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Budget negotiations

There’s much to like about the prospect of legislative leaders entering budget negotiations with Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval right now, a full month before the Republican releases his two-year spending plan, and seven weeks before the 2011 Legislature convenes in Carson City.

True, those negotiations would likely take place behind closed doors and not debated in public hearings. Lawmakers infamously exempted themselves from Nevada’s open meeting law, which ensures citizens otherwise have proper notice and access to government decision-making.

However, the Legislature’s modus operandi has been to hold these secret talks in the final weeks, if not days, of each regular session. That leaves taxpaying voters almost no time to examine any budget agreement or form organized support or opposition. They’re shut out of the deliberative process, then given no meaningful opportunity to respond.

If Mr. Sandoval and the leaders of the Legislature’s Democratic majorities can agree to support most of the framework for the coming biennium’s general fund — perhaps including the education budget and needed public school reforms — then Nevadans would have months, not hours, to study and debate its merits and shortcomings. There would be plenty of time to gauge the public’s wishes and make changes.

That would be a significant improvement over what typically happens in Carson City every odd-numbered year.

“I’m ready, willing and able to work with the governor to work through that budget,” said Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.

Mr. Sandoval, through his spokeswoman, said he has no problem meeting with Mr. Oceguera, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, and Republican minority leaders before he releases his budget, the normal starting point for spending negotiations.

“I don’t want to wait and see what the governor proposes and then have a battle over that during the session,” Mr. Oceguera said.

No one should expect Mr. Sandoval and Democrats to emerge from any pre-session talks arm in arm. Democrats want some tax increases, and Mr. Sandoval will staunchly oppose them. Mr. Oceguera says “everything should be on the table, even a broad-based business tax.”

Certainly, let’s start that debate right now – it’s far better for it to begin in January than June. And let’s conduct as much of it as possible in front of the taxpaying public.

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