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Nevada lawmakers hold policy hearings in private

Updated Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 | 12:33 p.m.

In a glaring example of how much of the public’s business gets heard in private, Democratic lawmakers met behind closed doors with lobbyists from both sides of the construction defect debate on Thursday night, receiving briefings on what could be a key policy issue in final negotiations affecting taxes and funding of the state budget.

Trial lawyers met with Senate Democrats first, while a construction lobbyist met with Assembly Democrats. After about half an hour, the lobbyists switched sides.

The meetings were described by participants as general policy briefings by lobbyists, where lawmakers - many new to the issue - could ask questions. Construction industry representatives circulated a copy of a bill passed by the Democratically controlled Senate in 2009, which will be the base for the Republican push this session.

Generally, such briefings are held in public meetings with posted dates, times and locations so the public can participate.

In a brief interview, Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, would not explain why the policy briefing wasn’t done in a traditional public hearing.

Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said caucuses getting briefed by lobbyists was not unusual. “It’s to make sure, before committee hearings, members are somewhat familiar with a topic,” he said. “Members can ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking - it’s an information thing.”

The construction industry and Republicans have made reforming the system for handling complaints about residential construction defects a priority for the past four years. They argue the system is rigged as an automatic windfall for trial attorneys.

Advocates for the current system argue that the system works fine to protect homeowners living in faulty housing.

But while private meetings between lawmakers and lobbyists are common, de facto hearings with full membership of the caucuses are unusual. Democrats make up majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, but the Legislature exempts itself from the open meeting law Other government agencies in the state are required to meet in public when there’s a majority of members.

The private meetings were first reported by the Nevada Appeal.

Kirkpatrick also interrupted a contentious Assembly committee hearing on Secretary of State Ross Miller’s bill affecting public campaign reporting and disclosure laws so that Democrats could gather for their secret meeting.

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, paused the hearing around 5 p.m. and resumed a little after 6 p.m. to briefly say that the committee would reconvene next Thursday to continue the hearing on Miller’s bill.

Kirkpatrick, in a quick interview Friday morning, said the meeting was just educational.

"We were just getting some information."

Why not have a public hearing?

"Everybody in the building did it yesterday," she said, referring to a similar private meeting Republicans had with construction industry lobbyists.

Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said that earlier this week his caucus met with construction advocates. He said the trial attorney side did not request a meeting.

Senate Republicans have said that construction defect reform, which passed the Democratically controlled Senate in 2009 but died in the Assembly, is a top priority this session. It could be a condition for reform of the state’s tax structure.

But changes to the system in Nevada for resolving construction defects in houses have been largely opposed by the trial attorneys, a core constituency for many Democratic lawmakers.

A study released Thursday from UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research detailed the state of the housing market and noted obstacles to recovery in the housing market, including an excess supply of houses and the current construction defects law.

The study says lawsuits against builders have “skyrocketed” while homes sales have plummeted. The study also says the lawsuits and subsequent settlements have driven up insurance premiums, increasing home prices for consumers.

Revising the law would aid Nevada’s economic recovery, the study says.

It was prepared for the Southern Nevada Homebuilder’s Association.

Construction industry lobbyists spent Thursday shopping the UNLV study around to lawmakers in an effort to help build their case. The study essentially says the construction defect laws “cost jobs, drain economy and harm homeowners.”

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