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OPINION: Transparency in the Legislature: What are the odds?

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

How likely is it that lawmakers will voluntarily open the legislative process up to more public oversight? 

Republican Heidi Kasama has put forward a handful of bill draft requests that might just give us the answer. Last week, the assemblywoman announced three bills she’s proposing to ensure more transparency and accountability in the legislative process. 

Among other things, the reforms would set minimum review periods for bills, set new requirements for conflict disclosures and — most importantly — subject the Legislature to the state’s open meeting law. 

The mere fact that our legislative body is exempt from the state’s open meeting law is actually pretty dumbfounding. While any attempt to increase transparency would be a massive win for the general public, ensuring the Legislature abides by the same transparency requirements as every other governmental body seems like a good place to start. 

As I’ve argued before, the controversy surrounding last year’s “Christmas tree” bills, for example, has only been exacerbated by the simple fact that so much of the legislative process occurs “behind the bar” and out of view of the public. When a number of Democratic lawmakers have direct ties to nonprofits that receive taxpayer dollars, raising an eyebrow seems like a natural response. The fact that most of the process didn’t take place on the Assembly or Senate floor, however, only adds to the perception that such happenings are not entirely above board. 

Of course, the truth is that virtually every piece of legislation — not merely those giving cash out to well-connected nonprofits — is similarly subjected to backroom dealings and behind-the-scenes political shenanigans. 

The bill that ultimately greenlit the $380 million subsidy for the Oakland A’s relocation to Las Vegas, for example, was crafted almost entirely away from the prying eyes of journalists, activists and the general public. Rather than robust floor debates and public meetings about shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to a billionaire sports mogul, lawmakers cut deals and negotiated terms in private meetings and in the hallways of the legislative building long before there was an official bill introduced in the final weeks of the session.  

Unfortunately, such opaque wheeling and dealing is a depressingly common tactic for controversial or potentially problematic proposals, regardless of which party happens to be in charge. And the reason is easy to understand: Why would lawmakers bother with hammering out details in a public forum when they can more easily horse trade in private?  

Voters may or may not believe there’s currently a “culture of corruption” in our Legislature (let alone if such a culture is exclusive to only one party), but it should be obvious to Nevadans of all political persuasions that there’s a bipartisan hostility toward transparency. 

And that makes it nearly impossible for us to judge for ourselves whether or not our elected officials are representing our interests or their own.   

Republicans and Democrats alike routinely scoff at the idea of conducting their business in the open — especially in the final weeks of the session when both chambers descend into lawlessness as procedural rules are suspended. The madness of those final legislative weeks each biennium creates a nightmare for those trying to stay on top of legislative happenings — which is precisely why so many key policy proposals aren’t even heard until such chaos is well underway. 

Last year it wasn’t until the very end of the session that a slew of long-anticipated bills finally made their way before lawmakers. Even something as grandiose as a multibillion-dollar plan to subsidize the film industry wasn’t introduced until mere weeks before the Legislature was set to adjourn — nevermind that it had been “in the works” for more than two years. (Ultimately, the bill went nowhere, but one can be certain it will make its return after a new round of behind-the-scenes negotiations take place between lawmakers and lobbyists.) 

From education budgets to stadium subsidies, the real negotiations and sausage making didn’t actually get started last year until the session was almost over — as is the case every biennium, regardless of what party holds power in Carson City. Indeed, if Kasama’s proposed transparency reforms have one major flaw, it’s that they will likely be just as disposable as all the other procedural rules that get suspended at the end of each session. 

Nonetheless, the perfect shouldn’t be an enemy of the good. Requiring that the Legislature adhere to the state’s current open meeting law, requiring bills to be publicly reviewable for 72 hours and strengthening the requirements for conflict disclosures all seem like common sense steps to ensure greater accountability and restore confidence in our legislative process. 

Whether or not next year’s leadership will be willing to entertain such reforms, however, is another matter. It probably depends on what backroom deals can be made in the meantime. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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