In Idaho, an “ad hoc working group” of legislators came under fire for meeting behind closed doors to discuss tax policy. According to a September 27 news story, the group has been meeting all summer, but is not listed as one of the official legislative interim committees or task forces. Those groups must hold open public meetings. The ad hoc group met on September 17, but the only notice given was a sign on the meeting door.
When news of this broke in Idaho, voters were upset, and rightly so. While members of the ad hoc group may not have intended the meetings to be secret, in effect they were. Other legislative committees’ meetings are webcast so those not in Boise can view them. The ad hoc group’s meetings were not, and even notice of the meeting was decidedly lacking.
The ad hoc group has pledged that it will adhere to the open meetings law and conduct its proceedings more openly. Under the state’s open meetings law:
All meetings of any standing, special or select committee of either house of the legislature of the state of Idaho shall be open to the public at all times, except in extraordinary circumstances as provided specifically in the rules of procedure in either house, and any person may attend any meeting of a standing, special or select committee, but may participate in the committee only with the approval of the committee itself.
Legislative transparency is critical. Proposals should be made available to the public, and a dialogue should be held with affected taxpayers. A collaborative process between lawmakers and affected taxpayers can produce better legislation that requires less revision and fewer interpretive regulations. Yet, it can be difficult to convince state lawmakers of this.
Sometimes legislation is created quickly and in quasi-secrecy with legislators, their aides, and revenue officials being asked for their opinions, but they lack adequate information about the effect of specific legislation or time to analyze related issues. One example was New York’s “three men in a room” process, in which Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver negotiated major budget and tax deals in private, released details only after they got an agreement, and then rushed massive packages through the legislative process. Lawmakers complained that they lacked time to look at and debate the provisions, but they also wondered why New Yorkers vote for representatives when three men in a room are making the important tax and budget decisions.
The desire to enact legislation must be tempered with the need for an open legislative process. When tax legislation is enacted, those who wrote it, those who will enforce it, and those who will be affected by it should all understand what the legislation was designed to do. When that happens, revenue officials will benefit because fewer interpretive regulations will have to be issued and fewer rulings will be requested; taxpayers will benefit from increased certainty. A transparent legislative process improves a revenue department's efficiency in administering the tax system, increases taxpayer and tax practitioner certainty, and reduces the likelihood that questions will turn into full-fledged controversies.