Editorial: BLM cooperating with states on grouse protection

A greater sage grouse male struts for a female. (Pix by Jeannie Stafford for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This past Friday the Bureau of Land Management released its Record of Decisions on how to protect greater sage grouse across a number of Western states, including Nevada.

The BLM backed off Obama administration plans that would have hampered mining, ranching and oil and gas exploration, saying its goal now is to align BLM plans for managing sage grouse habitat with plans developed by each state.

The areas affected in Nevada include Battle Mountain, Carson City, Elko, Ely and Winnemucca.

“The State of Nevada thanks the Bureau of Land Management for incorporating our concerns and respecting the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat plan developed cooperatively by Nevada state agencies and local stakeholders,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in a statement conveyed by the BLM. “In particular, Nevada appreciates the BLM’s commitment to compensatory mitigation as an integral part of the success of Nevada’s habitat management plan. We look forward to working closely with the BLM Nevada Office and the Department of Interior leadership to ensure the revised habitat plans are fully successful.”

Compensatory mitigation would allow developers to pay for methods that reduce impact on sage grouse habitat rather than simply being barred from using the land.

In December, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, according to The Nevada Independent, issued an executive order telling the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to require energy and mining companies to offset the impacts of their activities on sage grouse habitat by using a conservation credit system.

The BLM had decided it did not have the authority to make such credit systems mandatory, but the new order supports each state’s plan and authority for compensated mitigation.

Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement, “The plan amendments adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensuring the viability of local communities across the West.”

Brian Steed, BLM deputy director for Policy and Programs, was quoted as saying,  “Since the very beginning of this effort, all partners have maintained the need to conserve the sage grouse and avoid the need to list the species as threatened or endangered. We also share a commitment to conservation that does not put the West’s communities at risk and which balances between regulation and access. We believe that the better outcomes for the species under these plans will demonstrate the value of coordinating federal and state authority.”

The BLM will monitor grouse populations and maintain “trigger” points that will require action of some sort. The land agency stated that in Nevada the state’s planned responses to triggering will follow the state’s strategy rather than automatically applying pre-determined response measures.

Of course, environmental groups forecast doom and gloom.

“This could drive the greater sage grouse to extinction and forever damage the American West,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “Trump and former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt are blatantly rigging the system to benefit oil and gas operators. This will spell disaster for the vanishing sage grouse and for hundreds of species that depend on unspoiled public land.”

Lest we forget, early explorers of Nevada in the 1820s and 1830s never mentioned seeing sage grouse — not Jedediah Smith, not John Work, not Zenas Leonard. Nor did Joe Meek, John Bidwell, John Fremont, Charles Preuss, Heinrich Lienhard and James Clyman.

Nor did the first wagon trains in the 1840s. Not until settlers brought in horses, cattle, oxen and sheep, which fertilized the soil and ground the vegetation into the ground, while also improving water sources, did the sage grouse population grow into the millions.

Human activity actually caused the birds to thrive. Fires and lack of predator control have caused the grouse population to dwindle somewhat.

Common sense and cooperation between the federal land agencies and the experts in each state can keep the grouse from returning to a more “natural” population level prior to the arrival of settlers.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

‘Find me candidates who believe in real conservative principles’?

One-note Root today offers his solution to the 2018 Republican election rout.

One can’t argue with his premise that Gov. Brian Sandoval did not live up to his election promises. Instead, he shepherded though the largest tax increase in state history to pay for the highest budget; pushed through the commerce tax on businesses; expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare; allowed illegals aliens to get driver’s licenses; and bailed on school choice.

But Root’s solution is:

Find me candidates who believe in real conservative principles and who know how to proudly and loudly sell that message, and I’ll show you a Nevada that is painted Republican red again. That’s a Christmas message of hope for the Nevada GOP.

Well, they don’t get any more conservative than Bob Beers, who lost the race for state treasurer to an unknown, much less-qualified Democrat. The same could be said for Ron Knecht, who lost his controller re-election bid, and Wes Duncan, who lost his bid for attorney general. And, yes, Adam Laxalt had said he would try to repeal the commerce tax and as attorney general defended conservative principles and values. He lost to a tax-loving Democrat. We’ll skip over tax-hiker Michael Roberson.

Root’s solution has already failed. What now, one-note Root?

Editorial: State budget could use some belt tightening

The members of the Nevada Economic Forum met earlier this month and came up with a forecast for how much the total state general fund revenues will be for the next two years.

