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The two chairs of the Judiciary committees, Assemblyman Steve Yeager and Senator Nicole Cannizzaro, during a hearing on a gun background check bill on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A Carson City judge has ruled that lawyers with the Legislative Counsel Bureau — the nonpartisan staff that assists lawmakers — cannot represent Democratic legislative leaders in a suit brought by their Republican colleagues over the legality of bills passed earlier this year that bolster state revenue.

District Court Judge James T. Russell ruled Tuesday after an hourlong hearing that the LCB legal team can remain on the case, but not represent individual lawmakers. The hearing stemmed from a lawsuit filed in July in which Republicans argue that a bill cancelling the planned expiration of an elevated payroll tax rate is actually a tax increase and needed a two-thirds vote of support rather than the simple majority it received.  

“LCB in my opinion has always been very neutral,” Russell said, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I just don’t think you can pick sides by representing senators against other senators.”

The suit challenges the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s cancellation of the payroll tax rate’s “sunset” — a maneuver that is expected to bring in about $100 million for the state. It also contests SB542, a bill that extends a $1 DMV technology fee into 2021.

A voter-approved portion of the Nevada Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes and Democrats are one vote shy of that threshold in the Senate; Democrats contend their moves are not technically tax increases. Republicans argue that passing the tax extension on a simple majority vote “creates a dangerous precedent,” and they argue in the lawsuit that the decision hurts Republicans because it nullifies plaintiff senators’ votes against the tax. 

The Nevada Appeal reported that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Senate Secretary Claire Clift, who are defendants, will need their own lawyers but that money for the counsel can come from the Legislative Commission as opposed to their own pockets.

“The individual legislators named should either be dismissed or they need to get separate counsel,” Russell said, according to the Appeal. “I think you should be involved. I just think that, somehow, you shouldn’t be in the middle of this thing representing one state senator against another state senator. That jeopardizes the entire nature of the LCB.”

The case is scheduled for a hearing in Carson City District Court at 9 a.m. on April 1.

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