Bunkerville case: Sometimes you have to play the odds

Justice as a crap shoot?

After a year and half in jail facing life in prison, after two trials with dismissal of some charges and hung juries on others, while facing a third trial along with well known defendants in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff, two Idaho men decided to not roll the dice again but accept a plea bargain to a misdemeanor charge on Monday.

Eric Parker and Scott Drexler — originally accused of conspiracy, extortion, assault on federal officers and other counts — pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a court order. They are freed following their second trial and are expected to not serve any more time in jail. They will retain their rights to own weapons but will be on probation, according to news accounts.

During the second trial for Parker and Drexler jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on four counts against Parker and two against Drexler. Parker’s attorney told The Associated Press that a juror told him that votes were 11-1 for acquittal on those six counts. The jury acquitted two other Idaho men of all charges.

“We started off with 11 different felonies with the possibility of life in prison,” Las Vegas defense lawyer Jess Marchese quoted as saying. “Now we are talking about a year of probation.”

The lawyer also said the October 1 massacre on the Strip by a man from Mesquite played a role in the decision, since the co-defendants are from the same area. The next trial in the Bundy case is scheduled to begin Oct. 30. The trial was delayed several weeks because of the shooting that left 58 dead and about 500 injured at an outdoor music concert.

What were the odds? That’s what Parker and Drexler had to ask themselves, not whether they would get justice.

Bunkerville standoff (Reuters pix)

 

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Editorial: Commerce tax is unnecessary and burdensome

Gov. Brian Sandoval has been crying about a paper cut as though it were an amputation.

Ever since Attorney General Adam Laxalt stated that he would run for governor next year and one of his platform positions would be the repeal of the 2015 commerce tax, Sandoval has been lobbing brickbats, even though Laxalt suspended his campaign announcement just hours after the Mandalay Bay shooting massacre that left 58 dead and about 500 injured at an outdoor country music concert.

“Anyone supporting a repeal of the Commerce Tax must explain to Nevada’s children, families and businesses which education initiatives will be cut if it is eliminated,” Sandoval wailed in a statement reported by the website Nevada Independent. “Will they cut gifted and talented programs, end all-day kindergarten, eliminate special education resources, decrease literacy programs that help students read by third grade, cut autism funding, stop career and technical education, and get rid of technology in schools grants? Any discussion of eliminating this revenue source must include answers about where in the budget they will cut.”

The commerce tax is a tax on gross receipts on all businesses grossing more than $4 million a year. It has different tax tables for 27 different industries — ranging from a low of 0.056 percent for mining to a high of 0.362 percent for rail transportation — and there are 67 different tax brackets. It is costing businesses untold millions to comply with all the paperwork needed to enforce and collect the tax and the state must spend millions to enforce tax compliance.

Lawmakers passed the commerce tax at Sandoval’s urging as part of his $1.5 billion tax increase, even though the voters in November 2014 rejected a commerce tax at the ballot box by 79 percent to 21 percent.

In May the Economic Forum, which is tasked with estimating state general fund revenues so lawmakers can dodge blame for overestimating, found the state would rake in $140 million more than anticipated this year. The commerce tax raised a mere $190 million, meaning that with just a $50 million nip and tuck in the budget the tax could be eliminated and the budget balanced.

It should be further noted that the general fund budget grew 12.3 percent over the previous two years, while inflation amounted to 2.5 percent. Since 2011 the state general fund budget has grown by 32.3 percent, while inflation amounted to 7.9 percent.

Sandoval, who is term-limited and may not seek re-election, continued his tirade at a meeting in Las Vegas this past week where he told reporters, “I think if somebody’s going to make a proposal like that, they’ve got to stand in a schoolroom with a room full of parents and teachers and be able to explain who they’re going to cut.”

He asked rhetorically whether the cuts would be special education, gifted and talented, technology or something else.

Apparently no one pointed out to him that Nevada has increased K-12 public school funding by 80 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, over the past four decades, during which student test scores have actually fallen slightly.

Might other things besides education be trimmed? Might the growth in overall state spending ever be curbed?

Didn’t lawmakers just agree to spending $750 million in tax money to build a domed football stadium? Hasn’t the state doled out $1.7 billion in tax credits to Tesla, Amazon, Switch and other billion-dollar companies?

If Sandoval is so concerned about priorities, he could look at the total budget.

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 would limit power to create national monuments

Gold Butte National Monument (BLM pix)

The House Committee on Natural Resources this past week approved a bill sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to rein in the powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allow a president to unilaterally create huge national monuments.

The bill advanced on a party line vote of 27-13, with Democrats in opposition.

The bill, H.R. 3990, the National Monument Creation and Protection Act, amends the Antiquities Act to limit the size of future monuments and specifically grants the sitting president the power to reduce the size of existing monuments — a power Democrats have argued President Trump does not have under current law.