The Economic Forum was created by lawmakers in 1993. It is responsible for providing forecasts of revenues for each upcoming biennial budget period. The figures are binding on the governor and the Legislature in crafting a budget, so they don’t wildly overestimate potential revenue and cause a budget crisis when funds come up short.

The forum members reported that the past two-year’s revenues turned out to be $8.244 billion and the coming two-year period should generate 7.2 percent more funds or $8.835 billion, after application of all applicable tax credits, of which there are a number.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Brain Sandoval has already drafted a budget for the next biennium, which will be handed over to incoming Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the majority Democratic lawmakers, who take office in January. Of course, they all appear to anticipate spending every last dime of that $591 million windfall even though current inflation is running only 2.5 percent.

Much of the anticipated money is being targeted for expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare and various education spending schemes.

After the Economic Forum issued its forecast, Sisolak gave a statement to the press saying, “I am encouraged by how the state is performing. I look forward to reviewing the final forecast released by the Economic Forum and creating a roadmap to implement the priorities that matter to Nevadans. I am committed to building a bright future for our state and that starts with building a budget that funds the initiatives that will get us there.”

May we be so brazen as to suggest that taxpayers might appreciate an “initiative” that lets them keep a bit more of their paychecks. Or at the very least pour more of that anticipated-but-not-guaranteed revenue into the rainy day savings account for that time in the future when the outlook is not so rosy, because everyone knows that once government spends a certain amount of money it expects to continue to do so in perpetuity.

For the record, from 2011 to 2017 the state general fund budget grew by 32.3 percent, while inflation amounted to 7.9 percent.

Though we know we are whistling in the Democratic wind, we also suggest that the burdensome commerce tax passed in 2015 as part of Sandoval’s $1.5 billion tax hike be repealed. The tax was imposed even though the voters in November 2014 rejected a commerce tax at the ballot box by 79 percent to 21 percent. The commerce tax is expected to generate only $445 million in the coming biennium and could be covered by that extra $591 million in the projection.

Every Nevada business must file a commerce tax form with the state, even if the business owes no tax. For many, compliance costs exceed the taxes owed. That is a hidden tax on the state economy and retards job growth.

Lawmakers should think about the burden on taxpayers as well as the beneficiaries of their customarily spendthrift ways.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Election analysis goes astray

Yes, the election was all about the unions turning out for Democrats in Clark County en masse. Yes, Trump overshadowed all the statewide Nevada races.

But can you believe the last graphs of the front page story in the morning paper?:

But many agree that to compete with Democrats, Republicans need to do better at being more positive and inclusive, with tighter focuses on more traditional fiscal conservative issues like job creation and wage growth as opposed to social issues.

That kind of messaging became the hallmark of outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s eight years in office, and Sandoval’s popularity with both parties remains high as he prepares to hand the office off to Sisolak.

(Republican political consultant Greg) Ferraro said Sandoval’s style should be emulated by Republicans if they want to match his political triumphs.

Sandoval was popular with both parties? The “Republican” governor who pushed through in 2015 the biggest tax hike in history, a tax hike that included a commerce tax, which had been rejected by 79 percent of voters just months earlier? We’re not sure how popular he was with his own party, much less Democrats.

Emulate Sandoval, who did not endorse his own party’s candidate for governor, probably because he had advocated repealing the commerce tax? Sandoval who was AWOL at most Republican functions?

Who are the many who agree? What social issues? The Republicans in the statewide races were almost exclusively about job creation and wage growth through fewer regulations and lower taxes.

Bottom line: It was all about the liberal union turnout in the urban areas. Republicans may have talked about avoiding Californication, but it is too late. It is here and now.

(Footnote: Recently the morning paper posted a breaking news story online on a Friday afternoon but did not get around to printing it until Monday. The story mentioned above appeared in print on the front page, but searches online turned up nothing. Right hand, meet the left hand. It showed up online just before 10 a.m.)

The late posted online version adds an additional paragraph:

“I think Republicans would be wise to look at the success of the Sandoval brand going forward, which was a message of inclusion, either bipartisan or nonpartisan or both, and practical not political,” Ferraro said. “One that appeals to Nevadans in a message of Nevada first.”

What the hell does that mean?

