Newspaper column: Whether you get to vote on tax hike will be up to the courts

One of these days, perhaps, you will be able to go online and download and sign a petition calling for the repeal of the $1.4 billion in tax hikes — a nearly 17 percent increase in state spending — approved by your Republican-majority Nevada Legislature and signed by your Republican governor just months after the voters rejected two tax hikes at the ballot box — one of them by a margin of 4-to-1.

Earlier this summer a group calling themselves the We Decide Coalition filed such an initiative with Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, asking that the matter go before the voters in November 2016.

The filing included a verbatim copy of the 100-page Senate Bill 483, which created a commerce tax (similar to the voter-rejected margin tax), hiked the cigarette tax $1 a pack, adjusted the payroll tax, made permanent certain “temporary” taxes, hiked business license fees, changed taxes on mining (a version of which was also rejected by voters), etc.

Knowing full well the initiative would be challenged in court because it addressed more than a single subject as required by law, a legislative land mine that has blown up many a petition effort, the group filed a pre-emptive lawsuit asking that the petition be declared a single subject because it addresses only one bill or, in the alternative, that SB483 be jettisoned as unconstitutional.

Brian Sandoval

The state Constitution requires: “Each law enacted by the Legislature shall embrace but one subject, and matter, properly connected therewith, which subject shall be briefly expressed in the title …”

Repeal proponents point out that SB483 amends 41 chapters and hundreds of sections, and amends, adds or deletes more than 87 separate freestanding sections of state law.

The status of that lawsuit is unclear since a group calling itself the Coalition for Nevada’s Future filed another suit in another state court challenging the legal standing of the petition over the single-subject law and over its “Description of Effect” filed with the repeal effort. Instead of describing the effect of repealing the law or letting it stand, the We Decide Coalition simply cut and pasted SB483’s title.

The suit points out that Nevada law “requires that an initiative petition set forth, in not more than 200 words, a ‘description of the effect of the initiative or referendum if the initiative or referendum is approved by the voters.’ The purpose of the description of effect is to help prevent voter confusion and promote informed decisions. The description of effect cannot be materially misleading, nor fail to identify the consequences of a referendum’s passage, and it must be straightforward, succinct, and nonargumentative.”

Chuck Muth

One of the instigators of the petition, Chuck Muth, conceded the latter point and said the group plans to refile its petition with a new and improved description of effect.

Once that is done, the other coalition is expected to file suit against that petition and start the whole process over again.

There is a possibility somewhere along the line that someone might raise the issue of whether every state judge has a conflict of interest. Were the voters to get a chance to slash the state budget by nearly 17 percent, who knows where the cuts in spending might trickle down. To the courts, perhaps? But it is hard to see how federal courts could have jurisdiction in what are basically conflicts under state law and constitution.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has promised to fight the repeal effort tooth and nail, calling the petition “a wrongheaded attack on the children and families of Nevada. Supported by more than seventy percent of legislators, the revenue the petition seeks to eliminate will go directly to the classroom and give teachers the resources to deliver a quality education.”

Of course, the governor fails to note that the state has increased education spending 80 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, over the past 40 years with no detectible effect on student test scores.

More than a few legal knots will have to be untangled before we find out whether the voters themselves will get a chance to say whether they agree or not with this massive increase in spending and taxation.

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

Newspaper column: Tax hike battle should prove to be a bruiser

This should get interesting.

A group of people calling themselves the We Decide Coalition has filed an initiative petition with the Nevada Secretary of State that would give voters a chance to repeal the $1.4 billion in tax hikes passed by the 2015 Legislature at the behest of Gov. Brian Sandoval — Senate Bill 483.

The political and legal wrangling promise to get down in the mud.

Politically, the filing struck a raw nerve with our Republican governor, who unleashed a withering diatribe, calling the petition “a wrongheaded attack on the children and families of Nevada. Supported by more than seventy percent of legislators, the revenue the petition seeks to eliminate will go directly to the classroom and give teachers the resources to deliver a quality education. Most Nevadans understand that more investment in our schools, with proper accountability and reform, will improve graduation rates and student performance. It is also clear that if our schools don’t improve, businesses won’t come here. The time is now to build the workforce of the future.”

Brian Sandoval

Never mind that the state has increased education spending 80 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, during the past 40 years with no detectible effect on test scores.

Unfazed by the historic record of failure for his proposed education spending, Sandoval attacked the petitioners by demanding: “Those responsible for promoting this petition must answer a simple question to the parents of Nevada: What will you cut?”

Among possible cuts, Sandoval helpfully listed class-size reduction, which has a 25-year track record of failure to produce. He mentioned anti-bullying programs, which have little to do with actual education. He singled out all-day kindergarten, which even the U.S. Department of Education admits has not improved outcomes.

He also listed the Read by Three program, which would require that children who are not proficient in reading by the end of the third grade would not be promoted to the fourth grade. How much does that cost? Besides it is not scheduled to go into effect until the 2019-20 school year, after Sandoval leaves office.

“I strongly oppose the petition,” Sandoval concluded. “Its passage will destroy a generational opportunity to finally modernize and improve an under-performing education system.”

Where and when have we heard that before?

For their part the petitioners point out that SB483 is the largest tax hike in Nevada history and includes a gross receipts tax — under the rubric of a commerce tax — that is similar to the teachers union tax that 80 percent of Nevada voters rejected at the ballot box just this past November. At that same election the voters also rejected a mining tax hike.

Doesn’t appear the voters have much of an appetite for tax increases, even if their elected lawmakers do.

But the real fight over this initiative petition is likely to take place in the courts. In fact, the petitioners themselves do not seem overly anxious to begin the arduous task of gathering the 55,000 signatures by June 2016 to qualify the referendum for the ballot. They think a court challenge is inevitable.

They say there will undoubtedly be a legal challenge and, therefore, “there isn’t much sense in potentially wasting a lot of time, effort and money actually circulating this petition until the inevitable court challenges are resolved.”

The legal hurdle is likely to be the single-subject rule, which has tripped many petitioners. This law was passed in 2005 and says any initiative petition must contain “but one subject and matters necessarily connected therewith and pertaining thereto.”

Chuck Muth

SB483 contains a half dozen taxes, which arguably violates the state constitution, which reads: “Each law enacted by the Legislature shall embrace but one subject …”

Petition proponents argue SB483 passed the Legislature and was signed by the governor as one subject; therefore, repeal would be one subject.

“In the past, courts have defined the meaning of ‘single subject’ very broadly for legislation but very narrowly for citizen ballot initiatives,” writes Chuck Muth, president of Citizen Outreach and one the petition instigators. “The only way for the courts to reject this particular word-for-word referendum as a violation of the single subject rule is to tell the people of Nevada that they are held to a completely different, thoroughly discriminatory definition of ‘single subject’ than the people we the people elect.”

Let the battle begin and when the dust clears, we’ll see if the taxpayers come out the winners or losers.

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

Update: AP reports that Sen. Harry Reid says he is willing to do everything he can to help Sandoval’s tax package survive a ballot initiative seeking its repeal, though he is not actively involved now.

“Sandoval and I don’t agree on stuff, but we agree on a lot, and I think what he was able to do with that Legislature was masterful,” Reid said. “I think it would be a real disservice to our state if the crazies were able to prevail.”