blank.gif (51 bytes) Democracy

His Master's Voice

by Steven Miller

ould footsie with a Democrat special-interest lobbyist end up costing Nevada Republicans their chance to lead the Silver State for the next decade?

Already some GOP state senators are paying a high price for the overly cordial reception they’ve given Harvey Whittemore in recent Legislatures. And with reapportionment to follow next year’s elections, Democrats already are trying to exploit Republican subservience to Whittemore and his wealthy clients—while, of course, ignoring their own eager collusion.

Lobbyist Without Pier

This session for example, Senator Mark James, one of the party’s presumed brightest stars, suddenly became one of the walking wounded. James, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, permitted Whittemore to introduce legislation personally benefiting the lobbyist and a business partner—a client of James’ law firm—who are seeking to erect a large private "entertainment facility" in the heart of Glenbrook Bay, Lake Tahoe. Intent on building a second and private pier for the facility despite longtime historical easements on the beach possessed by local homeowners, Whittemore pushed through James’ committee an amendment to Nevada law. Under the change—of doubtful legality—any such easements anywhere in the Lake Tahoe basin could be ignored by pier and dock builders so long as they could get a permit from the highly political state natural resources department. Sources tell Nevada Journal that the initial form of Whittemore’s amendment, when Whittemore thought the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was lined up with him, also included that body in the agencies which had to give permission. When TRPA made it clear they were increasingly sympathetic to the homeowners association’s position, Nevada’s lobbyist without pier then dropped the TRPA permission requirement from his amendment. Rather than just restating existing law, as Whittemore has argued, the amendment was an attempt to win a private disagreement by deploying the lobbyist’s clout in the legislature.

Certification Process Proposed by
the Independent Limousine Operators
Association

To operate a limousine motor carrier within Nevada, an operator must first obtain a certificate from the regional office of the state taxicab Authority. The application for the certificate must contain: A description of the type of service proposed, the geographical area to be served, a statement of the rexes or fares proposed to be charged, the type and approximate number of limousines to be used in the proposed service and a statement as to the ownership of the limousines to be used in the proposed service and a statement as to the ownership of the limousines, evidence that the applicant can secure the insurance required by law and evidence that the limousines to be used in the service have passed vehicle safety inspections.

Upon the filing of an application for a certificate the authority shall fix a time for a hearing within 30 days of the receipt of an application containing the information required. With the consent of the applicant the authority can also dispense with a hearing and issue a decision immediately.

The taxicab authority may file one request for additional information within 30 days of the date the application is filed. The applicant shall then have 30 days to provide that information. Under no circumstance shall a hearing be held or decision made later than 30 days after the applicant has provided all the information requested. If a hearing is held, the Authority shall issue a decision on a submitted application no later  than 30 days after the date of the hearing.

If a time for a hearing has been set, the authority shall publish a public notice of the time and place for the hearing.Persons interested in the application can, at that hearing, present comment and information. But these persons shall not be made parties to the application process with a right to request information directly from the applicant.

The authority shall not deny a certificate to an applicant who has provided the information required without substantial evidence of a threat to public health or safety.

An applicant must submit a nonrefundable application fee of $200 with his application.

All limousine drivers are required to undergo a background check.

Though James carefully abstained from voting on the Whittemore amendment—even leaving the room during the polling—he nevertheless has been caught in the backwash. Critics accuse James of complicity in the effort to keep most Glenbrook homeowners ignorant of the Whittemore end run. So, rather than building momentum for a hoped-for U.S. House race next year, James finds himself fielding brickbats from gleeful—if hypocritical—Democrats.

Two Black Eyes Are Better Than One

Smuggling special-interest items into Nevada law appears to be Whittemore’s main stock in trade—usually deployed in behalf of the interests that hire him. In the 1997 session of the legislature Harvey produced a stunner that yielded two years worth of national bad press for the state of Nevada [see "Limousines Lumps," Nevada Journal, February]. Tacitly mocking the ideas behind a bill dedicated to competition and intended to deregulate public power, Whittemore got the okay from Senate Commerce and Labor Chairman Randolph Townsend to slip into that legislation a provision radically intensifying the ferocity of the state’s anachronistic limousine regulatory regime. The clear intent—successfully pursued over the last two years—was to help established members of the legally favored Vegas limo cartel to utilize state regulators against small entrepreneurs seeking to enter the same business.