Newspaper column: This big piggy goes oink, oink, oink

The libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute has published this year’s edition of its popular “The Nevada Piggy Book” — a collection of anecdotes illustrating the tendencies of state and local governments to lavishly overspend our money on inefficient and even counterproductive endeavors.

The introduction reaches the dismal conclusion that waste is endemic to government. While you and I watch our spending closely, not so with bureaucracies. “In fact, when agencies blow through their budgets, odds actually increase that politicians, in years to follow, will award them ever larger sums of tax dollars!” NPRI relates.

Take for example the decision by the Nevada Department of Transportation to award a bid of $529,000 to construct federally-approved fencing along a 37-mile stretch of U.S. 95 north of Las Vegas to keep endangered Mojave Desert Tortoises from crossing the highway and too frequently meeting their demise beneath the wheels of speeding vehicles.

But when the project was completed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the fencing failed to meet federal standards — which called for the tortoise fencing to be at least two feet above the ground and one foot below. Some sections of the fence were no more than 8 inches above the ground and as little as 4 inches deep.

The 28-page Piggy Book reported, “Nevada taxpayers alone were forced to cover the $736,000 required to remove the existing, inadequate fencing and replace it with new fencing in line with federal regulations.”

But that’s just the beginning of this tale of waste and woe. NPRI relates that a 2017 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis said that “tortoises that haven’t adjusted to the fencing pace along them, and sometimes overheat and die.” So much for saving tortoises from becoming roadkill.

Fencing wasn’t the only problem.

It turns out, according to the Piggy Book, that a series of culverts under the highway — intended to be tortoise passages and costing $320,000 — had faulty drainage that resulted in, you guessed it, more tortoise deaths.

“Like the tortoise fencing, these culverts will also need to be reengineered and replaced,” NPRI recounts. “As of this writing, it is unclear how much all these repairs will cost, but it seems likely that state — not federal — taxpayers will be responsible for paying the bill.”

Then there is the issue of the state shelling out overtime to unionized prison correctional officers. It turns out overtime is not calculated the same way in government as in the private sector where one must work more than 40 hours to earn overtime pay.

For some government workers overtime is calculated using time “paid” instead of time worked. Paid leave — such as vacation or sick days — count toward overtime eligibility. “In other words, even if an employee took vacation time for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, they would still be eligible to receive overtime if they ended up working Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” NPRI explains.

For example, corrections officer Jimmy Jones received $117,551 in overtime pay on top of his $56,720 salary in one year, while corrections officer Stewart Boyer was paid $74,560 in overtime on top of his $33,496 base salary.

“In total, 19 state correctional officers received OT pay that exceeded their base salary, while 135 received OT pay that was at least 50 percent of their regular salary,” NPRI’s analysis found.

That’s just two examples.

“The examples in this book might be merely the tip of a government-spending iceberg in Nevada — but they are powerful reminders of how important it is for the public to see what, exactly, government is doing with all those never-ending tax increases,” the Piggy Book concludes. “Many of the very same government agencies that are routinely found to be wasting tax dollars also go to great lengths to keep the public in the dark when it comes to spending.”

NPRI describes itself as a non-partisan, free-market think tank that promotes public-policy ideas consistent with the principles of free enterprise, individual liberty and limited, accountable and constitutional government. If only the people we elect to represent us in Carson City and our local governing bodies would pay attention, we might have a little less waste and get to keep more of our money.

The Nevada Piggy Book can be found online at: https://www.npri.org.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Passage of Question 5 will do more harm than good

Question 5 — the Automatic Voter Registration Initiative — on the November ballot is a pointless and costly endeavor likely to do more harm than good.

The proposal would require the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to automatically send personal information to the registrar of voters so a person can be registered to vote when receiving a driver’s license or making a license change, unless the person affirmatively declines in writing.

It is pointless because the DMV already sends information to the registrar of voters if a person agrees. All Question 5 does is change the system from an “opt in” to an “opt out.” It is a distinction without a discernible difference.

The backers of the initiative argue this will make it more convenient to exercise the right to vote and even save money.

“Voting is a fundamental right,” the argument for passage reads. “It is our most important way to guarantee our rights and freedoms — and it’s a responsibility to be taken seriously by both the people and the government. Yet our outdated voter registration process makes it unnecessarily difficult for eligible Nevada citizens to have their voices heard and leaves our registration system vulnerable to errors. … It will reduce the risk of fraud and lower costs.”

