No matter how hard they run for Congress by bashing it, once they're on Capitol Hill, representatives learn quickly that in dealing with fellow lawmakers, kid gloves are required accessories. It is not kosher to meddle in the affairs of another member's state or district. And unless there's opportunity for a news sound bite, verbal jabs are rare, too.
Perhaps that's why the daily newspapers in Las Vegas salivated last month when their Democratic U.S. Representative, Jim Bilbray, unleashed broadsides at the delegation from Arizona, particularly Republican Jon Kyl. Screaming headlines in the Vegas papers accompanied accounts of Bilbray's condemnation of Kyl.
Bilbray, who was sponsoring legislation to expand a nature preserve near Las Vegas, was opposed by Kyl and other Arizona members, who were watching out for the interests of Phoenix-based developer Del Webb Corporation. Del Webb, creator of the Sun City and Sun City West retirement meccas, longs to establish a similar community near Las Vegas, and it desperately wants to build it on 2,900 acres of Bilbray's proposed preserve.
Bilbray says Del Webb is playing "hardball," and claims he found proof in a move by Kyl last month--far away from issues of public land--in the House Armed Services Committee, where Bilbray and Kyl serve together. Bilbray claims that Kyl--in an attempt to exert leverage for Del Webb--spitefully voted to kill an unrelated solar-energy research project that would have brought jobs and revenue to Las Vegas. Kyl hotly denies the accusation. The Las Vegas newspapers played it as a battle between Bilbray and Kyl. A more accurate assessment would be a war between developers--Del Webb and Summa Corporation, a Las Vegas-based builder that wants to keep Del Webb out of its burgeoning market. While Del Webb has been whispering in Arizona ears, Summa Corporation has lobbied Bilbray to keep him from freeing up the land Del Webb wants.
According to Federal Election Commission data, as of April 15, Summa Corporation and its employees had donated $5,500 to Bilbray's reelection effort--far more than it had given to any other candidate.
Coincidentally, Del Webb and its employees have coughed up $5,100 to Kyl's coffers--again, far more than to any other candidate.
Mark Grisham, an aide to Representative Karan English (Democrat-Arizona), who has worked on a compromise to free up the land Del Webb wants, says Bilbray is shilling for Summa. "He purposefully included this land [in the expanded preserve] even though it's very low quality," Grisham says. "What you've got going on is a fight between two corporations. Bilbray is caught in the middle of that."
Bilbray spokesman Gordon Absher counters: "This is not a Summa issue. Everybody's trying to make this land developer against land developer, and that's just not it. . . . Sure, they've [Summa lobbyists] called him [Bilbray], but their interest is one voice among hundreds of thousands that we hear."
Summa officials did not return calls from New Times.
As for Del Webb's contributions to Kyl? "People can look at that and I suppose make their own assumptions," says Del Webb spokesman Ken Plonski. "The fact of the matter is we do have a PAC, we do support political candidates in our state and Jon Kyl happens to be running for a very visible office [U.S. Senate]."
He adds, "I don't believe that there's many congressmen--and this includes probably Jim Bilbray, as well--that would accept money and have some kind of beholding interest to a company, based on that, to vote one way or another on a bill." Asked about contributions from Summa and Del Webb, Kyl says, "I assume there's no connection in Bilbray's case. I know there's no connection in my case."
@body:Last year, Bilbray introduced legislation to expand the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas by 93,000 acres. Del Webb has lobbied to have 2,900 acres stricken from the bill, studied for their value, then possibly put on the block for public bidding.
Kyl wonders why the federal government doesn't sell the 2,900 acres and rake in millions. "It's [the land] not good for anything else," Kyl says.
Actually, that depends on who's talking.
Federal Bureau of Land Management officials, who oversee public lands, say the agency has no opinion on the value of the land or whether it should be included in the preserve.
However, environmentalists argue that the land only appears to be unfit for preservation, because it has been neglected and used as an illegal dump site. Under the heading "Another Screw Nevada Attempt," a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters of Las Vegas and Red Rock Audubon Society weighed in with a press release stating: "On-site visits by Nevada environmentalists find that the amount of trash on the land is no worse than much of the land around Las Vegas. A pile of trash exists on the land sought by Del Webb, but it can be cleaned up in a day." Then, at a news conference at Red Rock in April, Steve Carothers, president of SWCA Environmental Consultants, stated, "With the exception of a few second-growth agricultural fields, I have never been asked to assess a piece of public land with less intrinsic resource value than the one you are standing on today."
Carothers has an impressive list of credentials. He was also hired by Del Webb to make his assessment.
@body:Del Webb spokesman Plonski says Bilbray and other Nevada delegation members refused to negotiate with Del Webb, so the corporation turned to the Arizona delegation, its parochial representatives in Congress.
Del Webb's strategy was to push a compromise through the House Natural Resources Committee's subcommittee on public lands, which also constituted the first hurdle for Bilbray's preserve-expansion bill. Karan English, a member of the subcommittee, was asked by Del Webb to negotiate a compromise on Bilbray's bill. English's press secretary, Matt Stout, says his boss helped "hash out" the compromise, which would have excluded the 2,900 acres from the preserve for two years, allowing time to study the land. If it were deemed unfit for the preserve, the land would go on the auction block.
