Back to the ballot?

In an encouraging surge of citizen concern, Nevadans have been getting involved in trying to do something about the Nevada Legislature’s and the Public Utilities Commission’s new net metering policy.

Net metering is a program in which residential utility customers who install home electricity generating gear can sell unused power back to the local utility.

To recap, the Republican majority in the Nevada Legislature—hostile to alternative energy but unwilling to take the rap for undercutting it—enacted legislation empowering the PUC to do the job. The PUC accepted a package of supporting materials from monopoly utility NV Energy, read it, and swallowed it whole—even the parts that conflicted with the PUC’s own staff study.

The PUC then approved lower rates for NV Energy to pay for the power it buys from its customers and, for good measure, added a use fee that residents must pay for access to the power grid.

This is a significant setback to the net metering program approved by pre-2015 legislatures, and solar power firms responded by packing their bags and sending their workers packing. There have been protests involving thousands of people.

A new problem is the solution that a newly formed outfit, No Solar Tax PAC, has come up with—turning to the initiative/referendum laws.

These laws allow people to gather signatures to place measures on the ballot. It was designed during the Progressive era to allow the public to go around government and enact or approve laws directly. The reality, however, has been very different. Only rarely have initiatives or referenda been used by everyday folks, for the very good reason that gathering signatures is long, onerous, and expensive. Corporations and the wealthy, on the other hand, can afford to use these laws, and do. As David Broder wrote, “[T]his method of lawmaking has become the favored tool of millionaires and interest groups that use their wealth to achieve their own policy goals. … Exploiting the public’s disdain for politics and distrust of politicians, it is now the most uncontrolled and unexamined area of power politics. It has given the United States something that seems unthinkable—not a government of laws but laws without government.”

The opponents of the PUC’s action are not using an initiative petition, which proposes new law. They are using a referendum petition, which places an already existing law before the public for approval or disapproval. This is less risky but has its own hazards. For one thing, proponents better be darned sure they can beat the money of the utilities in an election—and remember that this particular utility is owned by Warren Buffett, third-wealthiest man in the world. Nevadans will recall that in 2014, a ballot measure to change the method of calculating mining taxes that was seen as a sure winner fell to gold corporation money.

For another thing, in Nevada once a law is approved by a vote of the people, that is the only way that section of law can ever be changed again. Any time the legislature tries to change the law to update or improve it, it will have to go to the public. So each time hereafter that the law is changed, the utility’s money could again have to be overcome.

Initiatives and referenda should be the last resort—and, in some cases, should never be a resort at all. It’s a lousy way of making law.