In fact, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the initiative during the 2017 legislative session, saying, “it extinguishes a fundamental, individual choice — the right of eligible voters to decide for themselves whether they desire to apply to register to vote — forfeiting this basic decision to state government. … the core freedom of deciding whether one wishes to initiate voter registration belongs to the individual, not the government.”

His veto message also said the change “would create an unnecessary risk that people who are not qualified voters may unintentionally apply to vote, subjecting them to possible criminal prosecution, fines, and other legal action.”

As for lowering cost, the fiscal note for Question 5 says it would cost $221,000 to implement and more than $50,000 annually to maintain.

As for reducing errors, the California DMV, which has a similar automatic voter registration system, recently reported it sent 23,000 erroneous voter registrations.

The argument against passage of Question 5 points out, “The proposed ‘Opt Out’ system shifts the responsibility of registering to vote from the individual to the government. Nevada residents who do not want to be registered will have to affirmatively ‘Opt Out’ or have their names and addresses automatically added to voter rolls and become public information.”

It also notes there is no evidence this change would increase voter turnout.

There is no evidence this measure will accomplish anything other than increased opportunities for errors. We shouldn’t try to drag motorists kicking and screaming into the voting booth.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: School district tries to obliterate public records law

The Clark County School District has filed a legal action with the state Supreme Court that, if successful, could render the state’s strong public records law nearly meaningless and deprive the citizens in every jurisdiction in the state access to public records that enable them to keep an eye on the actions of public officials.

The brief filed earlier this month appeals a judge’s decision to award attorney fees and court costs to the Las Vegas newspaper after it prevailed in district court in its demand for public records about an investigation into a school trustee accused of discriminating against school district employees — clearly the sort of information to which voters should be privy. The school district’s brief itself calls the matter “of statewide public importance.”

The district takes the absurd position that the Nevada Public Records Act of 1993  which states, “The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law …” — is self-contradictory because what is clearly stated in one paragraph is negated three paragraphs later. 

In one section the law states, “If the requester prevails, the requester is entitled to recover his or her costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in the proceeding from the governmental entity whose officer has custody of the book or record.” This is to ensure that citizens are not driven into bankruptcy in fighting a public agency with endless access to taxpayer money and can be made whole in order to fight again another day. Once the court says something is a public record, it is a public record and should have been freely accessed all along, but for the intransigence of some usually nameless bureaucrat.

The district cites another section of law that reads, “A public officer or employee who acts in good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose information and the employer of the public officer or employee are immune from liability for damages, either to the requester or to the person whom the information concerns.”

Clearly this was intended to protect employees and employers from liability for such things as harm to public reputation or release of trade secrets. Who is to say what is good or bad faith?

The district brief repeatedly calls on the court to construe “legislative intent,” yet the very cites from legislative records clearly show the legislators intended to grant costs to public records requestors who prevail in court, and immunity from damages was another topic entirely.

The brief quotes from legislative minutes from May 3, 1993, describing comments by then Nevada Press Association Executive Director Ande Engleman, who was clearly not a legislator, answering a question from Assembly Subcommittee on Government Affairs Chairman Rick Bennett as to whether taxpayers should cover the costs of “frivolous” suits. 

The minutes show Engleman responding, “Court costs and attorneys’ fees were granted only when it was a denial of what was clearly a public record [bad faith]. Therefore, she did not think there would be frivolous lawsuits.” The district attorneys helpfully bold-faced and italicized and added the “bad faith” in brackets, even though her remarks indicated there would be no costs awarded if the suit failed.

The brief for some inexplicable reason failed to include lawmaker Bennett’s “legislative intent” in the very next paragraph, “If an agency head truly withheld a record which should have been public, Mr. Bennett said he hoped the court would penalize the agency in some way by making them pay the costs.” Now that is legislative intent.

The school system’s attorneys repeatedly argue lawmakers intended the “good faith” immunity clause to negate the clear language that attorney fees and court case are to be awarded if a record was wrongly withheld — an absurdity. 

Neither does the brief pay any heed to subcommittee minutes from four days later in which the panel voted to add the word “reasonable” to the costs and fees section of the law and then immediately segued into a discussion of immunity for “good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose” being “immune from liability for damage.”

Lawmakers clearly saw the two sections as not contradictory. Neither did District Court Judge Timothy Williams who determined there was no ambiguity between the two adjacent sections of the same law. Neither should the Nevada Supreme Court. 

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.