Lands act paves way for development, campaign money
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series examining long-term effects of the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act on the state of Nevada. Part one appeared in the Sept. 1 issue of the Tribune.
Increased scrutiny over campaign contributions goes hand-in-hand with hard-and-fast stumping in the months before every election.
An examination of the two Nevada senators, their ties to development, gaming and the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act reveals some connections that are interesting but still unproven in their influence, according to at least one political analyst.
John Ensign, a Nevada Republican running for his second term in the U.S. Senate, is also one of the authors of the 1998 Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act.
The act has thus far generated more than $3 billion in revenue for the state’s acquisition and improvement of lands by selling more than 10,000 acres of federal land in the Las Vegas Valley.
Consequently, some of Ensign’s biggest campaign contributors are Southern Nevada developers.
Marnell Corrao Associates, JA Tiberti Construction, Lakemont Homes, AG Spanos Companies and Focus Property Group combined to contribute more than $120,000 to Ensign’s coffers.
Ensign’s biggest individual campaign contributors also include three gaming giants (MGM Mirage, Station Casinos and Harrah’s Entertainment), all big developers in Southern Nevada and collective contributors of more than $200,000 to Ensign.
Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and Senate minority leader, as well as a major backer of the lands-act legislation, seems to be equally tied to big business and development in Southern Nevada.
MGM Mirage, Mandalay Resort Group, Harrah’s Entertainment, Station Casinos, Caesars Entertainment and Park Place Entertainment collectively gave Reid more than $360,000.
Gaming far outweighs developer contributions on Reid’s side – virtually all Reid’s other big contributors are either big corporations like Microsoft or Citicorp, or law firms or lobby groups.
However, construction PACs (political action committees) gave Reid some $107,000, while Ensign had been given some $47,000.
What does it mean?
While the financial ties to development and gaming are obvious for both politicians, some political analysts warn that drawing a conclusion that there is a direct correlation between donations and political clout is a “dangerous at best” notion.
“Think about it this way, would they have supported (the lands act) regardless of campaign contribution?” UNR political science professor Dr. Stacy Gordon asked. “Or do they do it because it’s in the interest of their constituents, not just the interest group?
“How can you say they would’ve done it without the contributions? How can you also say, ‘yeah, it was the money.'”
One example an analyst used was Reid’s support of using $42 million of lands-act funds to acquire the Clark County Shooting Park north of Las Vegas.
“The Clark County Shooting Park will be an incredible resource for Nevadans,” Reid said in 2005. “This funding will help give shooting enthusiasts and hunters a world-class sports facility, and it will help improve public safety.”
Because Reid cannot be connected to a gun lobby or PAC, one has to assume that he did make his choice based on the will of his constituents, a political analyst said.
No proven ties
If this theory rings true, both senators’ connection with gaming and construction does not draw a conclusive line to voting record nor finger the sale of public lands as a device to garner funds, Gordon said.
She continued: “It isn’t unusual to see (this kind of backing),” she said. “Developers are huge fundraisers in almost any state. Gaming is such a big player in Nevada and so heavily regulated … the academic literature hasn’t found any connection between campaign contributions and legislative voting.”
Since the moment the act was passed, a development boom has hit the southern part of the state, which was at one point 70 percent federally owned.
More than 10,000 acres of federal land have already been auctioned off and some 46,000 acres (and water rights) are to follow.
Even conservationist academics feel development may have occurred with or without the lands act or the politicians behind it:
“There is a real effort to try and make the ‘trade-off’ a positive one, i.e., allow Las Vegas to have its inevitable development which many feel we politically cannot stop,” said UNLV biology professor Stan Smith.
Gordon recently published a book, “Campaign Contributions and Legislative Voting,” which answers many questions about the validity and myths of how money influences votes. It is available at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.
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