A little less sunlight

Most state agencies and commissions operate with general guidance from the Legislature, but with the ability to set their own courses under specific internal regulations or practices.

Because practice often appears to have the sanctity of state law, there are plenty of strange dances every two years when so-called “agency bills” make the rounds in the Legislative Building. Sometimes the bills seek to clean up existing statute. Others seek to permit something explicitly barred by state law. They are typically filled with so much stuff that lawmakers with an interest in a particular agency can slip in other measures.

Senate Bill 279 is a different animal. The bill, introduced by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on behalf of the Nevada State Contractors Board, would authorize the board to do something it is already doing.

The problem with the bill is that the board is asking the Legislature to bless a practice that has already landed the board in court.

SB279 takes current statute farther along a sunlit path. Right now, the board is specifically permitted to educate customers about contractors and to pass along a telephone number that can help the public protect itself from construction fraud.

The contractors board wants to take that a step further. The bill permits the board to collect and maintain records, reports and compilations of statistical data concerning investigations and complaints against contractors. And the bill would permit the board to disseminate a contractor’s five-year history to anyone who calls to check on the company’s background.

This would appear to be a great tool for consumers who often don’t know where to turn if they want to find out whether a contractor is reputable.

But a funny thing happened on way to getting legislative approval. On Friday, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted to amend the bill to remove the subsection that would have permitted data on a contractor’s history to be disseminated to the public. The new version of the bill would permit the board only to collect and maintain the records.

As a naive believer in the presumption that state records are open unless specifically kept closed, I figured, “No harm, no foul.” Even if the Legislature doesn’t vote to let the contractors board disseminate the information to the public, the board would still be permitted to do just that under the state’s public records law.

There’s only one problem with this theory. Simply by striking the section in question, the committee established the legislative intent that such information should not be public. And by bringing its own bill to the Legislature, it would appear the contractors board has struck out.

Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Henderson, who has a day job as president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said he didn’t like that section of the bill because the information compiled by the board could be used to target individual contractors.

“The board already has the power to license contractors, so if there’s a problem, they can take action,” Hardy said in a recent interview. “This could really be used as a tool to harm the competition.”

Hardy didn’t make the motion to amend the bill, however. Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, who is something of a steward of boards and commissions, made the motion to achieve the goal Hardy previously articulated.

Hardy said keeping the permissive language in the bill would have created a system that could easily be manipulated, if not abused. A complaint campaign could be launched against an individual contractor to drive up the number of investigations, the argument goes. Then, if a consumer who is considering hiring a contractor was given a report listing 50 pending investigations, it’s a sure bet the contractor wouldn’t get the job.

I certainly wouldn’t hire a company like that.

The original bill appears to have been sought because the contractors board has been sued by Renaissance Pools and Spas Inc. specifically for disseminating information to the public. A trial is pending in District Court.

In theory, the board is trying to get the Legislature to specifically authorize an action the board got sued for taking.

Even if the original bill was an end-run around a lawsuit, at least it came down on the side of openness. But without the language stricken by the committee, there really is no point to the measure.

— — —

On a recent Reno radio program, Gov. Jim Gibbons tried to deflect my criticism of him, telling KKOH-AM host Bill Manders: “She’s got a bee in her bonnet.”

That would be true if only I were buzzing about the same thing over and over.

And if I owned a bonnet.

Obviously the governor can’t understand that each day seems to bring a new and worthy criticism of his administration.

He should take heart.

My column runs only three days a week.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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