Editorial: Silly bill would create Public Lands Day

Some people have a really strange concept of “democracy,” and that says a lot about some of the people elected to the Nevada Legislature.

Also, if you thought an earlier proposal to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day as a silly waste of time and paper, wait till you take a gander at Senate Bill 413.

SB413 proposes to designate the last Saturday in September each year as Public Lands Day in Nevada and require the governor to issue a proclamation encouraging the observance of said Public Lands Day.

The resolution accompanying the change in law is a paean to Nevada’s wide open spaces largely controlled by federal bureaucracies headquartered in the Kremlin on the Potomac:

“WHEREAS, More than 80 percent of the public lands in this State are owned by the people of the United States and are managed and controlled by various federal agencies for the benefit of all persons living in the United States; and …

“WHEREAS, All public lands located in this State feature a diverse range of landscapes, deserted mining towns where riches were made and lost, lush oases which stand in sharp contrast to surrounding barren lands, isolated ranches that are sometimes the size of small countries and trees which are thousands of years old; and

“WHEREAS, The public lands in this State reflect many noble democratic ideals because they are open and accessible to all persons, regardless of whether those persons are rich or poor; and …”

Noble democratic ideals? Communal ownership of vast swaths of land lying fallow and largely unproductive is democratic? And it is actually closer to 85 or even 87 percent of Nevada that is federally controlled. Marxism is alive and well and roaming the halls of Carson City.

The resolution then goes on to oppose any effort to release even a single square foot of that communally owned land to the state or private ownership:

“WHEREAS, Efforts to transfer the federal public lands in this State from the people of the United States into state or private control are contrary to the democratic values of the United States and jeopardize activities such as hiking, camping, hunting, fishing and off-road pursuits; and …”

So, there would be no more recreational opportunities if the feds only controlled, say, 70 percent of the state?

Pay no heed to the fact that a report from the Nevada Public Land Management Task Force, which was created by the Nevada Legislature, found that the BLM loses 91 cents an acre on the land it controls, but in the four states that have public trust land revenues amounted to $28.59 per acre. The report estimated that Nevada could net $114 million by taking over just 4 million acres of the BLM’s 48 million acres. Taking over all 48 million acres could net the state more than $1.5 billion — nearly half the annual general fund budget.

It is striking that the sponsors of this praise for and observance of communal ownership are all urban Democrats, save one turncoat independent. Where would these lawmakers be living right now if the federal government had not sold off a few thousand acres of that federal public land over the past decades so those urban areas could grow, adding homes, schools, businesses, parks, roads? Now they want to close the door on those rural communities that would like to annex a few acres for homes and businesses, providing opportunities for their next generations.

When everybody owns something, nobody owns it, and it gets neglected.

This proposal should be deep-sixed, the sooner the better.

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.

Update: On Friday the state Senate approved a bill creating an Indigenous Peoples Day in August, but keeping Columbus Day intact.

Newspaper column: State makes some progress in challenging sage grouse rules

Greater sage grouse (BLM photo)

Nevada won a temporary reprieve from the Interior Department’s plans to enforce sweeping restrictions on land use as a means of protecting greater sage grouse habitat, but failed to convince a federal judge to put those plans on hold entirely.

In a recent opinion, Nevada federal Judge Miranda Du ruled Interior agencies erred in preparing environmental impact statements for 2.8 million acres of land primarily in Eureka and Humboldt counties and must prepare a supplemental statement, but she denied a request to issue an injunction that would have blocked the federal land agencies from implementing burdensome resource management plans. (Du opinion)

The suit was brought by the state of Nevada, nine counties, several mining companies and a ranch.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who filed the suit on behalf of the state, said of Du’s ruling, “The federal government’s greater sage-grouse land-use plan obstructs Nevada’s growth and development, and harms our ranchers, miners and recreation workers. The court’s decision demonstrates the importance of the state joining this lawsuit, which affords us the opportunity to represent Nevada’s interests in court and at the negotiating table. We are encouraged by the fact that the court accepted our argument that the greater sage-grouse plan was fatally flawed in one of its central respects — namely, the court’s finding that the sagebrush focal areas violated that National Environmental Policy Act. We will continue to study the opinion and evaluate next steps.”

In denying the sweeping injunction, Du fell back on an old Catch-22 that has foiled other challenges to federal public land policies, saying there has been no “final agency action” and therefore the legal challenge is not ripe. The problem with that is the agencies never take final action, because they deem every decision to be appealable and changeable at some point in the future even though their current enforcement is already hampering economic development.

