Can state workers hold elected office?

Assemblyman Ron Knecht, R-Carson City, said Wednesday he doubts the Nevada attorney general will rule he and other state workers should be barred from elective office.

Secretary of State Dean Heller has asked the attorney general to clarify the issue following a letter from John Wagner of Carson City questioning whether state workers must leave their job to hold a legislative post, take leave without pay for the duration of the legislative post, or for the entire term of office.

Heller's letter, signed by Chief Deputy Renee Parker, pointed out there are three previous attorney general opinions on the subject and an analysis by the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

"It appears the previous opinions issued by both the attorney general and the Legislative Counsel Bureau result in conflicting conclusions as to the issue of whether persons employed by the executive branch of government may continue to be so employed or take a leave of absence from their executive branch duties if subsequently elected to a legislative position," the letter states.

It asks Attorney General Brian Sandoval and his staff to clarify the issue for all state workers.

Knecht, an economist with the Public Utilities Commission, is the only state employee who is a member of the Nevada Legislature. He said he agrees with Heller the issue should be clarified, but he asked the Public Utilities Commission counsel the same questions before filing for Assembly District 40 years ago.

He said that opinion concluded he and Moe Dennis, a PUC employee who ran against Assemblywoman Vonne Chowning, could run for the Legislature under existing state law.

A group of Southern Nevada Republicans and Independent American Party members has objected to the number of public workers serving in the Legislature. George Harris plans to file an initiative petition with the Secretary of State's Office today asking voters to bar public officials - including university and school district employees - from elective office.

"I've told them I disagree with them on this," Knecht said. He said he doesn't believe he and other public employees should be disenfranchised just because of where they work.

"I think public employees ought to be allowed to serve," he said.

Knecht and Sen. Ray Rawson of Las Vegas are the only two Republicans who would be removed from office by that petition. But several Democrats now serving are public employees and there are numerous state and local officials among past legislators.

There were 16 lawmakers in the 2003 session who held public, governmental or education jobs and several legislative spouses in the public sector.

Knecht said he doesn't believe those employees should be allowed to collect their full salary during the Legislature. He said he took leave without pay during the 2003 Legislature.

Kelvin Atkinson and Kathy McClain, both Las Vegas Democrats, have been fired by Clark County for collecting both their paychecks and legislative pay during part of the 2003 sessions. Several other members have been questioned about collecting salaries during session, including Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson.

Knecht said he will propose the 2005 Legislature enact a "sensible" rule that would allow some work and pay from their regular public jobs while serving.

Knecht said he also asked last year whether his candidacy would cause a Hatch Act problem because the PUC does receive and spend some federal funds. The Hatch Act prohibits officials who control federal funds from holding state and local elected office.

"The ruling was my job doesn't touch federal funds," he said.

That issue was raised by longtime activist Knight Allen of Las Vegas because Perkins is deputy chief of police in Henderson. The department receives a significant amount of federal money.

In response, a federal official issued an opinion saying Perkins would violate the Hatch Act if he sought re-election. Perkins is appealing that opinion, but several other members of the Legislature might be in a similar position, including Wendell Williams, D-Las Vegas, who manages federally funded neighborhood programs for the city of Las Vegas.


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