The Nevada Legislature gets to write the public records laws that compel state agencies and local governments to turn over emails and other documents upon request. But ask for the lawmakers’ own emails and documents, and you’ll hit a brick wall.

NEVADA STATE PERSONNEL WATCHLAS VEGAS — The Nevada Legislature gets to write the public records laws that compel state agencies and local governments to turn over emails and other documents upon request. But ask for the lawmakers’ own emails and documents, and you’ll hit a brick wall.

The Associated Press received a meticulously annotated, 28-page denial in response to a recent request for emails sent and received by four legislative leaders’ official accounts during the first week of February.

The AP was also rejected in its request for calendars detailing a week of appointments for the legislators: Democratic Sen. Aaron Ford, Republican Sen. Michael Roberson, Republican Assembly Speaker John Hambrick and Republican Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams.

Lawyers with the Legislative Counsel Bureau cited a buffet of reasons, starting with: the Legislature and its staff couldn’t be considered a “governmental entity,” and emails and calendars couldn’t be defined as “public books or records” under the state’s public records law.

They also argued that giving up such records conflicts with “legislative privilege and immunity,” a principle rooted in 16th and 17th century England when British monarchs used civil and criminal proceedings to harass members of Parliament who were critical of the Crown.

According to LCB, compelling lawmakers to disclose behind-the-scenes communications would “chill legislative speech and debate because Legislators might censor their remarks or forgo them entirely to protect the privacy of their sources from being revealed.”

“It would also allow improper inquiries into the motivations of Legislators,” added LCB, which provides information and assistance to lawmakers.

Finally, LCB lawyers cited a bill that passed on the chaotic final day of the 2015 legislative session, a little over 24 hours after it was introduced at LCB’s request. The bill, AB496, clarifies that immunity applies to every action lawmakers could take “within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity,” whether in session or out, and in any form — written, oral or otherwise.

Critics called the policy overkill, and said it prevents the public from evaluating the factors influencing legislation.

“I’m appalled by the breadth of the arrogance in this response,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, which represents the news media and advocates for transparency in government. “The extent of the reaction makes you wonder, ‘What do they have to hide?’”

While the Legislature rejected the AP’s request, the executive branch provided specific documents in response to the same query. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office released a detailed calendar of his week that included phone calls with legislative leaders and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a “veteran of the month” ceremony and a private black tie dinner in Las Vegas.

Lawyers for his office pointed out a single retraction in the calendar — a flight confirmation number — and said they needed more time to meet a request for his emails.

Smith said the Legislature, which has wide latitude to make its own rules, is being hypocritical by holding others to a far higher standard of disclosure than themselves.

“It does say over and over again that we pass laws for other people to follow, not ourselves,” Smith said. “If the leadership of the Legislature actually agrees with this, I’d be very, very worried.”

Michael Schaus of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, says constituents who send representatives up to Carson City have a right to know the business happening there. While voters can find videos of legislative meetings and copies of bills on the Legislature’s robust website, the more subtle backstory remains out of reach for most.

Without access to emails, calendars and other correspondence, constituents often don’t know why bills died, which lobbyists their representatives are spending the most time with and what bargains lawmakers cut to save certain bills and kill others. They can only find out if the lawmakers themselves voluntarily give up the information.

Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he understands that lawmakers need some freedom to speak candidly about legislative matters. But he said their confidentiality protections need to be reined in.

“The exemption they have now is far too broad,” Story said. “Certainly anything in the direction of transparency would be welcome.”

Hot issues remain as Nevada Legislature enters its final week

CARSON CITY — Time is running out for Nevada lawmakers. With adjournment one week away, they must confront and resolve the biggest issues that have been percolating all session.

Topping the to-do list is Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed tax package to fund his ambitious education agenda.

Also on the list — a new $15 million initiative introduced late Friday to boost teacher hiring; parental notification before girls undergo an abortion; and yes, a resurrection of a controversial “campus carry” proposal allowing concealed-weapon permit holders to pack heat on college campuses.

With tempers frayed and patience wearing thin, drama — already displayed this session — is likely in the final days.

Legislative money committees have already closed budgets totaling about $7.2 billion for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. Three main budget bills will be introduced by Wednesday, but there could be add-ons. Late Friday, Senate Bill 511 was introduced in the Senate. It is a $15 million initiative backed by Sandoval and legislative leaders to provide scholarships and hiring bonuses for teachers to address the state’s teacher shortage. Clark County school officials said they need to hire 2,600 teachers for the upcoming school year.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson said the Senate will consider the bill, possibly Tuesday or Wednesday, as a full committee.