In the past the order to rework the environmental impact paperwork would have been a futile gesture because the final outcome under the Obama administration would have ended in the same paperwork, but President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might make a difference. As a Montana congressman Zinke strongly opposed the Obama administration plan to protect the grouse without formally listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

At a 2015 hearing, he asked why “would Washington, the bureaucracy, given there are no sage grouse here … decide what is best for Montana or the western states, that have a deep, traditional concern for wildlife management?”

Just a month ago, Zinke told a gathering of Western ranchers that the Interior Department “hasn’t been the best neighbor,” adding that they would probably like changes he is planning for those sage grouse protection plans.

“We’re going to manage our properties just like you [ranchers] would manage your private lands,” Zinke said, according to published reports. “Washington, D.C., needs to understand that we work for the people, not the other way around.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service must rework their maps because they were severely flawed.

Judge Du noted, for example, that in Eureka County the agencies “incorrectly designated the town of Eureka, US Highway 50, State Route 278, County landfill, power lines, multiple subdivisions of homes, farms with alfalfa field and irrigations systems, and hay barns” as priority habitat management areas for grouse.

There is much at stake for Nevada and the other Western states facing land use restrictions for mining, grazing, oil and gas exploration, recreation and other beneficial uses.

In Humboldt, Judge Du noted that livestock grazing would be reduced by 25 percent. The county’s landfill also was labeled priority habitat.

The Interior’s sage grouse draft environmental impact statement for just Nevada and five other states issued in December estimated that its proposed restrictions would reduce economic output in Nevada each year by $373.5 million, cost $11.3 million in lost state and local tax revenue and reduce employment by 739 jobs every year for the next 20 years.

For the 20-year life of the land restrictions, the six states would lose $16 billion in economic output and 38,700 jobs, as well as $520 million in tax revenue.

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.

Walters goes in one day from millionaire winner to loser

Billy Walters arrives for court in New York (Bloomberg pix)

His winning streak is over.

As John L. Smith reports in a column for The Nevada Independent, Las Vegas sports bettor and golf course developer Billy Walters, having beaten several investigations and indictments, has been convicted in New York of insider trading.

As Smith relates, “He collected pliable politicians and malleable reporters like posies, and nearly always managed to get the best of it. Even law enforcement, which in the past three decades had suspected him of everything from illegal bookmaking to money laundering, could never seem to bust him out.” Until Friday, when a jury convicted him in an insider trading deal that netted him $43 million.

Smith has been keeping an eye on Walters for years and in 2011 got a chuckle and a newspaper column out of a “60 Minutes” swooning interview with the smooth-talking Kentucky-born gambler and huckster.

Of course, the columnist took the opportunity to tell the story that “60 Minutes”missed:

Walters was a founding member of the infamous and feared “Computer Group,” the breakthrough collective of gamblers, handicappers and investors who processed the day’s sports schedule at such a high level they consistently produced better odds than those on the wall of your local sports book. The Computer Group banked millions, and the bookies took a beating. The Computer Group spawned a generation of imitators, some of whom pounded the sports books to pieces.

But the FBI and Metro were watching, and indictments followed. A trial came later, and Computer Group lawyers mopped the floor with the feds. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office were so embarrassed they put gambling cases on the back burner of their list of prosecutorial priorities.

Walters & Co. seemed to have the opposite effect on Nevada gaming regulation. The sports book industry was so routed it sought protection against Walters from the Gaming Control Board. That led to big rule changes, but Walters managed to adjust.

One of my favorite Walters stories is the time he scored an uncanny, and statistically improbable, winning record at roulette at the Golden Nugget. Casino bosses were sure he had to be cheating. So they had the wheel analyzed by engineers, who found nothing wrong with it. And the legend of Billy Walters grew.

Some of Walters’ biggest scores have come in the chambers of local government. His golf course land proposals at the city and county were tailored like Sinatra’s suits to fit his needs. The fact the public didn’t get the best of it rarely crossed the minds of mesmerized members of the City Council and County Commission.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Daffy souls who hoped to see Walters embarrassed or exposed on television surely were disappointed. They should have known better.

Billy Walters always gets the best of it, and his “60 Minutes” valentine is just another example.

