Editorial: The one question to ask every candidate

The major party primaries are over and it is on to the General Election this November. The candidates will be making the rounds shaking hands and asking for your vote.

So, stick out your right hand and firmly clutch you wallet with your left, then ask where this candidate stands on the question of whether to alter the current property tax law.

Back in 2005, when property values across the nation and especially in Nevada were skyrocketing, Nevada lawmakers passed a law capping the annual increase in residential property tax bills at 3 percent and business property tax hikes at 8 percent. (The fact the Nevada Constitution states that all “property belonging to corporations now existing or hereafter created shall be subject to taxation, the same as property of individuals …” is a topic for another day.)

The law also created two other caps based on two economic measures — the 10-year average percentage of change in assessed values of homes and the average percentage of increase in the previous year’s Consumer Price Index multiplied by two. The higher of those two figures became the cap so long as it was less than 3 percent.

When the housing bubble burst and property values plummeted the law had the perverse effect of allowing some property tax bills to continue to increase even though the property values were on the decline. But values are on the upswing again.

In the 2017 Legislature a bill was introduced to basically change the property tax caps from ceilings to floors. The bill’s digest stated flatly, “This bill revises the formula for calculating the partial abatement so that the annual cap on increases of the property taxes on certain single-family residences and residential rental property cannot be less than 3 percent.”

The bill, backed by a majority of Democrats, eventually died because it could not garner the requisite two-thirds majority required for a tax increase under the Constitutional amendment successfully ushered in by former Gov. Jim Gibbons.

You see, with inflation currently in check and the 10-year average of property values now including the years of slumping values, the property tax caps in urban counties have been well below 3 percent.

According to the Nevada Department of Taxation, for Fiscal Year 2016-2017 the residential tax cap in Carson City, Clark, Douglas, Lyon, Nye and Washoe counties was 0.2 percent. Still an increase but one that left the local governments crying poverty. The caps in Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Mineral and Pershing counties were 3 percent, with the rest lying somewhere in between — 1.9 percent in Churchill, 2.9 percent in Storey and 1.5 percent in White Pine.

But it is not like Nevada has low property taxes. According to Tax-Rate.org, in 2018 Nevada ranks 24th in the nation in order of the average amount of property taxes collected and 28th in property taxes as a percentage of median income.

According to Zillow, Nevada home values have gone up 15.4 percent in the past year and predicts they will rise 6.7 percent within the next year. This is what has the property tax cap change proponents salivating.

If those seeking to remove the current caps have their way, property taxes could easily double or triple in a matter of years.

So, be sure to ask the candidates with extended hands whether they are really reaching for your wallet.

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.

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Newspaper column: Can a Nevada law pass constitutional muster?

Our federal and state constitutions are meant to lay the ground rules for what our governments can and cannot do, spelling out the rights of the individual to be free from the dictates for well-meaning but overweening lawmakers.

A recent obscure and little-noted Supreme Court case out of Minnesota tore the heart out of one of those rights by flippantly dismissing the significance of one of those rights and claiming the outcome is what is best for the lackadaisical peons.

What other rights might be in jeopardy?

The case was a challenge to a Minnesota law that requires a divorced spouse to be automatically dropped as a life insurance beneficiary — a law that treads on the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause, which states, “No State shall … pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts …” A life insurance policy is most assuredly a contract.

From SCOTUS blog

Nevada has a similar law, NRS 111.781, passed in 2011, that states all listed beneficiaries on life insurance policies are automatically revoked once a divorce is finalized.

Nevada’s state Constitution also states, “No bill of attainder, ex-post-facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts shall ever be passed.” Doesn’t abrogation constitute impairment?

The underpinning of such laws is that lawmakers believe the average mope is too lazy or too ignorant to initiate a change in life insurance beneficiaries following a divorce.

The case of Sveen v. Melin upheld the Minnesota version of this law by a vote of 8-1 with only Justice Neil Gorsuch dissenting.

