The Dance of the Mirrors
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
The Nevada state Constitution mandates that "The powers of the Government of the State of Nevada shall be divided into three separate departments -- the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial; and no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution."
For decades, even lawyers had to concede that the meaning of this passage was clear. The state Attorney General, citing this "separation of powers," ruled in 1948 that a justice of the peace cannot also serve as a state fish and game commissioner; in 1950 that a state senator cannot also serve as a tax commissioner; in 1952 that a member of the Legislature may not accept an appointment to issue drivers licenses; in 1953 that an assemblyman cannot serve as a deputy county assessor; in 1954 that a state employee may not be granted a leave -- even without pay -- to serve in the Legislature, and in 1955 that even a part-time janitor at a rural elementary school could not serve in the Legislature without resigning that position with the school district, which comprises part of the executive branch of government.
The reasons for such a solid "firewall" between the branches should be obvious. Legislators vote on the salaries and benefits -- may even be called upon by the voters to eliminate whole departments -- of executive branch workers. Who is noble and objective enough to put the taxpayers' interests first when asked to put him or herself -- along with all his or her tearful co-workers -- "out of work"?
The Founders of Nevada and the United States realized that humans are imperfect creatures who -- entrusted with the mighty armed force of government to impose their will on others -- may be expected to progressively rationalize greed and lust for power as all "in the best interest of the people."
That's why judges and juries and legislative bodies are set up not to cooperate with one another (despite all the earnest purring we hear on that theme from Washington), but rather to jealously guard their independence, continually holding up the product of the competing branches with a skeptical eye to see if they really pass constitutional muster -- and nullifying them out of hand, if they do not.
Unfortunately, that firewall has had more and more holes poked through it since the dawn of the "Great Society." First, in 1965, a Nevada legislator was allowed to accept a position as superintendent of public instruction. Soon, these "modern" state attorneys general began to rule that those allowed to serve and vote in the Legislature included fire chiefs (1967), and then (the biggest and most cataclysmic breach in the dam) ... schoolteachers in the government schools (1971.)
Soon all bets were off, and we were instructed that even an executive in charge of fund-raising for the University of Nevada, Reno, had no conflict as she went to work as a lawmaker, helping draft tax and spending measures which could not help but affect the budgets of the state universities.
So far has this now gone that Howard Rosenberg, a professor of art at the University of Nevada, Reno, managed to get himself elected to the Board of Regents for the state university system this month, and Chancellor Richard Jarvis has now asked the state Ethics Commission whether it's OK for the good professor to sit on the "citizen" panel which will decide whether he and his cohorts get raises, tenure, pension increases, and so forth.
Imagine the good professor's department head trying to turn down a request for an 18-month sabbatical in Tahiti, or some fancy new piece of overpriced equipment -- now that the professor can hold the department's very budget hostage through his vote on the Board of Regents.
The state Ethics Commission, of course, will never answer the question asked. Instead, it will likely answer a very different question, passing on the narrow issue of whether this blatant double-dipping is technically "legal."
Give me a break.
If salaried, tenured university professors can pretend to be the "citizen" overseers of our tax-funded universities, why not allow Supreme Court justices to sit in the Legislature, legislators to don Smokey Bear hats and pull off drug seizures for fun and profit on the weekends, and firemen and sanitation workers to negotiate with themselves on what they should be paid?
Why not just wad up the page of the Constitution that's designed to prevent this kind of Marx Brothers pantomime of "Who's that in the mirror" and have done with it? The only remaining question would be whether to rename the state capital "Sylvania," "Freedonia," or "Bizarro World."
Professor Rosenberg can execute one tax-funded office or the other -- not both.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.
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