One of those tailored deals was the lease of land from McCarran International Airport for Walters’ Bali Hai Golf Club for 10 years without paying a dime in rent. McCarran was to receive 40 percent of the course’s net profit, but there was no profit because Walters paid his own company a management fee of $6 million.

Walters, 70, now goes from being worth $500 million, the owner of seven homes and a $20 million jet, to facing a cramped jail cell.

Editorial: Forfeiture of property should be tied to a conviction

A couple of weeks ago we editorially bemoaned the fact that no one had introduced a bill in the state Legislature to restrict the practice of law enforcement agencies seizing private property — homes, cars, cash and such — under the presumption it is the product of criminal activity, but without ever having to actually go through the due process of convicting someone of a crime — a process called civil asset forfeiture.

That same week state Sen. Don Gustavson of Sparks filed Senate Bill 358 that would require proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement or an agreement by the parties concerned before property could be forfeited.

Humboldt deputy seized cash

The bill is almost identical to a bill Gustavson and James Settelmeyer of Minden sponsored during the 2015 legislative session. By the time that bill came out the legislative sausage grinder it merely required police agencies to report their confiscations to the state. As the law currently reads, property may be confiscated and kept or sold without the property’s owner ever being convicted or even charged with a criminal offense.

Though the Fifth Amendment provides: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …” police agencies in cooperation with federal law enforcement have for years coerced people into surrendering assets that become the property of the agency — a perverse incentive indeed.

Gustavson’s bill “provides that property is subject to forfeiture only if the underlying crime provides  for such forfeiture, and there is: (1) proof of a criminal conviction; (2) a plea agreement; or (3) an agreement by the parties.” It also “requires the State to establish that seized property is forfeitable by clear and convincing evidence.”

Gustavson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past week, “Under current civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement can seize your cash or other property, sell and then use most of the proceeds however they see fit, even though you are never arrested or even charged with a crime. Passage of Senate Bill 358 does not limit law enforcement’s ability to combat drug cartels and other criminal activity. The intent of this legislation is to protect the innocent individual’s liberty and property right and to keep law abiding citizens from becoming entangled in the process that results in their rights being trampled. An innocent tourist driving back to Utah after winning a $1,000 jackpot at a local casino can have his money confiscated though he or she has not been accused of any crime.”

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, which has advocated civil asset forfeiture law reform for years, also testified. He said law enforcement has the power to take the fruits of criminal activity but that it should be done via criminal forfeiture rather than civil forfeiture.

“The appropriate process that is due is criminal forfeiture,” McGrath said. “It makes sense to charge, arrest and convict the suspect of a crime. If convicted in the same courtroom, the same judge can turn to the question, and it should be an easy question, of whether the cash, whether the vehicle are the proceeds and the instruments of a crime.”

The attorney general’s office, various law enforcement officials and district attorneys testified against the bill, saying the current system is not abused, though others testified to the contrary.

There is a case pending in the courts in which Texas police seized $200,000 in cash, claiming it was the profits of illegal drug trade, though the owners said it was from a the sale of a house. The bill of sale was with the cash. No one was ever convicted of any crime and the police still have the money.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a six-page commentary on the Texas case sighting the evils of civil asset forfeiture, “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. … Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.”

Nevada has its own record of suspect civil asset forfeiture cases. Over a two-year period Humboldt County deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists.

Some states have passed laws similar to the one being advocated by Gustavson to curb the extortionate practice by police by requiring an actual criminal conviction before assets may be taken. This bill is needed to protect citizens and assure due process.

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: Bill could dilute Nevada’s presidential voting power

There is a bill pending in the Legislature that could have the effect of diluting the state’s voting power in presidential elections.

Assembly Bill 274 would rope Nevada into a compact called the “Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.” Instead of awarding Nevada’s six electoral votes — one for each representative and senator in Congress — according to how Nevadans vote, those six electoral voters would be awarded to the president and vice president team that wins the popular vote nationally.

This essentially cuts Nevada’s votes from six to four, since the votes nationwide would be proportional to population and exclude the power of our two senators.

The change would take place when enough states join the compact to constitute a majority of electoral votes, which is 270 of the 538 electoral votes. Thus far enough states have signed on to constitute about 165 electoral votes. But because it is a compact, Congress would have to agree to it as well.

The Constitution leaves it up to each state’s Legislature to decide how to award its electoral votes. Currently all but two states — Maine and Nebraska — award all their electoral votes to the statewide winner. Maine and Nebraska award two electoral votes — equal to the number of its senators — to the statewide winner, but award one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district.

