Three years ago, the Nevada Tax Commission delivered a vicious slap to taxpayers by handing out the public's money behind closed doors. On Thursday, the Nevada Supreme Court swung back, striking a decisive blow for open government.
In a unanimous decision, the court crushed the commission's mealy mouthed argument that individual tax bills could be settled in secret upon request. The ruling voids the panel's 2005 vote to grant a $40 million refund to Southern California Edison. The decision was deliberated and conducted in closed session, purportedly to protect confidential information.
Nevada's open meeting law clearly states that deliberations and votes be held in public. Moreover, the law has a default setting of openness -- when in doubt, conduct the public's business in public.
"This is a strong opinion from the Nevada Supreme Court that has shown it understands well the fundamental need for open government," said Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith.
A deputy attorney general assigned to the commission advised as much in 2005 and was ignored. Worse, when then-Attorney General George Chanos filed an open meeting law complaint, the commission was allowed to hire outside counsel, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $500,000, to fight the complaint and keep the public in the dark about the board's machinations.
Secrecy and taxation don't mix. If votes in secret were allowed to continue, how could those who faithfully meet their obligations to government trust that members of the Tax Commission weren't handing out rebates of said revenues to friends and family?
We applaud the high court for issuing a clear ruling on such an important case.
If there were any justice in this world, the members of the Tax Commission who voted to fight the attorney general's complaint should have to pay the public restitution for every dime in legal fees they rang up at taxpayer expense. Nevada's open meeting law isn't brimming with legal gobbledygook -- it's among the easiest statutes to read and understand.
The public's business must be conducted in public.