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

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
LegislatureLocal Government
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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.

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