The Nevada Legislature’s money committees held two major hearings last week to discuss options and the decisions they have to make in resolving budgets that make up half of state General Fund spending — K-12 schools and higher education.
But to most everyone in the audiences at both hearings, the discussion was anything but enlightening.
It was, in fact, opaque since the documents lawmakers and staff were working from and referring to were not available to the public, the press or university and school district officials. Those “Budget Highlights” are specifically deemed confidential in state statute.
And the testimony during those hearings Wednesday and Thursday made relentless reference to them, giving few if any specifics.
Staff, for example, said at one point: “The end effect is column ‘I’ which shows the funding each institution would receive.”
Later, in discussing the impact of the proposed university system funding formula, staff advised Assembly and Senate members on the higher education subcommittee that, “If you turn the page to the next page, It’s the same calculation. That allows you to see the difference between the two methodologies.”
At another point, lawmakers were told to “reference the first two pages of Attachment A.”
Several individuals either attending or watching the hearings by computer said they had no way to follow what was happening.
None wanted to go on record about the lack of transparency.
Asked about the inability of anyone not on the two committees to follow what was being discussed and evaluate the potential choices before lawmakers, key members of leadership said nothing was being discussed that hadn’t already been fully presented in the earlier public hearings on the K-12 and Nevada System of Higher Education budgets.
“Because it’s a work session, the folks are here just to listen,” said Senate Majority leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. “We had that open discussion in an open meeting. Now staff is just trying to explain to us so we can make a decision.”
“I don’t think anyone’s doing it not to be transparent,” said Ways and Means Chairman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas. “All those numbers have been talked about (in the open hearing). The work session is for committee members.”
Senate Finance Chairman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, described the highlights as “a compilation of what’s been in previous hearings.”
“All the information has been out before,” she said.
Denis said the highlights condense a large stack of documentation to a manageable report for them to work from but that nothing in them is really new.
Asked why they are confidential the, they compared the highlights to an accountant’s “working papers,” which are typically confidential in that profession.
Carlton described the highlights as “a way to give out the different options.”
But all agreed this part of the process is probably very confusing — particularly to those unfamiliar with the state budget process. But they said although work sessions are informational for legislators the actual decisions are made in public.
“When we get to the actual budget closings, the sheets are passed out to the press and public,” Carlton said.