Left, right and center agree: Open up public records!

Would you believe there’s a bill in the Nevada Legislature upon which left and right totally agree?

A bill introduced by a liberal state senator that nonetheless attracted a trio of Republican votes on the floor? A bill that’s supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the media and the Nevada Policy Research Institute? A bill that unions and the Independent American Party of Nevada can both support?

A bill on which conservative activist Janine Hansen and I can both see eye-to-eye?

The legislation is Senate Bill 74, a measure by state Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, to make public records more accessible for everybody and to reduce the outrageous $1-per-page copying fee that some government agencies charge for documents.

The bill passed the state Senate 14-7 last month, with Republicans Mark Hutchison and Scott Hammond, both R-Las Vegas, and Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, joining all the chamber’s Democrats. It’s now in the Assembly’s Government Affairs Committee, with a deadline of next Friday to pass.

And pass it should, although there’s still one significant flaw: The copying fee in the bill is reduced from $1 to 50 cents per page, still much higher than Segerblom’s original suggestion of 10 cents a page.

Before you say that’s an issue only of concern to the media, think again: Activists for causes as diverse as senior rights and public employee accountability testified that their efforts to examine government agencies are hindered by high copying fees for public records. And while most media organizations can front the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars that some investigative research requires, how is the average person supposed to afford that?

The media may not be interested in a local zoning dispute that nonetheless irks a retired senior citizen. But when that person shows up at the city clerk’s office, requesting copies of letters between the developer and the city to check for hints of corruption, he’s told he’ll have to shell out $300 for the paper. That’s a barrier to government accountability.

Opposed to SB 74 are government agencies, county clerks and others who say lowering the fee will reduce government revenues, and perhaps even cost taxpayers money. But copying fees were never intended to be a revenue stream for government; at most, state law contemplates it as a break-even proposition.

Besides, does it make sense that people getting salaries that you paid for with tax dollars want to charge you more to see records printed on paper you bought, stored in file cabinets and computers you paid for in offices that you and your fellow taxpayers were charged to build? Breaking even should be good enough, although the law says fees can increase in circumstances in which “an extraordinary use of personnel or resources is required.”

That’s probably why some media organizations are hit with huge bills just to look at public records. It’s not unheard of for reporters to be told that simply gathering the records requested under the public records law will require a fee stretching into five figures! Again, how far will a neighborhood activist get when facing a bill of that size?

And while we’d all like to think that government is simply covering its costs, we also know that steep bills are one way to avoid embarrassing disclosures.

It’s rare left and right agree so heartily on anything. But SB 74 is an example of the people speaking. Their government should listen: Pass SB 74, but reduce the per-page fee to 10 cents, as it was originally. Accountability has long-term payoffs, after all.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com, Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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