealing with both issues that could be decided by voters this year, Herzik said.

If enough signatures are turned in by mid-May, Nevadans will vote in November on proposals to repeal major elements of the 2003 tax plan; and to ban government employees from holding elected office.

Assembly Democrats had a 23-19 margin in the 2003 legislative session, and Republicans who led the fight against the tax plan hope they'll wind up in the majority by the time the 2005 Legislature convenes.

However, Democrats say that two of the four Assembly members affected by Sandoval's opinion are Republicans in districts in which Democrats have a chance of winning. The two Assembly Democrats are in districts likely to remain in the Democrats' column even if the incumbents can't hold the seats.

In the Senate, where Republicans had a 13-8 advantage over Democrats in the 2003 session, the GOP lawmakers hope to stay in the majority.

But Sandoval's opinion could threaten Bill Raggio's long reign as Senate majority leader - because Raggio, of Reno, would need the support of his longtime ally Rawson to hold off a leadership challenge from a group of Republican senators from Las Vegas.

The other senator affected by the opinion is Dina Titus, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who serves as the Democrats' minority leader in the upper house. While Titus said Tuesday she intends to oppose Sandoval's opinion, an eventual court ruling against her and the other dual-service lawmakers would set off another leadership battle in the Senate.

Ted Jelen, a UNLV political science professor, agreed the tax and dual service issues will have an effect on the makeup of the Legislature - but he predicted a change over time rather than immediately.

"The legislators did such a good job of redistricting that a lot of the districts are pretty safe (for incumbents)," Jelen said. "But over the long term, there's a real question about how much effect this will have."

"I think it will be harder to recruit high-profile Democrats," Jelen said. "A lot of those people already are in the public sector - in what Sandoval calls the executive branch although that's absurd for university professors - and they would stay where they are."