The Nevada Legislature is just one month into its regular session, and the “Worst Bill of 2015” competition has been settled.
For a bill to run away with that designation so early, before all kinds of back-room abominations are born in Carson City, it must have an especially putrid combination of bad ideas. Contempt of the citizenry? Check. Increased costs to the public? Yup. Less accountability for government? Oh, yes.
Meet Senate Bill 28, which has its first hearing this afternoon before the Senate Government Affairs Committee. Brought on behalf of the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, SB28 attempts to make the release of public records so expensive that no one bothers asking for them.
Why should you care about huge new fees for public records? Because they’re your records. Governments, and government employees, are merely their caretakers. Public documents are the work product of your tax dollars. And the only way you can verify whether governments are functioning efficiently, ethically and within the limits of the law is to have access to those records. For those reasons, Nevada’s public records law deems all government documents open to public inspection unless they’re otherwise declared confidential. The law allows anyone to see government contracts, payroll records and even email messages between elected and appointed officials. If we can’t find out what government officials are doing — everything they’re doing — we invite waste, malfeasance, nepotism and corruption.
But public officials across all levels of government are hostile to openness and loathe responding to public records requests. They stall. They redact. They illegally label documents confidential. And they bemoan the labor required to dig out data that, sometimes, is embarrassing to them or the elected officials they answer to.
Enter the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, which has been working for many months on a plan to spare its members from all those annoying records requests. Under Nevada’s public records law, governments can charge a fee if a request requires an “extraordinary use” of personnel or resources. So SB28 defines “extraordinary use” as a threshold that’s absurdly common.
Under the bill, “extraordinary use” of a government’s personnel or technological resources totals more than 30 minutes of work or “requires the governmental entity to produce or copy more than 25 pages of records or, for a request for a record to be delivered electronically, the equivalent amount of electronic data that, if printed using a type size not greater than 12 characters per inch, would produce more than 25 pages of records, to comply with the request.”
So getting a printout of a readily available 30-page report, or having a public employee email a digital version of a 30-page report, constitutes an “extraordinary use” of personnel and equipment, even if it takes that employee just one minute to complete the task. And if a records request meets the “extraordinary use” standard, that government can charge you up to 50 cents per page — even if the pages are digital! Suddenly, getting that 30-page report costs $15.
Does the league understand that if documents are digital, there’s no paper?
Worse, if an exceptionally well-paid bureaucrat thinks the per-page fee didn’t adequately cover the cost of his time, under SB28, he can assess an additional fee to cover that cost.
If SB28 becomes law, perhaps government censors can use all their new public records fees to complete the walls they’ve always wanted built around their empires. Plus moats. With sharks. With laser beams attached to their heads. Or they could just stop collecting property taxes.
Of course, it’s not about the money. It’s about stopping records requests from ever being filed. Which brings up another outrageous flaw of SB28: Across the state, government agencies spend millions of dollars every year on public information officers. It’s their job to respond to records requests. And some of them are paid quite handsomely to do it. In fact, some of them are paid quite handsomely to not do it. Now the public is supposed to pay governments even more when there is no shortage of people on public payrolls tasked with responding to public records requests?
This isn’t about cheapskate, ink-stained journalists who don’t want to pay for government documents. According to the Sunshine in Government Initiative, just 6 percent of public records requests come from media organizations.
Our advice to the members of the Senate Government Affairs Committee: Come to today’s meeting armed with garlic, holy water and a crucifix or three. A few silver bullets and a torch wouldn’t hurt either. Take SB28 out back and return it to the underworld. Then introduce a bill that assesses a $10,000 fee on any government agency that illegally stalls or refuses to comply with a public records request, with the proceeds flowing to the state general fund. Our education funding crisis is solved! Or allow the people to charge government 50 cents, plus labor, for every page they have to submit to bureaucrats.
As for the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, its trophy for “Worst Bill of 2015” is available for pickup at the offices of the Review-Journal. It’s at the back of a bottom shelf of a seldom-used refrigerator of unknown ownership near the Opinion department. Wear gloves. And a mask.