a service of the Nevada Policy Research Institute

Issues

Lawmakers seek to block initiative petitions

Would essentially shut off avenues of redress

By Steven Miller
Business Nevada

“We don’t want to become another California,” is the cliché of the moment at the Nevada Legislature.

It’s the explanation regularly offered by lawmakers for the numerous draft bills they’re sending to each other that would hobble and obstruct the 100-year-old initiative and referendum process in Nevada. And that's a process that the Nevada business community may well need, if it is going to protect itself from recent and future tax increases.

Right now, lawmakers are only adding fuel to the political fire—demonstrating not only that they’re out of touch and not only that they don’t want to listen to voters, but that a good number of them actually want to gag voters—by effectively ending Nevadans’ right of petition and redress.

Paradoxically, it was this kind of recalcitrance among careerist California lawmakers that led that state’s voters to give up on the union-dominated California Legislature and seek reform through the initiative and referendum process.

Proposition 13 is a perfect example. For the better part of 10 years, Golden state taxpayers had pled with state and local governments for relief and reform. But government at each level had become the wholly owned property of government-employee unions. Thus, after years and years of dithering and political fakery, California taxpayers finally had had enough. First they passed Prop 13, and then, at the next general election, they passed the Jarvis-Gann initiative, which imposed important constitutional spending controls on state lawmakers.

All the while, of course, the California political class was crying gloom, doom and catastrophe. What the historical record shows, however, is that the Jarvis-Gann constraints—until breached by subterfuge in the early 1990s—laid the groundwork for over a decade of sound finance and economic progress for the state of California.

Here in Nevada, voters face an increasingly similar situation, in the form of a runaway legislative majority. In 2003, despite overwhelming opposition in the polls, and despite a massive outcry of protest from Nevada voters coming in to the Legislature over phone, fax and e-mail lines, the 2003 Legislature chose to shove massive and completely unneeded tax increases down the throats of Nevada business people and working folks.

This session, the same callous klatch of careerist Nevada pols did it again. Notwithstanding the record windfall of both sales and property tax revenues overflowing state and local treasuries, they took advantage of the tax-burden crisis facing homeowners to introduce and impose a discriminatory and unconstitutional split-role property tax on Nevada businesses.

Now, like pirates who take up the gangplank after they’ve rushed aboard and hijacked a ship, some of these too-long-in-the-legislature types are out to effectively disenfranchise their fellow citizens before redress can be accomplished through the initiative process. While some of the bills seek to make initiatives and ballot questions easier for voters to understand, a surprisingly large number are clearly designed to seriously sabotage the right of petition in Nevada—a state with some of the nation’s highest hurdles already.

For example, Las Vegas Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani is not only working to get voter-imposed term limits repealed (See this week's NPRI commentary, “High Anxiety”), but she has introduced two different proposed constitutional amendments to make it harder for voters to circulate and qualify petitions—Assembly Joint Resolution 5 and Assembly Bill 497.

AJR 5 would double the number of voters required to qualify a constitutional amendment question, raising it from the current 10 percent of the last election’s turnout to 20 percent. A similar provision would require 15 percent of the last election’s turnout to place a statute-change measure on the ballot.

No ballot measure has ever been qualified for the ballot in Nevada with the level of numbers that Giunchigliani would require. Only extremely wealthy groups and individuals would have a chance.

Giunchigliani also proposes a rule where, if petition-originating ballot measure fails in the general election by 55 percent, no “substantially similar” measure—as determined, no doubt, by an expensive legal fight—could be on the next general election ballot.

“That seems like a very odd prohibition,” said Lucille Lusk of the grassroots organization Nevada Concerned Citizens, to lawmakers yesterday. “If a candidate ran for office and lost by 55 percent, would we say that candidate can’t run the next time?”

Observed Lusk, testifying before the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee: “There are some very significant free speech and right-to-petition your government issues here.”

In Assembly Bill 497, Giunchigliani seeks to raise other hurdles to petitioners. Currently Nevada law says that “Any five registered voters of the county may commence initiative or referendum proceedings by filing with the county clerk an affidavit stating they will constitute the petitioners’ committee and be responsible for circulating the petition and filing it in proper form…” Giunchigliani would double that condition, requiring 10.

“What if that county’s Esmeralda? What if that county’s Eureka?” asked Eagle Forum’s Janine Hansen, before the Senate committee. “Maybe they can’t come up with 10 people. No, it’s hard enough in a major county to come up with 10 people who are willing to put their names on the line to go forward on a petition.”

According to University of Southern California professor John Matsusaka, most legislative initiative “reform” efforts “are intended to limit initiatives. That’s because legislators don’t like people making the decisions. They don’t like the initiative process, so they tend to limit it.”

Matsusaka is president of USC’s Initiative & Referendum Institute. He says “the reason initiatives have gained popularity since the mid-1990s has to do with the increased amount of information voters can access about government through the Internet, cable television and satellite connections.

“People aren’t happy with their legislatures, and they’re exposed to more information,” Matsusaka said. “They know more about what is going on.

“Fifty years ago a regular person didn’t know what government did. Today a lot of people say they know as much as the lawmakers, especially when it comes to broad issues like the minimum wage. So people are now saying, ‘Let us decide on the laws.’”

Former state senator Helen Foley is an example. She represents a coalition of health care organizations, including the Clark County Health District, that supports a proposed 2006 initiative—the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act—that would prohibit smoking in most public places.

“This initiative comes from frustration with the Legislature,” says Foley. “The Legislature has dealt with second-hand smoke for more than a decade but we still have among the laxest laws on second-hand smoke in the nation. We still have smoking in grocery stores and restaurants and convenience stores.”