Las Vegas Sun

August 29, 2014

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MEMO FROM CARSON CITY:

The votes are public, but the decisions are made in private

Sun Coverage

The big legislative news last week came when subcommittees voted to set spending levels for sections of the budget.

The votes happened in public, but with little drama. The real work to build the consensus had taken place in hours of closed-door meetings.

The public never sees the true debate over Nevada’s future, which has occurred this session in “core group” meetings, where legislators of both parties hammer out deals.

In Carson City, cries for openness are often met with eye rolls.

Lawmakers say they would never finish their work under the biennial, 120-day limit for legislative sessions if budgets were debated in public.

“In an ideal world, every issue would be debated and voted on in public,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, a core group member. “Instead, we have 63 members with 63 views ... There’s not enough time. People don’t speak as freely and frankly in public.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said the closed meetings have been taking place since before he was elected to the Senate in 1973.

“You can’t get 63 people in one room and hash out a budget with special interests hovering over us,” Raggio said. “If this was done in the open, we’d be here another two months.”

Jim Richardson, a veteran of the process and lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance, describes himself as “a bit of a transparency nut.” Doing business in the open, he said, might prevent some of the messier compromises — the horse-trading to get bills passed or killed, budgets funded, or projects built in particular districts.

“We talk about hostages, big hostages, little hostages,” Richardson said. “They work out trades, and that’s hard to do in the public.”

Still, Richardson acknowledged, “if they did all this in the open, it would take forever.”

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, denied it’s a closed process, because the final votes are made in public.

“Part of our job as leaders is talk to each other, work out differences,” Horsford said. “If it was truly closed, we’d not be having this discussion right now. It’s just that the process is streamlined from what otherwise would take months and months to do.”

Though expedient for lawmakers, the closed meetings keep many of the details of their negotiations a secret.

Some of the proposals are leaked to reporters. A little over a week ago, sources confirmed to the Las Vegas Sun where they were on a tax package and likely cuts. Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford later told the Sun he was still pushing a corporate income tax.

Still, the press corps spent much of the week loitering outside conference rooms, the core group inside and the smell of important decisions in the air.

When legislators emerged, they scurried to the elevators or the sanctuary of their offices, followed by reporters asking: “Is there consensus?”

“What’s the number?”

In response came pat answers: “We’re making progress.”

By Friday, higher education was the only budget lawmakers hadn’t agreed on.

Sources said it was getting rancorous in the room. Some wanted another $35 million for colleges and universities. Others want to keep the imminent tax package as small as possible.

The meeting dragged on.

Finally, Raggio emerged. “The speaker will have a statement,” was all he would say.

Sen. Warren Hardy emerged and gave the same response. A reporter, trying to get a different answer, asked what color the sky was.

“The speaker will have a statement.”

Reporters went back to waiting. After a while it was evident Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley had slipped out a side door.

The now-cranky press pack made its way to her office. Eventually Buckley came out and announced there was no agreement on the higher education budget.

“We’ll come back on Monday,” she said, dodging further questions.

For those trying to find out what had gone on behind closed doors, it was back to making phone calls, stopping lawmakers in the halls, talking to anyone who could shed some light on the process.

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