George Knapp: Sen. Roberson versus the water monster
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I’m starting to like this guy, Mike Roberson. He’s a Republican, but not one of those froth-at-the-mouth, sloganeering Republicans, the kind who get their philosophy from bumper stickers or Sarah Palin, take their daily talking points from Fox News and worship at the altar of His Highness, the Great Limbaugh.
Since his election to the state Senate in 2010, Roberson has risen within the GOP ranks like a rocket, in part because he thinks for himself and in part because he seems willing to work with politicians of all stripes if that’s what it takes to get things done. Among legislative Republicans, he might be the sharpest mind since Bob Beers.
But I fear for his future. I really do. And not only because it is dangerous for a Republican to express a willingness to compromise, or because of his reluctance to embrace the wing-nut conspiracy theory of the day. (“Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag operation. Kids were murdered so Obama can grab our guns.”) The real danger lurking in the reeds, waiting to pounce on Sen. Roberson, is the water monster.
Some will say the water monster is a mythical creature, purely imaginary, or that it is just a harmless legend, bereft of fangs and claws, a fanciful story told late at night to frighten little lawmakers into being good boys and girls. But ask any elected official who has ever dared to cross the line and they will tell you — the water monster is all too real.
Sen. Roberson has had the audacity, the temerity, the sheer gall to quietly question the oversight of local water agencies. He thinks the feared and ferocious Southern Nevada Water Authority is, essentially, out of control, that the board of elected officials that supposedly “oversees” the SNWA is actually subservient to the unelected bureaucrats who run the water agencies, and that the lack of effective oversight means the SNWA has been able to piss away billions on projects that may or may not be needed.
Last summer, the public finally received the bill for some of the costly behemoths approved by the all-too-accommodating SNWA board. The agency needed $3.3 billion to pay off debts it had already incurred and tried to force local business owners to cough up the dough. At businesses all over the valley, heads exploded as soon as those first higher water bills arrived in the mail. Some jumped 300 percent or more.
In the Las Vegas Sun earlier this week, the omnipresent Anjeanette Damon reported that one of the key “bills to watch” during the 2013 Nevada Legislature is sponsored by Sen. Roberson. The proposal would place the SNWA under the control of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that having a panel of professional utilities regulators oversee our water agencies makes way too much sense for it to ever be approved in Nevada. And you are almost certainly right.
See, the reason the SNWA board has had little interest in putting a leash on SNWA and its free-spending boss, Pat Mulroy, is that Mulroy has long been perceived as the standard-bearer for the casino and development industries. She’s their Gen. Patton, the one who does whatever is necessary to keep the growth machine churning. Elected officials who cross Mulroy risk incurring the wrath of her friends in the two industries that dish out most of the campaign money in this state. Elected officials who support Mulroy’s various follies get help. Those who don’t get phone calls.
County Commissioner Steve Sisolak is one of the very few elected officials who has had the balls to publicly criticize the mighty Mulroy. Sisolak has independent resources, meaning it isn’t so easy for Mulroy and friends to push him around. But they’ve tried. Sisolak acknowledged to me some time ago that anyone who crosses Mulroy will get “the call.” The process reminds me of a Mafia movie, because they usually pick someone who is close to you to make the call. Maybe they invite you to lunch or offer you a ride in their limo. And then, when you’re alone with them, they let you have it. They let you know the lay of the land, the facts of life. They describe your bleak political future should the state’s biggest power players turn off the money spigot. And it almost always works. (It didn’t with Sisolak.)
I have to believe that a plan is already in the works to re-educate Sen. Roberson. For a man of his intellect, they might have to call in one of the big guns. I wonder if they might even go to the biggest gun of all, Steve Wynn, who has been known to make a phone call on behalf of Ms. Mulroy. Mr. Wynn can be very persuasive.
Members of the PUC don’t need to worry about campaign contributions. They’re not running for office. They base their decisions on what is best for the ratepayers and customers of Nevada utilities, which means they would presumably be allowed to review the supposed justification for all of the ridiculously expensive projects SNWA has approved. (The $100 million or so already spent on the proposed rural water grab, for instance, might get scrutiny from someone who is not subject to political pressure. What a radical idea.) Or maybe they might look at the salaries paid to the upper-crust employees at these same agencies to see why their pay is so much higher than at comparable agencies in the West. Or, might independent oversight mean that someone would say no to the globetrotting Mulroy, known for her frequent jaunts to Paris, Austria or Australia, all at public expense? Roberson told the Sun he proposed the bill because big decisions are being made by a small group of people and there hasn’t been “an adequate opportunity for input by the business community.” Can you imagine what kind of input the business community might offer if better oversight allows them to see the true cost of the pending water grab (estimated at $15 billion) before the project gets its inevitable rubber stamp from the SNWA board? Openness in government — another radical idea.
I can’t wait to see how the bill fares during the session, and I look forward to charting Sen. Roberson’s evolution as a political leader. By introducing this proposal, he is — to paraphrase Ned Beatty in Network — messing with the primal forces of nature.
We’re about to find out what he’s made of.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at email@example.com