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Transparency Questioned As Lawmakers Begin Session Behind Closed Doors

A sign directing to a COVID-19 testing area.
David Calvert
The Nevada Independent
The entrance to the COVID-19 testing area inside the legislative parking garage on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

Normally, a new legislative session is cause for celebration. Families and spouses crowd the floors as they watch their lawmaker take the oath of office. Halls are filled with the excited buzz of lawmakers, lobbyists, press and members of the public chatting and catching up. But this year, Nevada's 81st Legislative Session has moved mostly online. That's raised questions about transparency. KUNR's Paul Boger has this report.

This year, the legislative building is far more quiet than usual.

Citing pandemic-related safety concerns, Nevada lawmakers have closed the session to the public for the time being. So, lawmakers have moved a large chunk of the session online, including all committee meetings and bill hearings.

“We've got to keep, not only members safe, but we gotta keep our staff safe, said Speaker of the Assembly Jason Frierson of Las Vegas during a recent press conference. “If our staff start to go down and have to quarantine, we can't do the people's work.”

This is only the second time lawmakers will be allowed to conduct business virtually. The first was last summer when lawmakers were able to participate from their hotel rooms in Carson City. This time they’re required to be in the legislative building.

Some lawmakers are not convinced the move is a good idea.

“I, for one, believe that we need to be in the committee rooms because you get distracted,” said Minority Leader Dr. Robin Titus, the top Republican in the Assembly. “You're not in the committee room and what the bills might be and what the hearing might be. And also, we always struggle with having meaningful testimony during the committees. Not being able to have meaningful input on these committees with the bills is going to be the challenge.”

Another notable change is the lack of people. The only folks allowed inside are lawmakers, staff and a handful of credentialed press, leaving many interested parties in the cold. Both professional and unpaid lobbyists are currently barred from physically entering the building and may potentially be allowed in only if they have an appointment. That’s left many worried about transparency — namely, who gets a meeting, and can ordinary residents connect with their lawmakers effectively.

“What they do with this legislature can affect us for years, for generations, for decades. And we need to be a part of that,” said Janine Hansen of Elko.

A regular candidate for office in Nevada and a noted member of the Independent American Party — a small, far-right political group — [Hansen] also spends her time as a citizen lobbyist.

“I mean, it makes such a difference to actually be able to be there,” said Hansen. “You can go up and talk to somebody as they walk down the hall. You can see the nuances that go on in the committee, whether someone is actually there. I mean, it's very, very difficult to participate in the process virtually. It just doesn't work.”

There are others, though, who argue transitioning to virtual hearings will increase participation and transparency — especially for residents of Southern Nevada.

“You have to either ride a bus for eight hours overnight or get on an airplane,” said Stacey Shinn with the State Innovation Exchange — a group that helps lawmakers develop and write progressive legislation. “So my hope is that the virtual facet is going to give more access to more people that haven't necessarily had it in the past.”

And that's what lawmakers are hoping for as well. Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez of Las Vegas is one of more than a dozen freshman lawmakers. She says virtual meetings are nothing new this far into the pandemic.

“I don't find myself losing attention,” she said. “I think the work that we're entering in this session is very important, and so I put my phone on silent. I pay attention because there are things that are going to be very important that happen.”

Lawmakers are slated to take up a host of issues this year. First and foremost, they’re staring down the barrel of budget cuts while also trying to tackle business and unemployment issues created by the pandemic. There’s also legislation on the way meant to address climate change, along with criminal justice and election reform.

For Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson of Reno, it doesn’t matter whether lawmakers hold hearings in person or online, the goal is the same.

“We’re here to fight for good policy,” she said. “When it’s all said and done — rain, shine, pandemic or not — we are going to do good work and implement good policies for people.”

Benitez-Thompson went on to say leadership plans to eventually reopen the building to the public, hopefully in the next few months. In the meantime, the session will keep moving right along as lawmakers navigate the empty halls of the legislature.

KUNR's Jayden Perez adapted this story for the web.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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