(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – A member of the citizen’s panel appointed by lawmakers to chart Nevada’s future for the next 20 years expressed concern today about whether the process to be followed to complete the effort conforms to meet the requirements of the state Open Meeting Law.
Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation, said he would like guidance from the Legislative Counsel Bureau on the decision to have the consultant preparing the final Nevada Vision Stakeholder Group report confer with members individually as part of the process of completing the panel’s charge.
The stakeholder group has met several times since January in open meetings, with posted agendas, to prepare its report for the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee. The group was expected to finish its work Friday, but Busselman said the 19 voting members of the panel were not satisfied with a draft report prepared by the consultant, Moody’s Analytics. The draft report was made available to the public before the meeting.
Busselman said the intent of the outreach effort by the consultant is to give each member of the group the opportunity to discuss what should be included in the final report.
“Having said that, I personally am not completely comfortable with how that fits within the context of the state’s Open Meeting Law,” he said. “I’m hoping we might get some further direction from legislative counsel on how that activity might be conducted appropriately.”
“I’m not an expert on the Open Meeting Law,” Busselman said. “I know enough to have concerns over whether or not this process fits the full letter and intent of what is intended to be an open discussion.”
Busselman said he does not know if other panel members have similar concerns. But the work of the panel should not be opened up to potential criticism for the way it was completed, he said.
Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said a constituent who listened to the Friday meeting contacted him to express concern about the process.
“It is my sincere hope that the Vision Stakeholder Group will not only hold true to the letter of the Open Meeting Law, but its spirit and intent and do everything in an open manner,” Settelmeyer said.
Peter Bernhard, a Las Vegas attorney and member of the panel representing the Cleveland Clinic Nevada, agreed there should be no suggestion that the panel’s work is being done in private. But Bernhard said his understanding at the end of the meeting was that members would be asked to respond to a matrix developed by the consultant rather than through one-on-one contact.
“None of us liked the idea of telephone calls,” he said. “The matrix would get uniform responses from us. It is a more efficient way to get the information.”
Bernhard said the matrix would be made available to the public. Any responses provided by panel members would also be made public at its next meeting.
Alan Feldman, representing the gaming industry on the panel as an executive with MGM Mirage Inc., said the discussion at the Friday meeting was how to finish the report within the time allotted without violating the Open Meeting Law.
The conclusion was that interaction between the consultant and individual panel members to get clarity on the various issues was appropriate as long as there was no polling or voting by members in those discussions, he said.
“Obviously none of us are interested in violating the Open Meeting Law,” Feldman said. “I would have shared Doug’s concern had we not been very clear.”
Feldman said at the next meeting of the panel there will be a public discussion and vote up or down on each section of the report and then a public vote on the complete report.
“We still have a lot to do,” he said. “We have put a lot of work into this.”
The group is now expected to meet once more in June. The work of the panel and the report from Moody’s is due to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee by July 1. Moody’s is being paid $253,000 for the work.
Lawmakers will then take the information and use it to craft a strategy to deal with the next two-year budget, which could have as much as a $3 billion hole.
Jan Gilbert of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which has been following the efforts of the Vision Stakeholder Group, said she does not see a problem with the consultant having discussions with individual members as long as there is a public discussion on the final report afterward.
“I would have preferred that they hammer it out in public,” Gilbert said. “They will never get a unanimous decision on this. Nineteen people were too many to begin with.”
Gilbert said she was not terribly impressed with the draft report released prior to Friday’s meeting.
“We know we need to diversify the economy,” she said. “We know we need to provide essential services.”
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said as long as the results of any such individual discussions are disclosed at a public meeting, it does not appear to be an open meeting law concern.
The panel was created by the Legislature independently of Gov. Jim Gibbons after a measure creating a tax and revenue study was vetoed by the governor in the 2009 session. Gibbons said such a review would inevitably lead to a call for new taxes.
The draft report, which was rejected by the panel, included a discussion on taxes but did not include any specific recommendations.
The draft report said Nevada should: “Stabilize government program fund¬ing levels by diversifying the tax base, using alternatives to general funds to support public investments, expanding rainy-day funds and securitizing future revenue streams.”
Last week Gibbons said the ongoing tax discussions are hurting Nevada’s economy.
The uncertainty of what will happen with regard to taxes in Nevada in the 2011 legislative session is keeping businesses from relocating to the state, he said.
“It is harming the state’s ability to recruit businesses to Nevada,” Gibbons said.
Dan Burns, communications director for Gibbons, said the panel is misnamed and should be called the “Tax Hike Study Committee.”
Both businesses that are already here as well as those thinking about relocating are concerned about the tax discussion, he said.
“Restructuring to broaden the tax base is code talk for a modified business tax, a gross receipts tax, a higher sales tax,” Burns said.
The committee should be looking at how to save money, not raise taxes,” he said. “Raising taxes will delay the recovery.”
Lawmakers supportive of the study of the state’s revenue structure said there is no preordained plan to use the report to call for higher taxes.
Busselman said he does not see the stakeholder group as being charged with recommending tax policy.
“My understanding of the process was we are responsible for creating the vision of what we thought Nevada should grow up to become,” he said.
The Legislature would then take up the policy issue of taxes, Busselman said.