(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – Freshman Republican state Sen. Michael Roberson got a lot of people’s attention last week when he engaged in a brief but spirited line of questioning at a Judiciary Committee hearing with mining industry lobbyists.
On the job just one week, Roberson, R-Las Vegas, was trying to get information from the mining industry about their profits in Nevada. He was not satisfied with the answers, and said afterward the mining industry might be able to pay more in taxes, firing a shot across the bow of one the state’s most powerful industries.
Roberson, the only attorney on the Judiciary Committee and one of only two in the 21-member Senate, did not mince words with the industry lobbyists during a discussion of a measure to take away mining’s right to use eminent domain.
In an interview in his legislative office last week, Roberson said it is his job to get the answers, and he won’t stop until he does.
“What I wanted to know from mining, and I didn’t get a straight answer – how much money are the mining companies making here in Nevada,” Roberson said. “What’s their profit? I think that’s important for the people to know. And it was clear to me, the lobbyists for mining didn’t want to give me those numbers.”
Roberson says he is in complete agreement with GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval on the need to balance the next two-year state budget without a tax increase. But restructuring Nevada’s tax system to generate more income from mining while reducing the burden on small businesses, for example, is worth considering if taxes don’t increase overall, he said.
Watching Roberson take on one of the biggest players in the Nevada Legislature was an eye-opener for some observers, but should not come as a surprise. Roberson ran a tough campaign to unseat the better funded Democrat incumbent Joyce Woodhouse in the November election in District 5, paring the Democratic majority in the Senate to a single vote.
Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), which has been pushing for a tax increase on the mining industry, said Roberson’s comments at the hearing, “broke the sense of entitlement the mining lobbyists swagger around with.”
“It was very refreshing to see a legislator from Nevada have the guts to expose mining’s sweetheart tax loopholes in such a forceful way,” he said. “It shows we make mistakes – me and PLAN, or anybody – it shows we can’t pigeon-hole lawmakers based on party and ideology.”
Roberson knows a bit about the mining industry, or at least its sometimes less appealing aftermath. Raised in Galena, Kansas, a small mining town with a population of 3,300, he saw the effects of mining on the community in the 1960s after the minerals had been extracted and the companies had left.
“It can’t help but color how I see things because in my formative years that’s what I grew up with,” he said. “And again, I’m not against mining. I’m not anti-mining. I think it is an important industry to our state, especially to the rurals, and I want mining to thrive here in Nevada.
“But it took many years before the EPA came in and finally cleaned up Galena. In fact I had already moved away by the 1990s.”
Galena is the name of a lead-based mineral that was also found here in Northern Nevada. Galena Creek in south Reno and nearby Galena High School share the same name.
Roberson said Galena itself was the poorest area of the state. On his campaign website Roberson describes himself as coming from “modest beginnings.”
After graduating from high school, Roberson attended the University of Kansas where he graduated in 1993 with a political science degree. He then attended the University of Kansas School of Law on an academic scholarship, earning his degree in 1996.
Roberson said he was inspired to get involved in politics with by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. He worked on the U.S. Senate campaign for Sam Brownback in 1996 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1997, where he worked on Capitol Hill for then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. He then worked for a political fund-raising company named CAPTEL.
Roberson moved to Nevada in 2000 and is currently an attorney with the law firm of Kolesar & Leatham, Chtd.
Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, said he first met Roberson at the GOP caucus meeting after the election and was impressed with his demeanor.
“He was not overly gabby but when he did talk, he was very thoughtful,” he said.
McGinness said Roberson’s line of questioning at the Judiciary hearing was appropriate, given the state’s budget situation.
“He went into the deep end of the pool right away,” he said. “He’ll do OK.”
Roberson, 40, said he enjoys serving in the Judiciary Committee and that the legislative process thus far is about what was expected. Roberson is also serving on the Natural Resources and Commerce, Labor and Energy committees.
“You never really know what it is going to be like but I guess this is generally how people described it to me before I got into this,” he said. “But I’m enjoying it. I really am.”
Being away from his wife, Liberty Leavitt-Roberson, a Clark County school teacher, and their two dogs, is one of the more difficult aspects of the job so far, but time away from family is part of the job description for a Southern Nevadan to serve in the Legislature in Carson City, he said.
“That’s the toughest part about this, I miss my wife, I miss my two little dogs, it’s tough being away from my family,” Roberson said. “It was tough not being with my wife on Valentine’s Day. But those are the sacrifices we make. We’ll be fine.”
While his comments on mining profits have garnered the most attention early in the session, Roberson said his legislative agenda includes reforms to public education and the collective bargaining process to try to drive down public employee salaries to make them comparable to the private sector.
Roberson said he wants a school choice program where parents can get a rebate for half the per pupil support to pick a private or public school or use the money for home schooling. It would require testing to show student achievement, he said. Roberson also wants a study of Florida’s school reforms to see which might work for Nevada.
Changes to collective bargaining are needed because the pay differential is 30 percent higher for public sector workers, he said.
“We’re never going to get control of this beast until we do something about narrowing that gap,” Roberson said.
His bills have not yet been introduced.
He would also support a change sought by Sandoval to change the public employee retirement system to a defined contribution plan for future hires.
But for now, mining is the hot topic for Roberson.
Richard Perkins, a lobbyist for the Newmont Mining Corp. and former speaker of the Assembly, said Roberson is thoughtful and asks good questions.
“But like any freshman legislator, Senate or Assembly, (he) is still trying to find his sea legs,” he said. “And the questions he asked this last week were a part of that process.”
The mining industry now needs to educate Roberson about the business and satisfy his concerns, Perkins said.
“His profile will more fully develop itself to all of us after that education occurs and we look at how he handles this specific issue,” he said.
Roberson said he does not yet know if the mining industry can afford to pay more, although he is inclined to believe the companies are doing OK.
“My general sense is mining is doing exceptionally well right now,” he said. “And I know for a fact small business in this state is on life-support.”
If that proves not to be the case, Roberson said he would not pursue a tax increase on the industry. But he wants the answers to the mining industry’s profitability in Nevada first and said he will get them.
Based on the exchange at the Feb. 14 judiciary hearing, the mining industry probably believes he won’t take no for an answer either.