Most Nevadans agree, regardless of their political leanings, that government actions should take place in an open, transparent manner. Public sunlight limits the opportunities for corruption, theft, cronyism, backroom deal-making and other nefarious behaviors that trend toward despotism, and fosters instead some confidence of citizens in their government.
Thus, over the years, Nevada lawmakers have passed a state open-records law and strengthened the state's open-meeting law — providing citizens with useful tools with which to hold government officials accountable for their actions.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute has availed itself of these laws to establish, as a free public service, an online, user-friendly public records site at http://www.transparentnevada.com/. Government employee salaries, state contracts, tax collection data, congressional disbursements and government financial reports are all there, amassed through numerous public records requests filed by the Institute.
Yet, if Nevada state and local governments are ever to merit public confidence, there is still much to do. Recently, NPRI identified five important transparency issues that should be priorities during the 2011 legislative session.
First, the state should make its Open Government website live up to its name by putting the state's spending "checkbook" online. Other states let their taxpayers see exactly where their money is going, so why can't Nevada? The "we can't afford it" excuse from state lawmakers is obviously bogus: Since the Texas Comptroller's Office began putting itemized-expenditure data online in 2007, Texas taxpayers have realized $51 million is cost savings — by identifying areas of waste or duplicative or inefficient spending.
Second, contract negotiations between local government officials and government employee unions should be subject to the open-meeting law. Excluding the public from these meetings allows unions to essentially prey upon legally blinded taxpayers. That's been a major factor behind the explosive growth in public employee pay relative to private sector pay.
According to a recent analysis of state data commissioned by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the average public sector worker in Nevada earns 28.1 percent more than the average private sector worker in a similar job classification — not even considering the exorbitant difference in benefits. This growing divergence of public and private sector pay arises in large part because government unions can hide in the shadows while mugging taxpayers.
Third, should not the state's open-meeting law apply to the legislature? When lawmakers initially wrote this law, they craftily included an exemption for themselves. As a result, the state's most important and controversial decisions are routinely made by a handful of lawmakers in secret.
In 2009, the so-called "core group" of lawmakers secretly crafted an over-$1 billion tax hike outside the view of the public. Lawmakers routinely justify such behavior by candidly stating that they do not want their constituents to know exactly what goes on in those secret meetings and hold them accountable.
Fourth, the public should have at least 72 hours to review every bill before lawmakers take a floor vote upon it. When lawmakers rush bills through the legislature, they consciously circumvent any effort by taxpayers or activists to learn what's going down and respond in time. Not only does this imply contempt for the public, but it prevents lawmakers from being able to assemble all the facts and make informed policy decisions.
Fifth, campaign finance data should be made accessible online in common, electronically searchable formats (e.g., Excel spreadsheets). Requiring candidates to submit their reports electronically would allow the public to quickly review the influence that particular groups and/or individuals might exert in public elections.
NPRI recently sent a questionnaire to all candidates for constitutional offices and the state legislature, as well as current officeholders, regarding these issues. Candidates were asked whether they supported amending state law in each of these directions and whether they would sponsor legislation to do so. The responses to that questionnaire have been made available at http://www.transparentnevada.com/.
Some notable trends became immediately apparent as NPRI began receiving responses. First, non-incumbents responded at a rate three times higher than that of incumbents. Of those responding, the overwhelming majority (89 percent or more) supported greater transparency on each of these issues and pledged to sponsor legislation to move public policy forward.
However, the total response rate currently sits at only 37 percent, suggesting that candidates who oppose greater transparency do not want to put themselves on the record, because of the issue's political saliency among the public.
Thus, what the results make clear is not only that non-incumbents are much more likely to support greater transparency, but that the majority of incumbents prefer to operate, so far as they can, in secrecy.
The Silver State deserves better.
Geoffrey Lawrence is a fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit http://npri.org.