By Michael Schaus, The Nevada Independent, October 22, 2023
At the end of Nevada’s 2023 legislative session, two “Christmas tree” bills were passed that awarded $110 million in taxpayer money to various nonprofits — including organizations that have direct ties to four Democratic lawmakers who supported the bills.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans have targeted those four lawmakers for supporting bills that ostensibly enriched their nonprofit employers at the expense of the public treasury — calling it a “culture of corruption” among Democrats. However, the real reason for outrage should be the culture of secrecy and backroom deals that have come to define virtually every legislative session in recent memory.
Whether one agrees with the framing of the Republican criticisms likely comes down to one’s partisan inclinations. Nonetheless, there’s certainly reason to raise an eyebrow at what took place in the final days of the session — even if the actions of those Democratic lawmakers don’t actually constitute any sort of malfeasance.
Democrats insist they followed the guidance of the Legislature’s legal divisionwhen it comes to abstaining from votes or disclosing any potential conflicts. But that’s not really saying much. In Nevada, legal “conflicts of interest” are covered only by a narrow set of conditions, and the official mechanisms put in place to keep our lawmakers behaving ethically are practically nonexistent. After all, two low-profile ethics committees are all that exist to keep lawmakers behaving appropriately — and both those committees are made up of fellow lawmakers and individuals appointed by legislative leaders themselves.
In other words, our electeds are pretty much responsible for policing their own behavior.
Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a seemingly lackadaisical approach to rooting out ethics violations. As The Nevada Independent reported previously, there’s only been one major incident where the committees have appeared to meet since at least 2009. Does anyone really believe our elected representatives — from both parties — have behaved exemplary and without ethical blemishes for the past 14 years?
Considering this, it’s actually somewhat surprising that only four lawmakers who voted for the bills have a direct relationship with one or more of the 70 organizations that received taxpayer dollars last session. Given the nature of legislative politics, it doesn’t take much to imagine that most — if not all — of the organizations that received funding would have had direct or ancillary relationships with a great many lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle. How else are we to believe they ended up on the list of recipients for a share of $110 million in public funding without some sort of political connection?
These organizations, after all, weren’t merely picked from a hat to receive public funds — they lobbied and networked their way into bill negotiations in much the same way every other special interest (public or private) works our elected officials for legislative favors.
And that leads us to the real scandal, regardless of whether or not one believes these Democratic officials behaved inappropriately: Our legislative process is so desperately hostile to transparency, it’s easy to believe “we the people” aren’t the main priority in Carson City on any given issue.
Like so much of what happens during our 120-day legislative sessions, these Christmas tree bills were crafted, debated and ultimately agreed to almost entirely behind closed doors. In the same way details about the A’s stadium were nearly impossible to obtain until the final weeks of the session, much of what goes into any final piece of legislation happens far away from the prying eyes of journalists and the general public. Lawmakers debate each other and confer with activists and lobbyists “behind the bar,” in closed-door meetings and in impromptu hallway chats — not on the Senate or Assembly floor with thoughtful dialogue and robust public debate.
Such secrecy and backroom dealing is made possible in the first place by the Legislature’s exemption from the state’s open meetings law — however, things get even worse as the session comes to a close. Those last-minute bills that are expedited through the legislative process in the waning days of the session are almost always mired in controversy, political maneuvering and unsavory dealmaking as all remaining transparency requirements are unceremoniously cast aside for the sake of political expediency.
It’s an opaque legislative process that virtually guarantees political shenanigans — regardless of whether or not there’s any actual quid pro quo or legally defined corruption taking place. And this year’s legislative session was no exception.
In some respects, it might have been even worse than normal this year. As two veteran reporters and managing editors from The Nevada Independent pointed out in an op-ed in March, there was a worrisome disregard for openness and accessibility among party leadership in both chambers, with journalists routinely being left in the dark on important policy discussions.
The fact that our legislative process eschews the sort of transparency needed to effectively identify and root out potential conflicts and ethics concerns is a longstanding problem in Nevada. Every biennium, the most important pieces of legislation are cobbled together by lobbyists, activists and lawmakers in private meetings with no regard for public debate; leaving the rest of us ill-equipped to judge whether or not our electeds are actually behaving with our best interests in mind.
That cultural hostility toward transparency should be considered a scandal in and of itself — regardless of whether or not one believes what Republicans are saying about a handful of Democrats.
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 SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.