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“In 2016, nearly 1 million acres of public land were withdrawn from mineral access,” Bennett writes.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 Each withdrawn acre represents an area where discovery and development of the minerals that power our future may never be found or developed, no matter how great the need,”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.

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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.

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.

Newspaper column: How will energy choice affect rural Nevada? — part 2

If the Energy Choice Initiative (ECI) amending the state Constitution to create a competitive market for electricity passes again in the fall its impact on power bills in rural Nevada will depend on how the Legislature writes the rules to make it happen.

David Luttrell — general manager of the Lincoln County Power District No. 1, president of the Nevada Rural Electric Association and a member of the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice — notes that proponents of the ballot measure insist existing utilities should divest themselves of their power generating assets and current contracts to purchase power.

Luttrell says there is uncertainty about what energy choice would look like in the coming years, saying, “The vast majority of it will be written by the next couple of sessions of the state Legislature. The only thing that really you can point to in that document and that amendment language is that a single person in the state of Nevada will have choice of some sort.”

One of the problems faced by the rural cooperatives Luttrell points out is fixed cost. While NV Energy has 40 to 50 customers per mile of power lines, rural cooperatives statewide only have five customers per mile, while in Lincoln County there are only two per mile.

The way the cooperatives keep rates competitive is that many get as much as 80 percent of their power from very low cost hydroelectric generation, such as that from Hoover Dam. That hydropower is limited to public, not-for-profit organizations such as rural electric utilities.

“If we are precluded in any way from doing that there’s going to be a negative impact. Does ECI mandate that, that we have to get rid of your Hoover power? No it doesn’t, as it is currently written in that one paragraph constitutional amendment,” the power district manager says. “But what it does is it puts that uncertainty to a future Legislature to make that decision. We know the proponents of the ECI are saying is all utilities need to get rid of their power sources, otherwise they have an unfair competitive advantage.”

Jon Wellinghoff, a consultant to the ballot question and former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman, has said in an interview with the news website The Nevada Independent that lawmakers could designate existing rural nonprofit power companies as the provider of last resort and allow them to keep their existing power contracts.

“It’s virtually a non-issue if we structure the legislation correctly,” he said.

And that’s Luttrell’s fear. Will the lawmakers structure the legislation correctly?

If his cooperative is required to divest its power contract for inexpensive hydropower in order to allow competitors to come in, Luttrell warns the rates in rural Nevada are going to go up dramatically.

“It leaves it all up to the Legislature to decide, but again proponents are saying you’ve got to make these utilities divest their generation, whether they be assets or power supply contracts in order to allow fair competition in all areas of the state,” he says.

“The real message I am trying to get out right now is that rural Nevada is a kind of unintended consequence,” he continues. “Energy choice was the brainchild of the casinos and Switch (a data processing firm that using huge amounts of electricity). They’re the ones who put this thing together. They’re the ones who largely funded it.”

Luttrell says industrial and commercial customers already have retail choice. Any customer with electrical needs greater than 1 megawatt, such as casinos, mines and industrial operations, already have the right to buy their own energy. “The problem, and this is why Switch and Sands and MGM and others don’t like it, is in order to exercise that right they have to pay an exit fee from the grid, from the NV Energy system and they don’t like paying that exit fee,” he says.

He notes that the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada demands exit fees to protect other customers, such as residential customers, who would have to bear the burden of paying for more generation capacity than is needed when large customers leave.

“Should a person in Wells, or a person in Ely or a person in Pioche, Nevada, pay part of those stranded costs? … We weren’t part of the planning that went into creating those assets, but we’re certainly part of the discussion of where they’re going to get spread. We don’t like that.”

Voters will decide. If approved, lawmakers must make fair rules.

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: Primary candidates we recommend

Early voting begins Saturday for Nevada’s party primaries, so we take this opportunity to offer our two cents worth.

Since none of the candidates for major statewide offices on the Democratic slate would get our backing come November, so we will address only the GOP primary.

For governor the choice is easy and obvious, Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt has proven himself a thorough conservative, fighting for states’ rights while attorney general with principled litigation. He has promised to work to repeal the burdensome Commerce Tax passed by lawmakers in 2015.

Laxalt says he will work to reduce state spending to keep the tax burden bearable.

For U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Dean Heller has a proven track record. He helped write the tax reform bill and has worked to undo the ObamaCare debacle. He has for years pressed for legislation that would deny members of Congress pay checks until they pass a budget.

Heller has also pushed for a Balanced Budget Amendment that would ultimately force Washington to live within its means instead of running up billions in deficits and trillions in debt.

As a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee he has worked to eliminate the VA disability claims backlog.

In the 2nd Congressional District — which includes northern Lyon county and all of Douglas, Carson City, Storey, Washoe, Humboldt, Pershing, Churchill, Lander, Eureka and Elko counties — Republican incumbent Mark Amodei deserves to be returned to Washington, where he has faithfully stood up for Nevadans by working to keep taxes low and regulations less burdensome.

Amodei has fought the efforts of past administrations to limit economic and recreational access to public lands.

In the 4th Congressional District — which includes part of northern Clark County, southern part of Lyon County and all of White Pine, Nye, Mineral, Esmeralda, and Lincoln counties — former Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy deserves another chance to represent the residents of Southern Nevada.