AB274 went before the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections recently.

Scott Drexel, one of the backers of the popular vote compact, told lawmakers, “The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The short comings of the current system of electing the president stem from state winner-take-all statutes, that is state laws that award all electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes in each separate state. The winner-take-all rule has permitted five of our 45 presidents to come into office without having won the most popular votes nationwide.”

Popular vote advocate Saul Anuzis argued before the committee that the current system results in candidates concentrating their campaigns in so-called battleground states instead of trying to sway the most voters nationally.

In response, Assemblyman Ira Hansen of Sparks noted that in 2016 Nevada was indeed a battleground state. He pointed out Nevadans donated $6.7 million to presidential campaigns, but those campaigns spent $55 million in Nevada, netting substantial revenues for state media outlets and other businesses.

But Anuzis suggested that Nevada may be a fleeting battleground state. It has supported Democrats in the past three presidential elections and backed Bill Clinton twice before siding with George W. Bush twice.

Yes, Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than Donald Trump, but he won more state electors, which is what the Founders envisioned. (Trump won the Electoral College vote by 304 to 227. Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million. She won California by 4 million votes. So Trump won the combined popular vote in the rest of the nation.)

Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has joined the fray, calling the Electoral College undemocratic.

“I believe that focusing on the Electoral College is important no matter how you do it, because what’s happened this decade, these last several elections, where we have clearly two elections, the Gore election and this election. In this election Hillary Clinton will wind up getting almost 3 million votes more than Trump. It’s time the system goes away. It is very undemocratic,” Reid said in an interview.

Pay no attention to the fact Reid served in the Senate for 30 years, where each state gets two votes no matter the size of its population. Most undemocratic.

The Founders established the nation on a federalist system, not a democracy. Certain enumerated powers were assigned the federal government while the rest were reserved to the states and the people. That is why they created the Senate and — until 1913’s 17th Amendment — had state Legislatures pick their senators. That is why the Electoral College gives added weight to smaller states.

If Nevada wishes to assure greater attention and provide a chance for candidates to win votes here, we could adopt a system like that in Maine and Nebraska.

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: Lowering age of compulsory education could be harmful

Nevada lawmakers have for decades been throwing taxpayer money at various feel-good-but-futile programs and schemes in an attempt to drag the state’s public education system up from the lowest rungs.

The latest proposal to surface in the Legislature in Carson City might not be merely futile, but actually harmful.

Democratic North Las Vegas Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz has introduced Assembly Bill 186 that would lower the mandatory school age from 7 to 5 and require schools to create prekindergarten education programs for children as young as 4.

Diaz testified before an Assembly Education Committee hearing this past week, “I think we need to step up our game as a state to make sure there is more access to pre-K programs. Currently, I know my grandbaby is blessed to have two professional, attorney parents to enroll him in a pre-K program as early as 9 months of age, but what happens when you are of a different socio-economic status? What happens when you cannot afford, it’s just not within your means? Do we just look the other way and say, ‘So sad for you. You don’t get this opportunity to start on a level playing field when you enter kindergarten?’ Or do we realize that we have a lot of children … who need a high quality pre-K program? And how do we get that pre-K program to those children in need?”

Diaz said that Nevada is only allocating about $3 million to pre-K programs, while Utah, for example, spends about $9 million.

The fiscal note accompanying AB186 estimates this proposal will cost $352 million in the next biennium and $420 million over the next two years.

The federal Head Start program offering early childhood education has been around since 1965 and costs $8 billion a year, despite the fact a massive federal study found it has had no lasting educational impact.

“In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children,” reported the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in 2012.

Worse, a study by Stanford and Berkeley universities in 2005 found that early education programs can be harmful. “The biggest eye-opener is that the suppression of social and emotional development, stemming from long hours in preschool, is felt most strongly by children from better-off families,” said UC Berkeley sociologist and co-author Bruce Fuller in a press release.

The study found that the earlier a child enters a preschool center, the slower his or her pace of social development. It also noted that prekindergarten education actually “hinders social development and created poor social behavior, such as bullying and aggression, and a lack of motivation to take part in classroom activities.”

Some things sound like a good idea but don’t turn out to be so.

For example, since 1990 Nevada has spent close to $2.5 billion on class-size reduction in the early grades with nothing to show for it. A 2001 report by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau found that achievement data did not improve and that students in larger classes outperformed those in the smaller classes.