In 1998 Mark Sveen purchased a life insurance policy naming his wife Kaye Melin as beneficiary. In 2002 Minnesota passed the law in question. Sveen and Melin later divorced and Sveen died. Melin and Sveen’s children from a previous marriage sought the insurance money.

The court held: “The retroactive application of Minnesota’s statute does not violate the Contracts Clause.” No one even raised the question of whether it was ex post facto.

Even Justice Gorsuch throws the Contracts Clause under one wheel of the bus, writing, “Everyone agrees that the law is valid when applied prospectively to policies purchased after the statute’s enactment. But Minnesota wants to apply its law retroactively to policies purchased before the statute’s adoption. The Court of Appeals held that this violated the Contracts Clause, which guarantees people the ‘right to “rely on the law … as it existed when the[ir] contracts were made.”’ …That judgment seems to me exactly right.”

A prospective contract impairment is OK, but not a retroactive one?

“Of course, the framers knew how to impose more nuanced limits on state power,” Gorsuch writes later. “The very section of the Constitution where the Contracts Clause is found permits states to take otherwise unconstitutional action when ‘absolutely necessary,’ if ‘actually invaded,’ or ‘wit[h] the Consent of Congress.’…  But in the Contracts Clause the framers were absolute. They took the view that treating existing contracts as ‘inviolable’ would benefit society by ensuring that all persons could count on the ability to enforce promises lawfully made to them — even if they or their agreements later prove unpopular with some passing majority.”

But Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, rationalizied, “True enough that in revoking a beneficiary designation, the law makes a significant change. As Melin says, the ‘whole point’ of buying life insurance is to provide the proceeds to the named beneficiary. … But … the statute is designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent — and so to support, rather than impair, the contractual scheme.”

Lawmakers and justices are mind readers who can tell what people really want to do rather than what they actually do under signed contracts.

Gorsuch concluded, “The judicial power to declare a law unconstitutional should never be lightly invoked. But the law before us cannot survive an encounter with even the breeziest of Contracts Clause tests. It substantially impairs life insurance contracts by retroactively revising their key term. No one can offer any reasonable justification for this impairment in light of readily available alternatives. Acknowledging this much doesn’t even require us to hold the statute invalid in all applications, only that it cannot be applied to contracts formed before its enactment.”

Since Nevada’s law and Nevada’s Constitution appear to be in conflict, there is a chance this controversy could arise here and be settled at the state level. There are principles at stake, as well as money.

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: Stop blocking public land from productive use

Several years ago a high ranking Interior Department official told a Nevada newspaper editorial board that the agency planned to maintain its level of land control by acquiring an acre of land for federal ownership for every acre of land that was released to private ownership. It was a blatant admission that the bureaucracy intended to maintain its power and authority and budget in perpetuity, no matter what was good for the local citizens and their economy.

If recent events are any indication, it appears the bureaucracy has escalated from maintaining power to full-blown growth mode at a rate of 10-to-one.

Clark County officials have been talking about an effort to acquire nearly 40,000 acres of federal public land for auctioning off for private business and residential development. (Where they would get the water for the new development was not addressed.) In exchange, the county is talking about withdrawing from private development another 400,000 acres.

Courtesy Nevada Mining Association via Nevada Appeal

In Washoe County, officials are considering acquiring 60,000 acres for auction for private development in exchange for taking 440,000 acres out of private development access.

In a recent column published in the Elko Daily Free Press, Dana Bennett, president of the Nevada Mining Association, warns that the long-established doctrine of multiple use for federal public lands is being threatened. She notes that more than 80 percent of Nevada land is controlled by various federal land agencies and currently a third of the state is off limits to mining activity.

And the limits on mining, such as those proposed in Clark and Washoe counties, are growing apace.

“In 2016, nearly 1 million acres of public land were withdrawn from mineral access,” Bennett writes. “This year alone, there are pending proposals to withdraw at least 1.4 million more acres. There is no end in sight.”

