Just say no

A leading Nevada business group says the state is overdosing on direct democracy

At Lawlor Events Center, a paid signature gatherer collected autographs on an initiative petition.

At Lawlor Events Center, a paid signature gatherer collected autographs on an initiative petition.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Nevada’s oldest anti-tax group has thrown its prestige into efforts to curb government by initiative petition.

The Nevada Taxpayers Association, formed in 1922 by prominent businesspeople, said it found fault on technical grounds with three initiatives currently being circulated for signatures but that it also had a broader concern—overuse of the initiative process.

In a statement under the name of NTA president Fred Gibson, the group expressed concern about what it called “the California penchant for government by initiative moving east to Nevada. … [T]he right of initiative process that is available to the residents of the Silver State is a right that should be used judiciously.”

The group said there may be occasions when the initiative process is called for, but even then, proposed constitutional “language should be more in the form of policy statements than in the detail that would normally be associated with a statute.” Most of the initiative petitions now circulating would add language to the Nevada Constitution, not to the state’s statutes, so errors in them or unforeseen consequences would be more difficult to repair.

But longtime Nevada political activist Janine Hansen, who has used the initiative and, in fact, was once jailed for gathering signatures on a petition, says the group is out of line.

“The Nevada Taxpayers Association does not represent the people of Nevada. Look at their membership,” she said, referring to the mostly-business group. “That’s who they represent. They have rarely ever opposed tax increases—they just want to tinker with them.”

At the moment, there are six initiative petitions being circulated for signatures:

• Proposing to change a Nevada statute to make hemp legal again (for energy producing purposes), sponsored by Reno college student Kathryn Whitman. If its supporters gather 83,184 valid signatures by Nov. 14, the measure would go to the Legislature for enactment in 2007. If the lawmakers declined to enact it, it would go to the voters in 2008. It would not amend the state constitution.

• Proposing a Nevada version of California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13, sponsored by Assm. Sharron Angle of Washoe County. Nevadans defeated a similar 1980 measure. It would amend the constitution.

• Proposing mandatory physical education from kindergarten through the 12th grade. It would amend the constitution.

• Proposing protection for property owners against condemnation ("eminent domain") powers of government. This measure is a response to the 2005 Kelo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing local governments to condemn property not for public works but to accommodate business interests. (The Nevada Legislature hasn’t met since that decision came down.) It would amend the constitution.

• Proposing a ban on state government imposing functions on local governments without providing funding, sponsored by the Nevada Association of Counties. It would amend the constitution.

• Proposing limits on taxes and spending, sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Beers of Clark County, a candidate for governor. It would amend the constitution.

The NTA opposed the Angle, physical education, and eminent-domain petitions. It found the Angle measure poorly drafted and flawed with “unintended consequences.” It said in the eminent domain measure, the “complexity of eminent domain issues and the specificity of the language in this proposed amendment to the Constitution” was another prescription for unintended consequences. And of the physical education measure, NTA said, “Agreement that the initiative … is Ballot Box Budgeting was the comment most frequently received from board members.”

The concern of NTA—and many other observers—about using constitutional amendments to spell out detailed specifics on matters like property condemnation and school curriculum is illustrated neatly by the initiative petition now being circulated to change condemnation law.

Nevada’s founding fathers wrote the condemnation provisions in the state constitution with two sentences totaling 59 words. It provides broad guidelines for the Legislature to implement. However, the condemnation initiative petition now being circulated contains 10 times as many words—nearly 600—and deals with such specifics as award of lawyers’ fees and the publication of court decisions. It appears to be a statute, not constitutional language, but its sponsors used a constitutional initiative petition instead of a statutory initiative petition. The same can be said of the initiative dealing with physical education.

“You use initiatives very judiciously, and when you use them, you establish the policy statement,” says NTA executive director Carole Vilardo, referring to constitutional changes. “You don’t try dotting I’s and crossing T’s. That’s left to statute.”

She said the current constitutional initiative petitions don’t give future legislatures much policy guidance on how to implement them because they are not policy statements.

The Nevada Constitution and all its amendments now amount to 46,000 words. By comparison, the United States Constitution and all its amendments use 7,600 words.

Vilardo and Hansen are more or less in agreement on when the initiative should be used.

“When the Legislature continues to ignore the will of the people to stop raising taxes and to stop increasing the size and scope of government, the people have no choice but to use the initiative process,” said Hansen. “Initiatives most often are the result of a legislature that has failed to respond to the will of the people.”

“I think the level of urgency [comes] when there is an issue that keeps rearing its head in the negative, OK?” Vilardo said. “Let’s say multiple tax increases or tax increases which consistently give you more revenue than they were projected to. Or, on eminent domain [condemnation], where you see government keeps doing takings … and a group of people affected by this don’t get action by the Legislature. Then you have the initiative process, which allows you to put forth what you feel is necessary that has not been addressed.”

Five initiative or referendum measures are already qualified for Nevada’s 2006 ballot. Two are carryovers from the 2004 ballot in Nevada’s two-round voting process for constitutional amendments. They are a measure requiring that education be funded by the Nevada Legislature before any other funding is allocated (sponsored by U.S. House candidate Dawn Gibbons and governor candidate Jim Gibbons) and a measure setting a state minimum wage (sponsored by the Nevada AFL-CIO).

The other three resulted from petitions that first went to the Legislature for enactment but were defeated there. One of the three would make personal marijuana use legal. The other two deal with regulation of smoking. One prohibits smoking in many public buildings, such as restaurants, and is sponsored by groups like the American Lung Association. The other doesn’t do much of anything and is a ringer sponsored by the casino industry to confuse voters about anti-tobacco ballot measures.