After the independent Economic Forum earlier this month projected Nevada can expect about $6.1 billion in revenue under existing tax law, the scramble is on to plug a $1.1 billion hole.

Sandoval was forced to come up with a Plan B — called the Nevada Revenue Plan — after his initial tax proposal tying business license fees to industry type and gross revenue hit a bog in the Assembly.

But his new plan — a blend of business license fee hikes, higher modified business taxes assessed on payroll, and a commerce tax on big businesses with annual revenue of $3.5 million or more — is causing heartburn for some lawmakers.

Administration officials Thursday said the new plan will capture revenue that many big players have escaped because they don’t have employees in state. The bill, in total, would raise an estimated $262 million annually.

TAXES: SUNSETS, ABATEMENTS

A bill to make permanent temporary taxes once slated to expire four years ago is also in play. Senate Bill 483, the so-called “sunset” bill, would enshrine a 0.35 percent increase in the statewide sales tax rate with other levies. It also would boost the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $1.80 from 80 cents. That component also is expected to add $348 million to state coffers over the biennium.

The Senate approved the sunset bill 18-3. It is now lingering in the Assembly, where the Taxation Committee plans to hear it Tuesday — just six days before adjournment.

Efforts also are still underway to simplify Nevada’s live entertainment tax, a nightmare of loopholes, exemptions and arcane requirements that many say is long overdue for a makeover.

On the flip side of raising taxes are bills dealing with tax abatements, a key tool in Sandoval’s economic development arsenal. Still on the table are bills to give tax abatements for huge data centers like Switch, the largest data center in Nevada.

Sandoval in his State of the State address in January announced Switch plans a $1 billion expansion of its Las Vegas facility and a new $1 billion center east of Reno.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and was approved by the Assembly Taxation Committee, but it is still awaiting a vote by the full Assembly.

Tax abatements for the aviation industry, too, are up in the air. Senate Bill 93 would authorize partial abatements on personal property and sales taxes to companies that own, operate, manufacture, service, test or assemble aircraft or aircraft components.

That measure passed the Senate but has sputtered in the Assembly, where a committee on Friday heard a similar measure, Assembly Bill 161. That bill would require companies to invest at least $250,000 in the state and retain $5 million in personal property in the state to qualify for tax breaks.

Economic development officials say that Nevada is one of only five states in the contiguous United States that does not offer aviation tax incentives and that authorizing tax breaks will result in almost immediate economic activity.

“Parts can be exceptionally expensive,” said Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “This is enough to completely in and of itself drive decisions of airplane owners.”

GUNS AND ABORTION

Guns and Second Amendment rights were the focus of a lot of discussion and drama during the session, and it appears it’s not over.

Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, on Thursday stomped out of the Assembly chambers when the body rejected her amendment to resurrect her “campus carry” gun bill. She was barred from the chamber until she apologized but scorned fellow conservatives later that night for not siding with her.

But it wasn’t the end of the issue. On Friday, seven GOP Assembly members who voted against Fiore’s amendment introduced a new campus carry measure, Assembly Bill 487, as an emergency measure.

Assembly Judiciary Chairman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said he will hold a hearing on it this week, but it will be largely symbolic. With just days remaining and no appetite for the issue in the Senate, passage is unlikely.

Anti-abortion activists will get one more shot to try to persuade lawmakers to require parental notification before a girl can get an abortion. Assembly Bill 405 was approved in a party-line, 24-17 vote in the Assembly. Once in the Senate, it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, presumably to die. But it was revived Thursday and re-referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which plans to hear it this afternoon.

State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, promised backers his committee would hear the bill but added he will not bring it to the floor for a vote unless he knows it will pass.

Then there is the issue of Nevada’s presidential caucus. Senate Bill 421 would scrap the caucus system disdained by Republicans and replace it with a secret-ballot presidential primary to be held in February. But the bill would change the primary for state election contests from June to February — a move that could bring the wrath of voters forced to endure a long election cycle commencing before the previous year’s holiday season.

SB421 was approved by the Senate on a party-line 11-9 vote. It was heard in an Assembly committee, where efforts are underway to amend it by having two primaries — one in February for the presidential races only, leaving the primary for state and local races as they are now, on the second Tuesday in June.