During his administration President Obama created 26 national monuments totaling more than 500 million acres — including the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument on the border of Lincoln and Nye counties and the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Clark County.

President Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review recent monument designations and Zinke sent a memo to the president recommending the reduction in size of six of those, including Gold Butte. The president has not yet acted on those recommendations.

Bishop’s bill would allow the president to unilaterally reduce the size of any monument by 85,000 acres — and by more with the consent of affected counties and states.

The bill would allow a president in the future to create a new monument unilaterally, but only up to 640 acres. Anything larger than that, up to 10,000 acres, would require an environmental review. Anything between 10,000 and 85,000 acres, the apparent size cap on new monuments, would require approval of counties and state officials, as well as the governor.

“Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally dictate the manner in which all Americans may enjoy enormous swaths of our nation’s public lands,” Bishop was quoted as saying. “Designations are no longer made for scientific reasons or archaeological value but for political purposes. Unfortunately, overreach in recent administrations has brought us to this point and it is Congress’ duty to clarify the law and end the abuse.”

Like the Natural Resources Committee, Nevada’s congressional delegation is divided along party lines when it comes to national monuments. The four Democrats have all objected bitterly and volubly to reducing the size of Nevada’s monuments.

But its two Republican delegates in January introduced legislation that would prevent future designations of monuments in Nevada without the consent of Congress — the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act of 2017 (H.R. 243, S. 22).

The legislation introduced by Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei is terse and to the point. It basically piggybacks onto current law that reads: “No extension or establishment of national monuments in Wyoming may be undertaken except by express authorization of Congress.” Their bill would amend this by simply adding the phrase “or Nevada” after the word Wyoming.

In response to Bishop’s bill passing the committee, a Heller press aide sent out a comment, “Unilateral federal land grabs in a state like Nevada where the federal government already owns 85 percent of our land should not be permitted. Public input and local support remain critical to the decision-making process of federal land designations, and that is why I’ve introduced legislation that prevents last year’s land grab under the Obama administration from occurring without input from Congress and local officials. I’ll continue working with my colleagues to see that it is signed into law.”

Congressman Amodei said in January before Trump’s inauguration, “I continue to be amazed by the fact that some people hug unilateral, non-transparent monument designations, while at the same time, protesting vehemently over the introduction and public discussion of congressional lands bills proposals. In contrast to the last eight years of this administration’s one-sided approach on major land management decisions in Nevada, our bill simply ensures local stakeholders have a seat at the table going forward.”

Bishop’s proposal also declares that existing water and land rights are to preserved despite a monument designation.

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.

Pruitt ends another costly Obama era EPA practice

It’s about damned time.

EPA administration Scott Pruitt said today his agency is ending the practice that has come to be known as “sue and settle” — in which self-styled environmental sue the government over some feigned failure to protect something or stop some viable economic activity and the government caves without putting up a fight.

“We will no longer go behind closed doors and use consent decrees and settlement agreements to resolve lawsuits filed against the Agency by special interest groups where doing so would circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress,” Pruitt said in a statement.

Scott Pruitt, head of EPA

As the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt was involved in many such lawsuits.

Pruitt said that when a settlement is being considered the EPA will discuss the matter with affected states and communities.

 

Back in 2014 we lamented the “sue and settle” practices of the Obama administration.

The previous fall, the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated as threatened — under the terms of the Endangered Species Act — the bi-state greater sage grouse found along the northern California-Nevada border, supposedly a distinct population segment of about 5,000 remaining birds, even though the birds are legally hunted in both states.

That decision followed an October 2010 lawsuit filed by the Western Watersheds Project challenging grazing permits granted by the Bureau of Land Management.

In the spring of 2014 the FWS designated as threatened the lesser prairie chicken, which are found in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico and Kansas.

Wild Earth Guardians sued the FWS in 2010 demanding rapid action on the listing status of 251 species. FWS caved.

A Mono Basin bi-state sage grouse

Under the settlement, FWS was also to decide whether to list the greater sage grouse, which are found in 11 Western states, by September 2015. What do you think the odds are? Fortunately, that never happened, though the Obama administration issued a massive and draconian set of land use plans meant to protect the chicken-sized birds. Recently, Pruitt’s EPA rescinded those plans

Many of the causes of Western species decline have nothing to due with farming, ranching, oil and gas exploration or recreation, but with incompetent land management by the federal agencies, which have ignored fuel management practices and allowed vast wildfires to ravage the ranges. Additionally, there a lack of predator control, one of the biggest problems for most of the species in question, but a factor ignored by the feds.

 

During the four decades of the Endangered Species Act less than 2 percent of listed species have been delisted. Once on the list they are on the list forever.