The resulting chorus of national condemnation—ranging from Investor’s Business Daily to the Wall Street Journal, and from Reader’s Digest to national columnist George Will—did not go unnoticed in this year’s legislature. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill O’Donnell recognized on the public record the "black eye" that Nevada had given itself. Then he and his Senate colleagues immediately proceeded to give the state another shiner. Once again—surprise, surprise—they were following the guidance of Harvey Whittemore.

Remember Nipper, the RCA Victor terrier? In ad after ad throughout most of this century, Nipper has sat there, his head cocked, listening to the Victrola from whence came, according to the ad caption, "His Master’s Voice."

Nevada legislators increasingly act like Nipper, transfixed by whatever bad judgment or ethically impaired message happens to be emerging from Whittemore’s mouth. Indeed, emulating Nipper further, O’Donnell and his committee virtually roll over on their backs whenever Whittemore enters the room.

An amazing case in point is the committee’s April 9th meeting, which followed three weeks of meetings and work sessions between the committee and various attorneys, including those representing small independent limousine operators.

"[O’Donnell] and his committee members were speaking like they were interested in doing something for independents and opening up the market," says Rich Lowre, president of the Independent Limousine Owner/Operators Association. He notes that on the evening of the 8th, the chairman and his colleagues had expressed support for opening the market.

"‘We don’t want a ‘floodgate approach,’" Lowre quotes O’Donnell as saying, "‘but we want to make it a little easier for people to get in, and we need to do something about the intervention process. We can’t have competing companies challenging licenses.’" At that, he says, each member of the panel solemnly nodded.

The next day, however, Whittemore showed up and gave the committee his instructions.

"It was very surprising," says another independent driver, Ed Wheeler. "Ten minutes before the vote he comes in and says, ‘We don’t like this. Refer it to Finance.’ And that’s what they did—completely against what we felt the tide [had been]."

The Las Vegas Sun reports O’Donnell told longtime capitol correspondent Cy Ryan that the current regulatory regime was not fair to "the little guy." But away from the media spotlight, say sources close to the negotiations, the committee chairman was actually unwilling to even consider any substantive change to the current bad law. The one amendment O’Donnell proposed—a change in limo license application procedures to say current members of the existing cartel bore the burden of showing a new license would harm the whole industry—was hastily withdrawn as soon as Whittemore announced that he objected.

Rent-a-Reg

After three weeks of work sessions with representatives of the small limousine operators, O’Donnell declined to accept or discuss—much less allow his committee to vote on—amendments to open the market to competition, regardless of the provisions that had been offered to insure protection for the riding public. Further, in discussions, the Senate Transportation Committee leadership explicitly endorsed a system where the State of Nevada abandons its fundamental responsibility to insure fair and constitutional enforcement of law. Pleading lack of money, committee members found nothing problematic about the concept of the state turning over large chunks of its regulatory responsibility to people employed by the existing limousine oligopoly.

Apologists for the limo cartel’s stranglehold on Nevada’s regulatory regime argue that the current system insures that tourists visiting Las Vegas have a "good experience" when they lease a limousine. In truth, the artificial shortage that the cartel enforces with state government connivance is a notorious source of visitor dissatisfaction. The results of Nevada’s oligopoly-run taxi-limousine regime has become a widely recognized problem for Vegas-visiting business executives, and thus one more way for the oligopoly’s dominance to again damage the state’s economic future.

Of course, any allegedly free-market Republican whose brain had not been addled by playing pattycake with Harvey Whittemore would already know that. NJ

Steven Miller (sm@npri.org ) is a managing editor of Nevada Journal.


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