Hagar: Dire prediction for end of 2015 Legislature

2013 Nevada legislature session protest

2013 Nevada legislature session protest

Those who watch the Legislature know the saga of Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks.

He was elected Speaker of the Assembly before the session started. The Reno News & Review then published a Dennis Myers story about Hansen’s old opinions columns in the Sparks Tribune. The NAACP called them racist and homophobic. Gov. Brian Sandoval “asked” Hansen to resign and he did.

Yet Hansen has still proven to be a strong and influential member of his Assembly GOP. He has served as the chairman of Assembly Judiciary Committee. One veteran lobbyist told me he’s one of the most “determined” lawmakers he has ever seen.

“I’m still there. I’m in a powerful leadership position so my influence will still be very strong,” Hansen said.

That said, at the very least, Hansen has his finger on the pulse of the Assembly GOP majority. He predicts a rough ending for the Nevada Legislature. It’s supposed to end at 1 a.m. on June 2. It won’t, Hansen said.

Last week, members of the legislative money committees approved a budget of about $7.2 billion, just $100 million less than what Sandoval proposed. But that’s still way too much for members of the Assembly GOP caucus, Hansen said.

“I will tell you right now. I will say there’s about a 95 percent chance that we will have a special session because the budgets that are coming out of (Assembly) Ways and Means are way above the revenue streams (taxes) that the Assembly caucus is going to support.”

Hansen said he sees the current biennium general-fund budget of $6.5 billion increasing to about $6.8 billion — instead of the already approved $7.2 billion. That would cut out a lot of Sandoval’s new education programs.

“They did a pie-in-the-sky budget,” Hansen said. “You are going to see a lot of scaling back on that. And unfortunately, the whole way that thing was handled in the money committees, didn’t really involve the majority of our caucus in the decision making.”

Sandoval’s new proposal for the “Commerce Tax,” which is a tax on the gross receipts of a business, doesn’t have a chance, Hansen said. The Commerce Tax is expected to raise about $500 million to $600 million in Sandoval’s overall $1.1 billion proposal of new and extended taxes for the next two-year budget cycle.

“I will give you a very safe prediction: That Commerce Tax you are talking about, it’s dead,” Hansen said. “It is not going to get out of the Assembly.

In the end, Hansen predicts the other parts of Sandoval’s tax plan will probably be approved, except for the Commerce Tax.

“So what you’ll end up seeing is that you will see sunset taxes (approved), you’ll see some modifications on the Modified Business Tax (payroll tax), some modifications on the Business License Fee and maybe some other minor adjustments,” Hansen said. “But you are going to see a budget with a whole lot less than what the governor original proposed.”

So we have a $400 million gap between Hansen’s budget prediction and what state lawmakers already approved. If it comes down to making $400 million in cuts to balance the budget, that could get as scary as Freddie Kreuger with a chain saw.

“You are going to have to go back in and reopen some of those budgets, change the allocations to make them match the actual revenue streams and that hasn’t been done,” Hansen said.

HANSEN IS NOT THE ONLY person talking about a special session. It was a topic of discussion Thursday on the Nevada Newsmakers TV show.

Mary Lau, head of the influential Retail Association of Nevada, won’t blame lawmakers if there’s a special session. She blames some members of Nevada’s gaming industry, who have pushed for the gross receipts component of Sandoval’s “Commerce Tax.”

“The legislators are not the ones holding up this process, right now,” Lau said on the statewide TV show. “It is the proponents of the gross receipts tax — that they are (trying to) morph into anything palatable. And if we go overtime, it is not the fault of the legislators this time. It is the people pushing this ‘My way or the highway’ stuff.”

Lau’s comments reopen the historical divide on taxes between the various business associations (trucking, manufacturing, retail) and those in Nevada’s gaming industry.

Many businesses organizations, like Lau’s RAN or the Nevada Franchise Auto Dealers Association, do not like any form of a gross receipts tax. They prefer a tax on payroll.

Yet those in the gaming industry feel some sort of a gross receipts tax is the only way for those business entities to pay their fair share and give Nevada a true broad-based business tax.

“Gaming, they have wanted this for a long time,” Lau said of the gross receipts tax. “But it is not really the gamers themselves…You’ve got MGM and Caesars, which is the bankrupt one. They are really the one who are proponents of this.”

THE RETAIL ASSOCIATION conducts polls that are considered very credible. Included in RAN’s May polling was this question:

“The governor’s budget includes education reforms that will require the Legislature to increase taxes by a record $1.2 billion. Thinking about the 2016 election, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a legislator who supported the governor’s proposed budget increase for education?”

