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Legislators delay funding out-of-state firm to tout Nevada tourism

CARSON CITY – At the urging of state Sen. Steven Horsford, legislators delayed allocating money to hire an out-of-state company to promote Nevada tourism.

The Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs requested $1.8 million to hire Burson-Marsteller, an international marketing firm. The campaign would be run out of the firm’s office in Santa Monica, Calif.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee split along party lines on the request Thursday, with Republicans voting to release funds now and Democrats backing a two-month delay.

Horsford, D-Las Vegas, complained about the department’s decision to hire an out-of-state advertising firm rather than a Nevada firm that would hire Nevada workers.

“State money should be used to invest in Nevada,” said Horsford, the Senate majority leader and a candidate for the 4th Congressional District seat.

But Tourism and Cultural Affairs Director Claudia Vecchio said there were no state advertising firms with the expertise “to bring to light” her vision of advertising Nevada.

She said there were 19 bids for the contract, including 11 from Nevada. A five-member committee from her agency picked five finalists, none from Nevada.

“I have been in this business for 25 years,” said Vecchio, who was hired away from an Ohio tourism agency last November by Gov. Brian Sandoval. “We need to work with the best in the business. It really makes a big difference in what the state is going to realize through the effort of this agency.”

She said that half of all tourists plan their vacations on smartphones and that Burson-Marsteller has a mobile application for Nevada that will be “a game changer.”

Horsford said he has “been driving around the state a lot recently,” and there are roadways that don’t even have cellphone service.

“I don’t agree with you that there aren’t firms in Nevada that don’t have a regional and national focus.”

Vecchio said that an advertising executive in Southern California would run the campaign but that she will hire Las Vegas-based Red Rock Strategies to do much of the work. When it does the advertising for political campaigns, Red Rock Strategies only represents Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Nevada Congressman Joe Heck.

Assemblyman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, voted for a delay, saying she needs to do more investigating of the marketing firm.

But Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said it isn’t the Legislature’s responsibility to override contract decisions made by executive branch agencies.

“We are overstepping our bounds,” he said. “This is a mistake. We are asserting ourselves (to decide) what is a good contract.”

Republicans backed his argument, but they are a minority of the committee. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

Horsford opened the meeting by pledging to oppose any effort by state agencies to divert money set aside for hiring employees to other purposes, such as buying computers and furniture. He has been critical of the administration for not filling authorized positions at a time when the state has the highest unemployment rate.

“There’s a pattern we’re experiencing; state agencies are gaming the system,” he said. “Teachers are being laid off. Children are not being served in programs like Early Intervention Services. People are being turned away from mental hospitals.”

The Department of Administration reported in May that 8.8 percent of authorized, full-time state jobs are vacant but that it is working to reduce that figure.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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