As the legislative session enters its final stretch, lawmakers increasingly spend hours behind closed doors, negotiating the biggest decisions about the state's financial future in meetings of the so-called "core group."
It's a long-standing legislative practice: A group of about a dozen leaders from both houses and both parties gathers to hash out details of the budget they will later approve in open hearings.
On Monday, for example, a joint committee of the Assembly and state Senate met in public to take up the issue of state worker salaries, then quickly went into recess.
Then the core group met. Then there were meetings, also closed, of the two houses' partisan caucuses. Afternoon hearings were canceled, and the core group gathered again for hours.
Shortly after 5 p.m., the meeting broke up. Journalists waiting outside were told they could find out what had been decided by following the lawmakers into the hearing room, where the committee meeting was called out of recess.
Cuts to school budgets equivalent to 4 percent of salaries, and 12 days of annual furlough for other state employees, quickly passed unanimously.
State Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, is the longest-serving legislator in state history at 37 years.
"As far back as I can remember," he said, these private meetings of an elite group have been how the final budget decisions are hashed out.
"It's essential to get the key people in both the taxation and finance committees together with the fiscal staff," he said. "You can't do it with 63 people," the total number of legislators. "You have to have that kind of input and give and take."
This group is not an official institution of the Legislature. It's an informal clique that meets whenever and wherever it pleases. As recently as the 1980s, the group would sometimes meet in a nearby bar.
The group is made up of the Democratic and Republican leaders of the two houses and a few other key legislators. As a group, they have been authorized to negotiate on behalf of their respective party caucuses, though they cannot guarantee every vote.
The core group isn't always the same, but it generally includes the following:
• State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas.
• Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.
• State Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
• Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno.
• State Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, co-chair, Finance Committee.
• State Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, chairman, Taxation Committee.
• Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
• Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, chairman, Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
• Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, majority whip.
• Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, chairwoman, Taxation Committee.
• Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Reno.
• Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka.
The proliferation of the group's meetings as the biggest and most sensitive budget decisions loom means most of a day may be spent with the public shut out of the Legislature's deliberations.
"Well, I guess you could say that," Raggio said to the charge that lawmakers are making the most important decisions behind closed doors. "But we don't really vote in there, you know. We try to develop a consensus and then we go back to our caucuses and see what kind of support there is. And then we come out into an open meeting and hopefully have the support we need to close the budget. We don't close budgets in a core session."
By the time the core group meets, Raggio said, special interests and the public have had plenty of chances to testify and have their voices heard. He said lawmakers need some privacy to take all that information and confer without being "bombarded by special interest groups."
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the meetings allow lawmakers to communicate about the status of the things they need to get done, such as, "Can you call the governor about submitting the education waiver?"
Buckley said the privacy of the meetings enables "talking in very frank terms about what needs to be done to produce a balanced budget on time, and exchanging needed information."
It's not true that lawmakers are engaging in backroom deals and horse-trading for pet proposals, Buckley said.
"I know that's the perception, but it's really not. Everybody in there wants to have a fair and balanced budget. Do they sometimes say, 'I also want to leave the session with this'? Sure, but it's a discussion of priorities."
Demands and ultimatums aren't welcome, she said.
The lobbyists, staffers and journalists who haunt the legislative building, not to mention the lawmakers themselves, have a pretty good idea of what a budget deal is going to look like: increases in payroll and sales taxes; revenue diverted from local governments; and perhaps sin taxes or eliminating mining reductions.
Legislative staffers were working through the weekend to calculate how much additional revenue will be needed to fund the spending lawmakers have approved. Knowledgeable estimates put it at more than $1 billion for the two-year budget period beginning July 1.
The package might be common knowledge to insiders, but not having a formal proposal allows lawmakers to avoid attacks for their plans, and to build consensus behind the scenes so that a proposal can be presented as a done deal.
One longtime lobbyist for business interests said the current legislative session is "the least public, but the best managed, of any I've seen."
The process galls proponents of open government.
Legislators might have had good intentions in exempting themselves from the state's open meeting law, "but they're abusing it," said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.
"Obviously, the most important discussions going on this session we're not getting to hear, and people are left hanging as to what's going on and what those discussions are. The whole future of the state is hanging on it, and the public is not being allowed to be part of the process."
Smith said the solution lies not in a policy change, but in lawmakers "just upholding their own ideals."
Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said every aspect of the budget has been examined in open meetings for three months.
Gansert said the private meetings are in the spirit of teamwork as legislators work together across party and regional lines to solve a crisis of historic proportions.
"We just get together and brainstorm. I think it's just a working group. And then we go out and talk about what we're going to do in public meetings."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.