Thirty-five percent said they would be more likely to vote for someone who supported Sandoval’s budget and 31 percent said they would be less likely.

Younger voters were more inclined to be on Sandoval’s side. In the 18-to-34 age group, 44 percent said they would be more likely to vote for lawmakers who supported the budget and 20 percent said they were less likely.

‘Pop-Tarts gun bill’ lands in Nevada Legislature, prompts Twitter jokes

poptartgun_smallBy Kyle Roerink (contact)

Why would gun control advocates see Nevada as a source of hope?

Students who play with miniature toy guns, shoot with hand gestures and fashion make-believe weapons out of such items as blocks and pastries may receive protection in the classroom thanks to a Republican-proposed bill in the Legislature.

Assembly Bill 21 would prohibit a school from disciplining students for creating guns from building blocks or foods, as well as drawing guns or using hand gestures to simulate firing a weapon. In addition, it would allow students to play with toy guns less than 2 inches long, express opinions about firearms and wear clothing containing images of weapons without fear of retribution.

The proposal has become informally known as the Pop-Tarts gun bill, referring to a highly publicized suspension of a Maryland second-grader in 2013 after the student nibbled one of the toaster pastries into the shape of a gun. Proponents say the protections are necessary to prevent government overreach on gun control, but the bill has drawn derision from several lawmakers for being an overreaction to a smattering of poor decisions by inept school administrators in other states.

In poking fun of the bill in a tweet, Assemblyman Elliot Anderson focused on its confectionery provisions.

“I didn’t realize our pastry rights were being infringed upon,” he wrote.

Then, using a substitute for the word “gun,” he paraphrased a boot-camp chant from Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film “Full Metal Jacket” to continue his lampoon of the bill.

“This is my donut. There are many like it, but this one is mine,” Anderson wrote.

“School districts are more than capable of dealing with this,” Anderson wrote. “We have more pressing issues than one overreaction in [Maryland].”

The issue is red meat for conservatives nationwide. With mixed success, similar bills have appeared in Maryland, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma in recent years. Florida passed the law. Maryland didn’t.

The Nevada legislation could protect students from Clark County School District’s regulations governing antisocial behavior. The district’s rules prohibit on school grounds simulated weapons, which include toys and any nonfunctional item bearing resemblance to firearms mentioned in the district’s weapons policy.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Wheeler and a cohort of Republican lawmakers championing other firearm-related bills this session, is headed to the Assembly’s education committee.

Assemblyman Brent Jones, R-Las Vegas, is a co-sponsor of the legislation. He says anti-gun advocates are punishing schoolchildren with strict school policies.

“Sometimes people get so zealous to try to prevent the Second Amendment or go against it that they don’t use common sense,” he said. “Then their efforts trickle down to mimicry: Pop-Tarts, pieces of paper, drawings. We need to get back to common sense principles for the people who are ideologically against guns who use this to punish kids.”

Firearms will continue to be a divisive, incendiary topic this session. A school gun debate spawned a 90-minute, rambling discourse in the Assembly’s judiciary committee on Feb. 4, the session’s third day.

Republican lawmakers were advocating for gun owners wanting to lock their weapons in cars on school grounds — a current misdemeanor. In 2013, police arrested an 18-year-old student from Cheyenne High School who had a .32-caliber gun in his car. Assembly Speaker John Hambrick is sponsoring the bill.

Republicans also want to see laws legalizing concealed weapons on college campuses and blocking executive orders issued by the federal government. Another law would limit a local government’s ability to regulate the purchase and transfer of firearms.

Some lawmakers are showing their support with more than votes. At least nine lawmakers have advised the Legislative Counsel Bureau they will carry a firearm in the building during the session.

But Republicans aren’t alone in their efforts to enact gun laws. A bill is in the works to prohibit gun ownership for those convicted of domestic abuse.

The Legislature may also take up a provision that would require third-party sales of guns to require background checks. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Napster co-founder Sean Parker have helped to bankroll the effort in Nevada.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed the measure in 2013, but Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it. Nevadans for Background Checks, the Bloomberg-backed group, led an effort to pose the reform as a question on the 2016 ballot. The group received enough signatures for voters to decide in 2016. The Legislature has the option to pass the measure until the session’s 40th day.

With the Republican majority and Sandoval’s history, the measure is not likely to surface until it appears on the ballot in 2016.