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Sometimes, the most powerful special interest is government itself

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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Front of the Nevada Legislature building

When most people think of so-called “special interests,” they think of teams of lobbyists funded by casino moguls, mining conglomerates or some politically connected industry grifting for government favoritism. 

And while those armies of crony capitalists are, undoubtedly, a serious threat to the democratic process, there remains a special interest that can be far more destructive to good governance than any for-profit group of politically connected industrialists: Government, itself. 

This truth was on clear display last week when government agencies, police departments and their lobbyists lined up to testify against a bill aimed at strengthening Nevada’s open records law. 

The concept behind Assembly Bill 276, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), is something that has attracted an ideologically diverse coalition of supporters over the years: increasing the penalties on agencies that fail to comply with Nevada’s public records law

As Las Vegas attorney Maggie McLetchie pointed out on Twitter, when Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can agree on something, surely “legislators should be able to come together” on the issue. And while lawmakers might do just that, last week’s hearing demonstrated that the proposal wasn’t without its share of government-funded opposition. 

A parade of taxpayer-funded agencies, lobbyists and governments railed against the bill. Matthew Christian, assistant general counsel for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, echoed other lobbyists and agency representatives when he argued that the reform would be largely ineffective at reducing litigation over open records disputes. 

Concern over the efficacy of the proposal is somewhat puzzling, given the relentless opposition these very same agencies demonstrated to far more promising reforms proposed in past legislative sessions. 

In 2019, Democratic Sen. David Parks sponsored a bill (SB287) that, among other things, would have imposed penalties on the individual government officials who wrongfully denied public records requests. However, due to strong lobbying from local and state government entities, that bill was watered down to a mere civil penalty of more than $1,000 (of taxpayer money) levied on the agencies themselves. 

In last week’s hearing, government representatives insisted that 2019’s relatively modest penalty was, nonetheless, more than sufficient to ensure compliance with Nevada’s public records law. However, their righteous indignation at Assemblyman Matthews’ bill was, at least on the surface, indistinguishable from the opposition they demonstrated in 2019

And that’s a significant point: Government agencies and lobbyists have a long history of opposing any reforms that would increase the burdens associated with ensuring accountability to Nevada residents. 

Their opposition isn’t rooted in technical quibbles over the details of AB276—it’s with the general burden that transparency and accountability places on government entities in the first place. And, unfortunately, government’s lobbying efforts have been largely effective throughout the years. Despite Nevada’s strong language regarding transparency, we still lack the kind of penalties for egregious noncompliance seen in many other states. 

As it turns out, one of the most impressively powerful “special interests” in Carson City (and other statehouses) is actually funded by taxpayers, and it often lobbies directly against the interests of the very citizens funding it. Recognition of such a dynamic might actually offer an area where the Venn diagram of political tribes converge. Both sides, after all, seem to have a growing belief that the “game is rigged” in modern politics—and, as such, both should have legitimate concerns over the degree to which government-funded agencies contribute to that corruption of representative government.

However, while the right obsesses over every dollar George Soros spends to shape the world in his image, and the left goes apocalyptic over every Koch dollar spent to do the same, both sides seem to miss the way government uses its considerable influence to subvert and minimize the priorities of common citizens. And that’s a pretty damaging blind spot for the local priorities of both major political parties. 

After all, it’s largely police associations and law enforcement agencies (using taxpayer dollars) that lobby relentlessly against progressive criminal justice reforms. Likewise, teacher unions and public school districts have long spearheaded a taxpayer-funded campaign against reforms to provide low-income students with financial assistance for private educational alternatives. And, of course, it shouldn’t surprise any conservative that government agencies asking for larger budgets are among the loudest voices calling for higher taxes

The mere fact that such lobbying is funded by taxpayers doesn't make it any less damaging to our system of representative government than the political activity funded by corporatists and cronies in the private sector. In the end, we should all be a little more skeptical of the government-funded activism that routinely takes place during legislative sessions. 

After all, whether it’s in our interest or not, we’re paying for it. 

Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas.

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