|DemocracyHis 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 theyve given Harvey Whittemore in recent Legislatures. And with reapportionment to follow next years elections, Democrats already are trying to exploit Republican subservience to Whittemore and his wealthy clientswhile, of course, ignoring their own eager collusion.Lobbyist Without Pier
This session for example, Senator Mark James, one of the partys 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 partnera client of James law firmwho 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 changeof doubtful legalityany 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 Whittemores 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 associations position, Nevadas 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 lobbyists clout in the legislature.
Though James carefully abstained from voting on the Whittemore amendmenteven leaving the room during the pollinghe 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 gleefulif hypocriticalDemocrats.
Two Black Eyes Are Better Than One
Smuggling special-interest items into Nevada law appears to be Whittemores main stock in tradeusually 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 states anachronistic limousine regulatory regime. The clear intentsuccessfully pursued over the last two yearswas 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 condemnationranging from Investors Business Daily to the Wall Street Journal, and from Readers Digest to national columnist George Willdid not go unnoticed in this years legislature. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill ODonnell 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 againsurprise, surprisethey 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 Masters Voice."
Nevada legislators increasingly act like Nipper, transfixed by whatever bad judgment or ethically impaired message happens to be emerging from Whittemores mouth. Indeed, emulating Nipper further, ODonnell and his committee virtually roll over on their backs whenever Whittemore enters the room.
An amazing case in point is the committees 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.
"[ODonnell] 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 dont want a floodgate approach," Lowre quotes ODonnell 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 cant 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 dont like this. Refer it to Finance. And thats what they didcompletely against what we felt the tide [had been]."
The Las Vegas Sun reports ODonnell 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 ODonnell proposeda 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 industrywas 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, ODonnell declined to accept or discussmuch less allow his committee to vote onamendments 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 cartels stranglehold on Nevadas 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 Nevadas oligopoly-run taxi-limousine regime has become a widely recognized problem for Vegas-visiting business executives, and thus one more way for the oligopolys dominance to again damage the states 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 (email@example.com ) is a managing editor of Nevada Journal.