Additionally, the Department of the Navy is asking to expand the Naval Air Station at Fallon by 600,000 acres, which would block mining or geothermal power generation on that land for generations to come.

“Nevada minerals power 21st-century technology. Each withdrawn acre represents an area where discovery and development of the minerals that power our future may never be found or developed, no matter how great the need,” Bennett concludes. “Preserving multiple use, meanwhile, gives the public options to determine the best mix of land uses based on the context of the time and situation.”

We agree. Locking up land and barring productive use without thorough examination of alternatives and benefits is nothing but bureaucrats holding onto their power base.

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: High court should stand firmly for free speech

Jack Phillips decorates a cake. (Reuters pix via WaPo)

It has long been agreed that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the right to not be compelled to speak, but this past week the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to skirt this simple premise, though it ruled in favor of a Colorado cake baker who refused in 2012 to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple for a different reason.

The court’s 7-2 ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., instead hinged on the fact the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was inconsistent in its rulings relating to issues of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that on at least three occasions the state Civil Rights Commission held that bakers who refused to create cakes with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage did so lawfully.

“The treatment of the conscience-based objections at issue in these three cases contrasts with the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ objection,” Kennedy wrote. “The Commission ruled against Phillips in part on the theory that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism.”

Kennedy added that the commission’s disparate treatment of Phillips violated the state’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.

“The Free Exercise Clause bars even ‘subtle departures from neutrality’ on matters of religion. … Here, that means the Commission was obliged under the Free Exercise Clause to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant of Phillips’ religious beliefs,” Kennedy said.

As usual, Justice Clarence Thomas countenanced no tolerance for such nuanced, too-narrow rulings and tackled the matter head on in a concurrence that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Thomas said Phillips rightly prevailed on his free exercise claim, but the court failed to address his free speech claim.

Thomas wrote that the appellate court rationalized that Phillips was defying Colorado’s public-accommodations law and not acting as a speaker. “This reasoning flouts bedrock prin¬ciples of our free-speech jurisprudence and would justify virtually any law that compels individuals to speak,” he concluded.

Thomas said public-accommodation laws may regulate conduct, but not expression of ideas, citing a case in which the high court ruled unanimously that the sponsor of a St. Patrick’s Day parade could not be forced to include a group of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Irish-Americans, because that violated the sponsor’s right to free speech.

“While this Court acknowledged that the unit’s exclusion might have been ‘misguided, or even hurtful” … it rejected the notion that governments can mandate ‘thoughts and statements acceptable to some groups or, indeed, all people’ as the ‘antithesis’ of free speech …” Thomas explained.

He further noted that the court has held that communication of ideas can be conveyed by symbolism as well as words — such as nude dancing, burning the American flag, flying a flag upside-down, wearing a military uniform, wear¬ing a black armband, conducting a silent sit-in, refusing to salute the flag and flying a plain red flag.

Thomas said that the court’s previous ruling that the Constitution protects the right to same-sex marriage does not mean those who disagree are not entitled to express that opinion.

“Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day,” Justice Thomas concluded. “But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing (the right to same-sex marriage) from being used to ‘stamp out every vestige of dissent’ and ‘vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.’”

There are cases waiting in the wings that might afford an opportunity to fully recognize freedom of speech when it comes to whether a business may be compelled to offer its services for same-sex weddings — these include a florist in Washington state, a web designer in Colorado and a calligrapher in Arizona.

Hopefully, the court will be more forthright and specific in favor of free speech in on of those or some other case.

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: Let Trump decide who stands on his soapbox

The First Amendment prohibits the federal government abridging one’s free speech, but it does not, as a federal judge has ruled, require anyone to provide the soapbox for that speech.

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of New York ruled recently that President Donald Trump may not block Twitter users who criticize him because that violates their right to free speech.

