Sunshine Week: Nevada lawmakers can deal in secret
AP) – Months of mind-numbing, line item budget reviews and eye-glazing presentations dominating the 2011 Nevada Legislature will play out on a public stage with plenty of political posturing and occasional vitriol. But when it gets to the key decisions that determine the state’s future – on education, mental health, social services and taxes – the horse trading will take place behind closed doors.
Nevada’s Open Meeting Law requires “public bodies,” local governments and agencies, to post their agendas at least three days before a meeting, and prohibits quorums of those bodies from meeting in private. State lawmakers, however, are exempt, because the Legislature is ironically not defined as a public body.
The Senate and Assembly “do have open meeting rules that they adopt during the session, but then they can suspend those rules,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. That’s routinely the case in the waning days of the 120-session that ends June 6.
Veterans of the process say closing the deals on the budget and taxes gets downright nasty. But the insiders say behind-the-scenes maneuvering is necessary to determine whether proposals have enough support to pass and sustain any vetoes.
“Behind closed doors or in working with the core group, people are a little more open to giving on some of the things they’ve been publicly stuck with,” like no new taxes pledges, said Randolph Townsend, a former Republican senator from Reno now on the Nevada Gaming Commission.
Townsend, who led the Republican caucus and served on the Senate Taxation Committee, said by the end of the session, legislators “are exhausted, they’re edgy, they’re tired, they’re dug in. And tempers flare. And it’s not necessarily pretty.”
Bill Raggio, a former district attorney and Nevada’s longest-serving state senator, equated the process to jury deliberations, which aren’t open to the public either.
“The only thing that really takes place outside of a public meeting is the core meetings to negotiate the end game,” said Raggio, a Republican who retired in January after 38 years.
“Having gone through it for years and years and years … at times it was out in the public and you weren’t able to give it the full effort that you can when you’re in a closed meeting,” he said. “You can’t talk as freely and don’t make as good decisions.”
Smith said the secretive process erodes public trust.
“Anytime you do that, go into a secret meeting, it makes the taxpayers wonder what are they saying that they’re afraid to tell us,” he said.
Jan Gilbert, of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the session-ending secrecy leaves small organizations and some advocates out of the loop.
“We have been through this legislative process may times, she said. “I have always felt in the end we have no voice. We wait, we try to understand the deal that has gone down.
“And once the negotiations have gone down, they’re done,” she said.
PLAN is an umbrella group for more than 30 organizations representing the interests of the poor, children, the disabled, women, seniors, conservationists and others.
Billy Vassiliadis, principal of R&R Partners and chief lobbyist for the powerful Nevada Resort Association, has been a player in those closing session discussions and dismisses arguments that the public’s money or trust is being bartered.
“I can’t think of many pieces of important legislation that haven’t been preceded by months of hearings,” he said.
Smith agreed that part of the process is now quite transparent. Meetings of the Nevada Legislature at the capital in Carson City are video-linked to the state office building in Las Vegas and webcast on the Internet.
“It’s easier to keep tabs on the Nevada Legislature than it ever has been in history,” Smith said.
With Nevada’s narrow tax base – two-thirds of the state’s general funds comes from sales and casino taxes – Vassiliadis said it’s the hit to targeted industries that are often discussed privately.
“At the end of the day, in most cases you’re not negotiating public tax dollars, you’re negotiating a particular industry’s tax dollars.
“I’ve been in the room when they’ve wanted gaming to participate,” he said. “It’s not like we’re negotiating other people’s fate. We’re negotiating our own.”
But Smith said the effects of those decisions still are felt by the public.
“Every single tax on the books you can argue gets passed down,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a tax that isn’t included in the cost of doing business and therefore comes out of part of the price to the consumer.”
Barbara Buckley, former Assembly speaker, said there’s a practical reason for back-room talks. Because any tax or fee increases requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass, it would be impossible to draft a new version for every suggested tweak of a budget bill, she said.
“The budget process is done in public and every bill gets a hearing,” said Buckley, a Las Vegas Democrat who was termed out from seeking re-election last November. “When you have an opportunity to do one bill, knowing that the general framework is going to be supported by enough members makes some sense,” she said.
But at that point, small groups are cut from the process, Gilbert countered.
“Once we get to the end, we don’t have any say,” she said.
Smith said the process invites questions and skepticism.
“Yes, doing the public’s business in public gets messy. That’s because people ask hard questions, but they also have good ideas that actually might benefit the process,” he said.
“What you’re saying is, we can’t really be honest in front of the public, so we have a private face where we tell the truth, and then we have a public face where we make it look like everything’s OK.
“It just seems to me we’d be better off understanding what goes into making the sausage before we get to the meat at the end,” Smith said.