Taxes and sunshine

On Tuesday, after three years of senseless, costly legal wrangling, the Nevada Tax Commission will do what it should have done in 2005: hold a public hearing on a $40 million refund for utility Southern California Edison.

You’ll recall that three years ago, the commission voted in secret to award the refund of sales and use taxes despite advice from the attorney general’s office that doing so violated Nevada’s open meeting law.

It was a slam-dunk no-brainer. State law clearly requires that the public’s business must be conducted in public. And no government function demands transparency more than taxation. If a group of political appointees can hand out public money from the shadows, how can property owners and businesses trust that their tax payments aren’t being wasted?

But rather than do the right thing, tax commissioners mounted their high horses and declared themselves exempt from the open meeting law. They deliberated and approved the refund in secret and spent millions of taxpayer dollars on legal fees defending their desire to operate behind closed doors.

This year, the Nevada Supreme Court ended the dispute by siding with the attorney general’s office, declaring the Tax Commission in violation of the open meeting law, voiding the refund vote and ordering a new hearing — in the open. The commission can receive confidential or proprietary information behind closed doors, the court ruled, but the commission’s evaluations, deliberations and votes must be conducted in open session.

If the utility decides against filing a legal brief in the matter, the commission could vote on the refund Tuesday. Only this time, the refund will be much bigger — $70 million because of interest.

What’s worse, however, is that no one will be held accountable for this waste of taxpayer money. No commission members will lose their appointments, and no staff members will be fired or have their wages garnished to cover the additional costs.

And the board will find that — gasp! — their business will not be affected in the slightest by leaving the doors open to the public. The state government will not collapse. The sky will not fall.

So perhaps the Tax Commission will learn, once and for all, that there is no substitute for — and no legal escape from — the requirements of openness.

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