Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Do the bulk of the Nevada Legislature's decisions happen in public committee meetings or on the legislative floor? Or do they happen in back rooms closed to the public, and even elected lawmakers?
If you have to ask those questions, you haven’t been to Carson City.
Elected leaders, though, apparently don’t like it thrown in their faces. Some Democratic senators appeared to take umbrage as a gaggle of business lobbyists met Wednesday in the Senate’s largest hearing room — no press, public or elected officials allowed.
Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, after he asked, was allowed inside to address the group, called the Business Lobbyist Group. (To be clear, no one is sure if the title should be capitalized.) And one source said Denis told them he expected an update on the group’s deliberations, which could be key in the developing tax debate taking place this session.
Here’s how it went down and why it sheds light on one hard-to-report aspect of closed-door negotiations on legislative policy, such as the margins tax.
After Nevada journalist Jon Ralston tweeted about the meeting Wednesday morning, Senate Democratic leaders, about to head into a floor session, peered into the room, bewildered and more than a bit peeved. Some of these lobbyists, after all, are the people who sometimes try to kill policies put forward by Democratic leaders, gathering together right under lawmakers’ noses to plot strategy.
Then, the Senate sergeant-at-arms peeked inside through the small window and asked a colleague whether they were allowed to be in there. The staff member wasn’t sure.
This is when Denis arrived. He asked lobbyist George Ross, whose clients include the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, whether he could come in with Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas. Ross told Denis he would ask Sam McMullen, a prominent business lobbyist and leader of the Business Lobbyist Group.
They ushered Denis and Kihuen in. But when this reporter tried to enter, McMullen said no.
“This is a private meeting,” he said.
“This is a public building,” the reporter said.
There was a collective intake of breath from the lobbyists.
“Close the door,” McMullen said.
Denis gave his speech, which was inaudible from outside the room. The lobbyists applauded at the end.
McMullen said there was nothing nefarious about this group of Nevada business lobbyists, which had been meeting in some form since the 1950s or 1960s.
“This is a communicating device to alert people to issues or share information on bills,” he said. “It sounds sinister, but it’s boring.”
He said the meeting is open “to anyone who shows up, as long as they’re a business representative.”
The Business Lobbyist Group meets on and off between sessions to discuss potential issues, sometimes by teleconference or videoconference. During sessions, they meet weekly, in the Legislative Building, reserving rooms through normal channels.
McMullen said there is no leader, though McMullen was the only one at the dais. He described himself as “the facilitator.”
The wide range of lobbyists — from gaming, mining, health care and other industries — sometimes come to a consensus on a particular bill or policy, he said.
There are only two rules. First, to attend, you have to be a business lobbyist. Second, things said there can’t be attributed to anyone, he said.
McMullen said on Wednesday that the teachers union margins-tax proposal was discussed.
“It wasn’t, ‘Yeah, (screw) that tax.’ It was, ‘What problems do you see with it?’ I even asked if anyone had arguments in favor of it,” he said.
While he downplayed the group’s collective clout, McMullen also said it was “the vehicle” the business community used in 2003 to cobble together a coalition to oppose the gross receipts tax. That tax, proposed by former Gov. Kenny Guinn and backed by the gaming and mining industries, was ultimately defeated.
This year, the business community is still working to come up with a strategy for dealing with the margins-tax initiative, which will appear on the 2014 ballot if the Legislature doesn’t enact it. Business lobbyists are talking about whether to put an alternative on the ballot to compete with the teachers tax or let it go on its own.
McMullen said it was too early to talk about alternatives to the teachers' margins tax.
He also added that if having a private meeting in a public building “ends up being a problem, we can take it over to a hotel.”
Denis said after he addressed the room that any private group could reserve a committee room not being used by legislators — he mentioned a PTA gathering scheduled for next week — though it was unclear whether a group could bar participants.
Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Rick Combs said, “As far as I can tell, we have never been asked before whether a meeting conducted in the building by a private entity could be closed to the public.”
He said he would discuss with legislative leadership whether a policy should be developed.