Don Moon, a Prescott-based lobbyist hired by Del Webb as the company's point man in Washington, D.C., asked the Arizona delegation to lobby members of the subcommittee on the issue. He also hired Jim McNulty, a former Democratic congressman from Tucson, to help.
"We talked to everyone in the [Arizona] delegation and presented our story, and there's really no one--Republican or Democrat--in the delegation that hasn't done at least something to try to assist us in getting this thing decided out in the open in Nevada," Moon says.
Indeed, that appears to be the case--or close to it. Bilbray says he was lobbied personally by Kyl, English and Democratic Representative Ed Pastor. In addition, Kyl and fellow Republican Representatives Bob Stump and Jim Kolbe signed a letter to Representative Jim Hansen of Utah, the ranking Republican on the public-lands subcommittee, urging him to visit the Red Rock site and postpone consideration of the Bilbray bill.
The bill was scheduled to be heard May 3. English had succeeded in drafting her compromise amendment, and it was to be introduced by the subcommittee's chairman. The votes were lined up to pass it.
On the evening of May 2, Bilbray--miserable about the inevitable compromise--withdrew his bill from consideration.
@body:Meanwhile, a panel of the House Armed Services Committee--on which both Kyl and Bilbray sit--met the morning of May 3.
Kyl admits he didn't know Bilbray had pulled his Red Rock bill, but denies that his vote on the solar project was in any way related to the Del Webb issue. In fact, he says, he was on Bilbray's side on the solar-research bill, which aimed to do something new and constructive on a nuclear testing site in Nevada that is making a transition from wartime to peacetime operations. Kyl says he supported measures to retain reasonable levels of funding for the facility and to study the feasibility of developing solar power there.
But when Bilbray asked the panel to allocate $6 million next year toward construction of a $60 million solar facility at the nuclear test site, Kyl used his own vote--and two proxy votes from absent Republican panel members--to kill the allocation. Kyl says he did so for two reasons: First, he says, he thought the facility was premature; wasn't the feasibility study supposed to research such options? Second, he and other panel members told Bilbray to get a waiver from other committees with jurisdiction in the solar field before money could be authorized for construction.
"At least two or three of us, including me, said we will be happy to reconsider this if [Bilbray] can get the waiver and make the case," Kyl says.
The measure died, and Kyl thought little of it. "Then I see an editorial [in a Las Vegas newspaper] in which he [Bilbray] says that the reason he didn't get the $6 million was the Arizona delegation was playing games with him," Kyl says. "In my opinion, he [Bilbray] has to have some cover for the fact that he failed to get the [solar] money. And it's too complicated to explain that two other committees had jurisdiction and he couldn't get them to waive jurisdiction, which was probably never possible in the first place, so he probably shouldn't have gone out and said he was going to get the money."
The House Science and Technology Committee subsequently refused to grant Bilbray a waiver.
Kyl doesn't deny that the Del Webb matter was on his mind that morning. He was unaware that the public-lands issue was--for the time being--a moot point.
"I didn't even know that he [Bilbray] had pulled his bill. I knew nothing about it," Kyl says. "In fact, I had written him a note before the meeting, asking him what he was gonna do on that bill. He never got back to me on it."
Of Kyl's vote on the solar project, Bilbray says: "There was absolutely no reason that Jon Kyl would have done that except to use it as a wedge with me on this [2,900-acre] site. I knew it, I was mad, and of course I stormed out of committee the minute the votes were over and unleashed a fury against Del Webb, which I felt had instigated this whole thing.
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"Jon and I have been friends, we came into Congress together and I understand the game he was playing. You know, I didn't come in on a cabbage truck from Salinas. I understand what's going on."
@body:Bilbray's solar-development project died. The future of the 93,000 acres at Red Rock is uncertain. Del Webb lobbyists were back in Washington, D.C., last week, meeting with Arizona delegation members. And Del Webb ran a full-page ad in the May 22 Las Vegas Review-Journal. The ad addresses the public-lands issue and defends Kyl's vote on the solar project. The company complains that the truth has been distorted, quoting Mark Twain: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."
Bilbray has the option of requesting that the public-lands subcommittee hear his Red Rock bill, but it's possible that English's compromise will be approved and that the 2,900 acres will be excluded. Even if the bill makes it out of the subcommittee without such a compromise, it could be amended at another point.
If that happens, it will be, in large part, because of the efforts of Arizona lawmakers. And Bilbray says that's what has him so upset.
"I have never seen an out-of-state delegation go to bat for a corporation that's based in their state involving environmental land in another state," Bilbray says. "We've never done it to Arizona, we've never done it with Utah, Montana, even though there may be Nevada developers involved in those areas."
On that point, David Steele, who formerly handled public-lands issues as an aide to U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, agrees. "The way Western congressional delegation members have dealt with public-lands issues is if the state delegation is in agreement on the issue, other members just don't get involved in it from outside the state," he says.