After serving one term in Congress, the Mesquite native was narrowly defeated by North Las Vegas Democrat Ruben Kihuen, who is not running for re-election after facing sexual harassment allegations.

Hardy will continue to fight for lower taxes and the creation of an economic environment that is conducive to the growth of job-creating businesses. He also promises to work toward balancing the federal budget for a change.

Though state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson did vote with the Republican majority to raise taxes, his experience and otherwise conservative bona fides make him the choice for lieutenant governor, a job that includes presiding over the state Senate. He has been endorsed by Laxalt.

Roberson has worked to provide Nevadans with school choice, consolidated government agencies and regulations and worked to save money by reforming  collective bargaining and public employee pensions.

Republican Wes Duncan, formerly Laxalt’s first assistant attorney general, deserves a promotion to attorney general, the state’s lawyer. Duncan helped Laxalt in his many lawsuits defending the rights of Nevada against federal encroachment. He left the Assembly to join Laxalt’s office and left the office upon filing for election.

Duncan promised to make Nevada a safer place to raise a family, including working toward better handling of mental health issues. He once proposed repealing the state’s renewable portfolio standard that has driven up power bills. He has been endorsed by a number of police chiefs and district attorneys.

Barbara Cegavske deserves to be re-elected secretary of state, a job she has handled well — maintaining election integrity, streamlining business licensing and maintaining official records of the state. She has worked to improve the existing electronic voting system. Republican Cegavske has also worked to assure Nevada’s military members who are stationed overseas may vote.

Nevada’s next state treasurer should be Republican Bob Beers, a CPA  who has served in five sessions of the Nevada Legislature and is a former Las Vegas City Councilman. He was one of the “Fearless Fifteen” who stopped Gov. Kenny Guinn from placing a gross receipts tax.

The treasurer’s job is to hold the states purse strings. Beers knows how to do that.

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: How will energy choice affect rural Nevadans?

One of the big questions lingering about a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would end electric power monopolies and create an open and competitive market electricity is: Just how will it affect customers of rural Nevada’s power cooperatives?

Question 3 on the 2016 General Election ballot — the Energy Choice Initiative (ECI) — passed by an overwhelming 72.4 percent to 27.6 percent. Because the measure would amend the state Constitution, it is back on the ballot this fall for final voter approval, but now a coalition headed by NV Energy is campaigning to defeat it.

David Luttrell — general manager of the Lincoln County Power District No. 1, president of the Nevada Rural Electric Association and a member of the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice — said his power district has not joined the coalition opposing the initiative, but he is concerned the initiative’s impact on rural Nevada, should it pass, is not being adequately addressed.

“As we’re moving toward energy choice we were hopeful that there would be some recognition that the rural organizations, by definition, offer choice, so there are choices,” Luttrell said in a recent interview. “They were created by the people they serve for the people they serve. So at a very fundamental level that is choice.”

None of the rules will be written until and unless it passes again in November and goes to lawmakers. Luttrell said what is really going on at this stage is a kind of record building and fact finding.

“If you look at some of the comments of proponents of energy choice, one of the things they very strongly believe is that existing utilities do not and are not allowed to be retail energy providers, and their argument, I understand, I get the basis of their argument, is that an existing utility, retail energy provider, they do have an advantage that others that want to come into the area will not be able to compete against,” he said.

The proponents say it would be unfair and hinder real competition intended to lower overall power bills if the existing utilities are allowed to continue to generate power at the facilities they own and maintain existing contracts with outside suppliers.

While that argument is being made, it is not necessarily mandatory. The initiative itself simply requires the Legislature to pass a law providing an open, competitive retail electric energy market by July 1, 2023. The law must include provisions to reduce customer costs, protect against service disconnections and unfair practices, and prohibit the granting of monopolies for power generation, but could leave in place regulation of transmission or distribution systems.

On their website the backers of the initiative say it would be up to lawmakers to decide if current utilities would have to divest their generation facilities.

“In some energy choice states, energy consumers do not have to choose a new supplier. They can choose to remain with the incumbent utility. Other states have chosen to prohibit the utility from generating and selling power to consumers,” the ECI website offers. “In both cases, the utility retains ownership of the transmission and distribution grid and responsibility for maintaining the system and billing customers. Energy choice states simply give consumers the right to choose a new supplier, aggregate a community to purchase electricity, or generate their own power.”

But Paul Caudill, CEO of NV Energy, has told the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice that, if voters approve the amendment, his company is ready to divest all generation assets and all purchase power agreements. He said the company has no interest in being a provider of last resort and will most likely transform into a wires only company.

NV Energy has suggested divestiture could result in so-called stranded cost of as much as $7 billion that would have to be paid by existing customers.

The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada estimates those stranded costs could cause electricity rates to rise $24.91 a month in Southern Nevada and $6.52 Northern Nevada for residential customers.

But a report by the Garrett Group presented to the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice recently on behalf of the initiative backers said such a sell off should be profitable, and, when coupled with the recent tax law changes, should cause power bills to drop by $11.16 a month.

If rural power cooperatives have to divest their contracts for cheap hydroelectric power, Luttell says bills will necessarily soar.

Next week: Part 2

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.