Pruitt appears to be correcting many of the errors of his predecessor.

 

 

Editorial: Tax reform that could benefit Nevadans slipping away

It looks like a tax reform proposal that could have resulted in lower income tax rates for Nevadans is swirling down the drain.

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that congressional Republicans are considering jettisoning a part of President Trump’s proposal that would eliminate IRS deductions for state and local taxes. Dropping the deduction would generate $1.3 trillion in additional federal revenue, thus allowing lower rates for the 70 percent of Americans who do not itemize and take the standard deduction.

While Democrats insist tax reform should in no way benefit the wealthy, the retention of the state and local tax deduction does precisely that for the wealthy who live in Democrat-controlled high tax states, such as New York and California.

The Times conceded that Californians benefit more from the state and local tax deduction than taxpayers in any other state. In fact Californians managed to dodge $101 billion in taxes in 2014 — New York, New Jersey and Illinois were next on the list of top tax dodgers. Of the top 10 states for the deduction, Trump carried only three.

The New York Times also is reporting that some Republican spines are weakening, noting that elimination of the deduction has Republicans in high-tax states worried about backlash from voters whose tax bills might rise.

The newspaper said that Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, said in an interview that party leaders had assured him “there’s not going to be full repeal” of the state and local tax deduction. The paper also quoted Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, as saying the deduction was not a “red line.”

Using 2010 statistical data from the IRS, Californians who filed for state and local income tax deductions claimed deductions of $10,700 per return. Nevadans who filed for the state and local sales tax deduction claimed only $1,430 per return. Calculated on a per capita basis, Californians claimed $2,116 in federal income tax deductions, while Nevadans claimed only $166 per person for sales tax deductions.

Nevadans — along with residents of New Hampshire, Florida, Wyoming, Texas, South Dakota and Alaska — get to deduct about 1 percent or less of their adjusted gross income, while those who live in New York, Maryland, D.C. and California deduct more than 5 percent.

“Republicans have said the deduction largely affects the wealthy and is unfair to residents in lower-tax states,” the Los Angeles newspaper reported. “Eliminating the break would help simplify the tax code and make it more equitable, White House officials said.”

In 1985 Ronald Reagan argued for eliminating the state and local tax deduction. He said in a speech: “We’re reducing tax rates by simplifying the complex system of special provisions that favor some at the expense of others. Restoring confidence in our tax system means restoring and respecting the principle of fairness for all. This means curtailing some business deductions now being written off; it means ending several personal deductions, including the state and local tax deduction, which actually provides a special subsidy for high-income individuals, especially in a few high-tax states. Two-thirds of Americans don’t even itemize, so they receive no benefit from the state and local tax deduction. But they’re being forced to subsidize the high-tax policies of a handful of states. This is truly taxation without representation.”

Reagan failed, primarily because there were too many Republican lawmakers from New York and California, just as there are today. California has 14 Republicans in the House and New York has nine.

If Congress caves in to the few who want to keep their lucrative state and local tax deductions, it is unlikely the 70 percent of Americans who currently do not itemize can be afforded a doubling of the standard deduction as is currently being contemplated.

The tax code should be fair and equitable for all and not carve out breaks for some.

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: Jobs and wildlife can coexist

In 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that years of science-based protections by federal and state land use plans had substantially reduced risks to more than 90 percent of the greater sage grouse’s breeding habitats across its 173 million-acre range.

Thus, its extinction no longer imminent, the breed was removed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Despite this finding the Obama administration unilaterally instituted draconian land use restrictions across 10 Western states intended to prevent any presence of the non-native, invasive species known as mankind.

But the Interior Department under Montanan Ryan Zinke is displaying an uncommon outbreak of common sense.

Just this past week the Bureau of Land Management canceled Obama’s prohibition of mining on 10 million acres of federal lands across six Western states, including Nevada. The BLM also announced plans to invite public comments on reworking land use plans that a Nevada federal judge had determined were illegal.

Greater sage grouse (BLM pix)

In a press release the BLM reported the withdrawal of 10 million acres was unreasonable, because mining affected less than 0.1 percent of sage grouse range.

“The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres to prevent 10,000 from potential mineral development was a complete overreach,” said acting BLM Director Mike Nedd. “Secretary Zinke has said from the beginning that by working closely with the states, who are on the front lines and a valued partner in protecting the health of these lands, we can be successful in conserving greater sage grouse habitat without stifling economic development and job growth. And that’s what we intend to do — protect important habitat while also being a good neighbor to states and local communities.”

The 10 million acres had been off-limits to mining for two years, but that restriction expired Sept. 24.