“While we must recognize, and are sensitive to, the president’s personal First Amendment rights, he cannot exercise those rights in a way that infringes the corresponding First Amendment rights of those who have criticized him,” the judge said in her 75-page ruling, somewhat exceeding the 140-character limit of Twitter.

Any Twitter user can block people from accessing their online posts and replying to that user and their followers. Trump reportedly has posted 4,000 times on his personal @realDonaldTrump account to nearly 32 million followers. How that cacophony constitutes a public forum in which anyone can be heard strains credulity. But why should the president be obligated to give someone else unfettered access to those who have agreed to follow him?

The president should be treated no differently on his personal @realDonaldTrump account. His official presidential Twitter account, @POTUS — and why there is one of those is a mystery to us — is another matter entirely. He certainly may not block people from commenting on their own social media apps, but he is hardly obligated to accommodate anyone who wants to glom onto his personal Twitter account and use it as platform for their views. It is his soapbox. Create your own.

But the judge said Trump could not block people from following him on Twitter just because they had posted comments to which he objected, because that amounted to “viewpoint discrimination” by a public official in a public forum.

As Ronald Reagan once said: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

If Trump were to make a televised speech from the Oval Office, should the networks be required to keep the cameras rolling while any clown with a rant can piggyback on the speech by dashing up to the microphone? 

It is like freedom of the press, which belongs to anyone who owns one.

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: Being ‘green’ is easy, ignore facts

If you thought the “green movement” was more about self-righteous politics than clear-headed science, here are two tales that prove the point.

In Arizona a petition is being circulated in an effort to get on the ballot an initiative called the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona Amendment. This would require 50 percent of the electricity generated in the state to come from renewable sources by 2030.

The petition states: “The Amendment defines renewable energy sources to include solar, wind, small-scale hydropower, and other sources that are replaced rapidly by a natural, ongoing process (excluding nuclear or fossil fuel). Distributed renewable energy sources, like rooftop solar, must comprise at least 10% of utilities’ annual retail sales of electricity by 2030.”

To get on the November ballot petitioners must gather nearly 226,000 signatures by July 5.

If the measure passes it would necessitate the closure of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix, which currently provides about 35 percent of the state’s electricity, even though it produces no carbon emissions.

If the state were to achieve the goal of 50 percent of its power coming from mostly solar and wind, both of which are intermittent, there would be no room on the grid for Palo Verde’s power, because reactors can’t be quickly turned off and on — it takes weeks of preparation.

“We would have to shut Palo Verde down during the day every day,” one plant official was quoted as saying by Cronkite News. “But that’s not how nuclear plants really work. Nuclear plants can’t just be shut down and then started up again.”

The most likely source of rapid start-up generation would be natural gas, which produces carbon emissions, especially when frequently idling.

Adding wind and solar to the power grid could increase the carbon dioxide output.

Retired electrical engineer Kent Hawkins wrote in February 2010 that “the introduction of wind power into an electricity system increases the fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions beyond levels that would have occurred using efficient gas plants alone as the providers of electricity equivalent” to the wind generated power.

This is because every kilowatt-hour of intermittent electricity introduced into the grid must be backed up by a reliable fossil-fuel generator. When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, the demand for electricity remains.

Starting and stopping natural gas-fired generators is inefficient, comparable to operating a car in stop and go traffic instead of steady and efficient on the open highway. Just like the car, the fuel consumption can double, along with the carbon emissions, negating any presumed carbon savings by using solar or wind.

Opponents of the measure say it will drive up power bills in the state. Proponents argue long-term benefits of solar power and reducing nuclear waste offset any immediate cost spike.

Meanwhile, in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced plans to build $6 billion worth of offshore wind turbines while shutting down the nuclear-powered, emission-free Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y.

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, explained in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that the wind turbines will produce only 60 percent as much power as the nuclear plant being closed.

How will this gap be covered? You guessed it, natural gas.