Over the past four decades, according to a Cato Institute analysis, Nevada has increased K-12 public school funding by 80 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation. During those four decades student test scores have actually fallen slightly.

A number of people testifying against AB186 Wednesday afternoon suggested the state is taking away too many parental rights.

Janine Hansen of Nevada Families for Freedom cited the work of one researcher who looked into 6,000 studies of early childhood eduction and found that starting school later, rather than earlier, led to “the success of children, including in academics, leadership, resisting peer pressure and general success in life. So we believe that the option should be available and that more children could succeed if they were in school later, when their brains are lateralized, when they are developmentally ready.”

Hansen said earlier schooling can be especially a problem for boys who, when forced into school early, can become behavior problems.

“We think parents are the best to educate their children, and they need to be free to make those kinds of decisions,” she said.

We agree. This bill is too expensive, too intrusive and is just as likely to cause more harm than good.

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.

Does pre-K improve education? (AP photo)

 

Newspaper column: Why Nevada joined a Wisconsin property rights case

Murr family cabin on St. Croix River (Eau Claire Leader-Tribune)

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a rather obscure and complicated property case titled Murr v. Wisconsin, in which the Murr family claims the value of their waterfront property was drastically reduced by government regulations.

The Murrs argued the regulation essentially reduced the value of their property and the government should compensate them under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which dictates that no private property may be “taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Four Murr siblings own two adjacent waterfront lots on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin that their parents purchased in the 1960s. One has a cabin and one is vacant land. Since the purchase the zoning laws were changed to require larger lots, but existing ones were grandfathered.

But when the Murrs tried to sell one lot for $400,000, its appraised value, so they could improve the cabin, they were told the lots were merged and the vacant lot could not be sold separately, due to the land being a “parcel as a whole.”  The county offered to settle for $40,000.

So why would Nevada take the lead in filing a friend of the court brief for itself and eight other states on behalf of the Murrs to challenge Wisconsin zoning law?

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, said in a recent Washington Post commentary that he co-authored the brief on behalf of Nevada’s attorney general and the other states because the outcome of this case will have a lasting and potentially damaging impact on states with large federal land holdings.

“This is a particular danger for Nevada and other western states, where the federal government has a massive presence and often seeks to restrict the use of state-owned lands that abut its own,” Somin wrote.

The brief itself — singed by Somin, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Nevada Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke argues: “Endorsing the Wisconsin Court of Appeals’s broad interpretation of the ‘parcel as a whole’ rule will expand the federal government’s regulatory control over state land and limit the circumstances in which just compensation might be paid. States often own thousands of acres of contiguous parcels and the federal government could avoid a taking simply by aggregating large swaths of a state as part of the takings denominator. Under such a calculation, few if any federal regulations of state property — regardless how onerous — would be ruled compensable takings.”

The brief notes that in Nevada the Bureau of Land Management alone controls 47.5 million acres or about 63 percent of the state.

“Taken to its logical extreme, the federal government could enact a federal regulation, under some pretense, that barred all or most development on all property owned by Nevada in Lincoln County,” the brief notes. “The federal government could argue that this regulation did not constitute a taking because, when all contiguous state-owned parcels in Clark, White Pine, and Nye Counties are aggregated, Nevada would still retain some beneficial use of its state land.”

In a press release sent out when Nevada filed the brief on behalf of the nine states, Laxalt stated that “our nation’s Founders wisely created the Fifth Amendment to protect property owners from uncompensated takings, and my Office will continue to defend Nevadan’s rights — including their property rights —  whenever the government oversteps its bounds. In Nevada, more than 80% of land is already owned by the federal government, and the new rule proposed in the Murr case would only increase its ability to take state and private land without just compensation. As our brief explains, this new rule places more burdens on property owners and could disrupt how property owners normally use their property in ways that benefit society. An unfavorable ruling in this case will impact not only the Murr family in Wisconsin, but other landowners across the country including here in Nevada.”

The friend of the court brief concludes, “Should the ‘parcel as a whole’ rule be expanded to include contiguous parcels under common ownership, government officials will often have little reason to worry about paying compensation, and will therefore have incentives to ignore the harm caused by their regulations …”

After oral arguments Somin wrote that he fears the court might embrace some muddled complex balancing test that leave property rights in jeopardy, but there is a chance the court could split 4-4 opening the opportunity for a rehearing after Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, assuming he is.

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.