No one can compete with that kind of money

This year’s campaign has brought to the fore something troubling. It’s something that’s been experienced by other states, particularly California, but it’s in play in Nevada in particularly virulent form.

Initiative and referendum petitions were one of the Progressive Era’s remedies to the deep rot and corruption of the Gilded Age. They allowed everyday citizens to go around their leaders and enact laws directly. Unfortunately, no income threshold exists barring its use to the wealthy.

Nevada adopted the initiative and referendum in 1904, but it was rarely used until recently.

Meanwhile, its profligate use by corporate interests and the wealthy in California has made the initiative petition process in that state a national joke.

While that was happening, Nevada effectively limited its use to special interests. The business community and state legislators pushed through restrictions on the use of initiatives in 1958, 1962, 1972 and 1976. It now takes big money to get measures on the ballot. Here, the initiative is now controlled by those it was intended to control.

Nothing showed that as much as this year. As this is written, we do not know the outcome of the ballot measures, but we do know they were mostly useless this year. Four different billionaires—Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett, Tom Steyer and Henry Nicholas III—used their money to work their will. Because of them, three ballot measures that the state did not need, did not want and would have been better off without went onto the ballot. Then, they were followed by a deluge of money. In the case of Question 3, Godzilla and Mothra battled each other, the public forced to do something with the unwanted choice the two monsters imposed on us.

In Steyer’s case, he used his money to toy with something the state was already doing.

Nicholas took his one-size-fits-all measure to state after state to replace their locally-tailored laws with his version of the same thing, wreaking havoc in some cases.

Their money swamped the locals, who had no way of being heard over their expensive megaphones, who had to react to these in-our-faces loudmouths who played with the instruments of democracy like big toddlers.

The rich are with us always, but there needs to be some way of preventing them from employing their wealth to make life easier for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. A carefully considered legislative evolution of utility law would have been better than either Questions 3 or 6.

Watergate led to campaign finance “reforms” that gave us the system we have today, in which campaign contributions and bribes are difficult to distinguish from one another. The wonderful instruments of direct democracy adopted in the early 20th century have also degenerated into means of corruption and public-be-damned tools of big money. Initiatives may have outlived their usefulness.

When the public got use of initiatives and referenda, they used them with restraint. Adelson and his cronies do not have that sense of discipline. The Nevada Legislature needs to take a close look at the process of direct democracy and, if it cannot bring some sense to it, consider taking it away from the big kids.

Stop them before they initiate again.