Gov. Brian Sandoval issued a statement saying, “I support Secretary Zinke’s action to cancel this withdrawal and terminate the environmental analysis associated with it. Mining has not been identified as a widespread significant threat to the sage-grouse and I appreciate the Department of Interior recognizing the overreach of this action, which had such significant economic impact on our state mining and exploration industries.”

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said of the BLM’s decision, “I am gratified that the BLM has accepted our basic argument, which is that we can balance conservation of the sage grouse without injuring the economic lifeblood of Nevada’s local communities. In our suit, we consistently urged that the BLM failed to properly take into account Governor Sandoval’s well-supported and convincing comments about the many shortcomings of the 2015 plan.”

On March 31 in a suit brought by the state of Nevada, nine counties, several mining companies and a ranch, Nevada federal Judge Miranda Du ruled Interior land 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.

BLM’s Nedd said of the decision to rework the environmental impact statement, “The BLM is committed to being a good neighbor and cooperating with its partners at all levels of government, including states, as well as tribal leaders, industry and conservation groups, ranchers, and other stakeholders throughout the amendment process. During this process, we are particularly interested in hearing from the many governors whose states put hard work and time into collaborative efforts to develop the existing plans. We welcome their input.”

Sandoval has complained in the past about Nevada’s input on sage grouse protection being ignored.

Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett was quoted as saying of the BLM change of direction, “A wholesale land withdrawal that encompassed 20 times more land than all mining activity combined did little to address the risk of fire and invasive species that threaten the species and its habitat.”

Of course the usual environmentalist reaction was one of doom and gloom. “This move shows Zinke’s total contempt for imperiled species and the places they need to live,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Zinke might as well form a shotgun posse to kill off these animals directly. The Trump administration is perfectly willing to wipe out sage grouse, and a host of other species, to reward its industry friends.”

Interior’s own draft environmental impact statement estimated its grouse restrictions in Nevada alone would reduce employment by 739 jobs every year for the next 20 years.

Jobs and wildlife can coexist when just a little common sense is applied.

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.

How Nevada provides a disincentive for experienced teachers and other employees to continue working

Once again the folks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute have put out a jeremiad lamenting the state’s self-defeating, tax-draining, counter-productive public employee retirement system.

The opinion section of the Sunday newspaper carries an op-ed by Robert Fellner, director of transparency research at NPRI, that points out that the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada provides a powerful disincentive for experienced teachers, school administrators and other public workers to continue working and providing services to taxpayers.

Thinkstock graphic posted with Fellner op-ed online.

For example, if Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky were to continue working to age 60 — instead of retiring next year at age 53 after 30 years on the job as announced — he would forfeit approximately $1.5 million in PERS payments. The same principle, though lesser amounts, applies to our most experienced classroom teachers, leaving Nevada’s youth, who already trail nearly every other state in educational achievement, in the hands of less experienced instructors.

Feller points out that if the state were to opt for a 401(k)-style retirement plan — as in the private sector — there would be an incentive to continue working because retirement benefits would grow every year instead of reaching a maximum after 30 years.

This is something we have been advocating for years. While various proposals have been floated, all have been sunk by the entrenched public employee unions.

In 2011 a report drafted for the NPRI by Andrew Biggs, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, concluded the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is vastly underfunded by more than $40 billion.

“What people don’t realize,” Biggs said to a luncheon audience back then, “is your typical public sector pension plan is a lot more generous than what a typical person is going to get in the private sector. Let’s just take a person and run their wages through what they would get from PERS versus what they could get from a typical 401(k) plan combined with Social Security, because public employees here don’t participate in Social Security. They both pay the same amount on average. The total contribution is about the same, but the benefits for someone under PERS — for a full career employee — is somewhere around 50 percent higher.”

A year ago Fellner penned for NPRI “Footprints: How NVPERS, step by step, made Nevada government employees some of the nation’s richest.”

Fellner warned that “should today’s international no-growth economy stumble into the deep financial crisis that many forecasters fear, NVPERS’ fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

The report detailed how NVPERS benefits have ratcheted up over the decades by virtue of incremental benefit increases, collective bargaining gains, earlier retirement age, allowing the purchase of years of service, padding base pay with add-ons such as callback, standby, holiday, shift differential, extra duty, hazard and longevity pay, and simple compound interest.

Fellner noted that local government employees have taken advantage of their collective bargaining union contracts and negotiated to have their employers actually pay the employees’ pension contribution, claiming this is done in lieu of a salary increase or in conjunction with a salary decrease — even though local government pay checks rank eighth highest in the nation.

In a report published during the 2015 legislative session, NPRI’s Fellner wrote, “Over the past 20 years, the amount Nevada taxpayers contribute toward public employee retirements has skyrocketed — from $384 million in 1995 to $1.4 billion today. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent after adjusting for both inflation and membership growth.”

 

The giant sucking sound is drowned out by the chirping crickets.