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EDITORIAL: Allow the public into the Legislative building

If casinos and movie theaters are open, Nevada’s Capitol should be, too.

The halls of the Legislative Building usually bustle during the biennial, four-month session. Not this year. The Legislature is locking out the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic. No lobbyists or concerned citizens allowed — although virtual input is accepted. Even the number of reporters is limited.

Last week, four lobbyists filed a federal lawsuit seeking access to the building and lawmakers. The named defendants include Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro.

“Defendants have continued to utilize the emergency directives to preclude lobbyist and the public from the state Capital to further their political agendas behind closed doors,” the lawsuit reads.

In addition, more than five dozen activist groups across the political spectrum sent a letter last week to lawmakers calling current options for citizen participation “grossly insufficient” and decrying limits on “the public’s ability to make their voices heard.” The missive points out that relying solely on virtual citizen input has greatly reduced public participation and transparency.

The Democratic majority in Carson City justifies the public freeze-out as necessary to ensure government “continuity” during the pandemic. But, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, several other states are holding open sessions, albeit with certain precautions. There have been no instances anywhere in the country where a state was thrown into chaos because its legislative body was unable to function because of a virus breakout.

The lobbyists and advocates are absolutely correct to be concerned that shutting out the public could potentially change the fate of legislation. It’s easy for lawmakers to ignore an email or phone call, especially when they’re receiving hundreds of them a day. It’s much harder for them to ignore a lobbyist or citizen who can confront them in the halls or testify at a hearing. Legislation can also move so quickly that it’s imperative to have someone on the ground defending your interests or pointing out unintended consequences.

This is why businesses, unions and other parties use lobbyists. It’s why private citizens make their way to Carson City to press their points. Having citizens involved directly in the process influences legislators and legislation and leads to better outcomes.

There’s also a constitutional requirement that “the doors of each House shall be kept open during its session.” It further states, “Meetings of all legislative committees must be open to the public.” Given that Zoom didn’t exist in 1864, the Nevada Constitution was obviously written to promote the importance of allowing members of the public to be physically present to observe the process.

“As well-intentioned as these orders and emergency directives are with respect to the general public’s health, safety and welfare,” attorney Sigal Chattah argues in the lawsuit, “they have come at a steep price with respect to the complete and utter restraint on Nevadans’ civil rights and liberties.”

Yes, lawmakers are attempting to use technology to make hearings somewhat accessible. Members of the public may offer public comment virtually as well. But that’s a poor substitute for hearing from someone face-to-face.

Brenda Erdoes, the director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal advice to the Legislature, has said the public would be allowed back in after lawmakers and staff are vaccinated. It seems likely that won’t happen until April — if at all — and that would be more than halfway through the 120-day session. That’s not acceptable.

Businesses and houses of worship throughout Nevada have figured out how to open successfully under certain restrictions and with limited capacity. The state’s virus metrics have improved dramatically over the past seven weeks and continue to get better. It’s time for lawmakers to recognize current conditions and to unlock the doors. Nevadans who will bear the brunt of legislation passed this session deserve to have their voices heard loudly and clearly.

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