“The irony here is colossal. Mr. Cuomo, who banned hydraulic fracturing despite the economic boon it has created in neighboring Pennsylvania, and who has repeatedly blocked construction of pipelines, is making New York even more dependent on natural gas, which will increase its carbon emissions,” Bryce writes. “At the same time, he has mandated offshore wind projects that will force New Yorkers to pay more for their electricity, even though the state already has some of the nation’s highest electricity prices.”

This past week NV Energy announced plans to contract to build six new solar power projects at a cost of $2 billion and double the state’s renewable energy capacity, but only if voters reject the Energy Choice Initiative on the November ballot that would end the company’s monopoly in most of the state and allow competition. No mention was made of how this might impact power bills.

In all three states emissions would likely increase, as well as power bills.

Being green is a state of mind. Just never let the facts get in the way.

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.

Palo Vere nuclear plant

Editorial: Free market is better for the Internet

The debate continues over whether the Federal Communications Commission’s December repeal of the Obama administration’s “net neutrality” rule will help or hurt rural communities’ bid for greater access to high-speed Internet service, and now it has become an issue in this year’s race for a Nevada U.S. Senate seat.

Recently there was a vote in the Senate using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) in an attempt to restore net neutrality rules. The vote was 52-47 with every Democrat and three Republicans voting in favor. Nevada’s senior Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, voted against it.

Its chances of clearing the House are slim and President Trump would likely veto it anyway.

Las Vegas Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who is running for Heller’s seat and is likely to advance to November after the June 12 primary, proudly announced in a press release that she signed a discharge petition to force a vote in the House on the Senate-approved CRA to restore net neutrality protections.

In a recent interview, Sen. Heller said, “We had a vote last week and I voted against the CRA that would take us back to Title II, which frankly is 1930s-type regulation. If you go back to Ma Bell, for those of you who remember Ma Bell, frankly that’s how  they want to regulate the Internet, and that was reversed.”

Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 concerns “common carriers,” such as phone and power lines. The FCC’s 2015 net neutrality order put the Internet under Title II, rather than under Title I, which covers information providers. Title II prohibits “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” With the repeal of net neutrality by the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission still has authority to police predatory and monopolistic practices.

“Nevada’s hardworking families, small businesses, and students have voiced strong opposition to the Administration’s repeal of net neutrality protections,” Rosen’s press release quoted her as saying. “As Republicans in Washington roll back rules protecting a free and fair internet, I will continue to stand with Nevadans in the fight to keep corporate interests from stacking the deck against regular Nevadans who want a level playing field. I urge my House colleagues to join me in signing this discharge petition.”

How did the Internet survive before 2015?

But Heller, who is a lock to win the GOP primary, insists, “I do not want the federal government to determine content. … I also don’t want the federal government to tax the Internet. I believe the Internet is the last bastion of freedom in America, frankly both good and bad, but it’s freedom. You put this thing back under Title II and eventually this government will determine content and this government will tax it, and that’s what I am trying to avoid.”

Before the FCC canned net neutrality, Rosen had argued, “Undoing net neutrality will hurt our economy and will make it harder for startups and Americans to conduct their business, stifling innovation and growth. Access to free and open internet service providers is especially important for Nevadans living in rural communities.”

Heller counters by saying, “We are going to provide — I think it is a free market stance — in that we want there to be more competition out there. Under Title II you lose the kind of competition that is necessary for technology to advance.”

Heller said he is working on legislation that would encourage expansion of rural broadband service, but also, “I do believe that if you put too many restrictions on access to the Internet all you are going to do is deprive it of the ability to grow and the technology to advance, and that would include the ability to get out to rural areas.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial at the time of the FCC repeal of net neutrality noted that the rule had throttled investment. But, anticipating repeal, Verizon Wireless had said it will start delivering high-speed broadband to homes over its wireless network late this year, and Google and AT&T were experimenting with similar services that would be cheaper than laying cable underground. “This could be a boon for rural America,” the paper said.

Free markets will find the way, not the heavy hand of government regulators.

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.