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September 19, 2014

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Ballot initiatives :

No yes-no votes this year, but oh the drama

Death of measure to cap property taxes all but ends season of lively campaigns

It was an appropriately surreal ending to what was supposed to be the year of the ballot initiative in Virginia City’s courthouse this week.

The former lawmaker pushing for lower property taxes suggested she was the bearer of the mantle of George Washington. The state’s teachers union argued paper clips and rubber bands might negate petition signatures. And a retired divorce court judge presided.

It was a strange year in initiative petition land. At least a dozen organizations wanted something from voters. In the end, none got a chance to do an end run around the wisdom, or lethargy, of the Legislature.

Barring the intervention of the Nevada Supreme Court, the only statewide initiative voters will see on the November ballot is a measure from two years ago on eminent domain.

Critics may say initiatives make for lousy policy, but they did make good political theater.

The Las Vegas Sands-backed initiatives, supported by the country’s third-richest man, failed because backers forgot to check for the latest requirements for petitions passed by lawmakers. The only other group to make the same mistake was the not nearly so well-funded group Hemp for Biomass, which sought to legalize marijuana as an alternative energy source.

The Nevada State Education Association collected signatures to raise the gaming tax by 3 percentage points. They were opposed by gaming companies, who hired folks to go out and block the teacher’s own hired guns from collecting signatures.

Did the teachers get enough signatures? We’ll never know. At the 11th hour, the union dropped its petition after some gaming companies agreed to support a proposal to raise the tax on hotel rooms, a proposal that will be taken to the Legislature.

The last ballot initiative to fall, this week, was Sharron Angle’s property tax cap, which was modeled after California’s Proposition 13. Angle and her devoted followers drew parallels between her fight and the Revolutionary War.

“It’s really the right to petition your government, to address grievances. That’s what the colonies were saying to the king,” Angle said.

The hearing was moved, for space reasons, from Carson City District Court to the courthouse in Virginia City, where the statue of Lady Justice has her eyes wide open.

It was heard by retired divorce court Judge Chuck McGee, who started the proceedings by confessing he faced a steep learning curve.

“I come into the case relatively fresh, or relatively naive, on election law,” said the senior district court judge.

Angle, the former assemblywoman, has now failed for the third time to get the initiative on the ballot. She sees the layers of laws regulating initiatives as a concerted effort to prevent the people from having a say in government.

Others, though, say the laws are safeguards against fraud.

What ended Angle’s petition was a challenge from the state teachers union. Lawyers argued that the signature gatherers’ affidavits were incorrectly filled out, either misstating the number of signatures they gathered or not writing down the number at all.

The teachers’ lawyers also questioned whether it was appropriate that the pages bearing the signatures were bound together with paper clips and rubber bands when organizers turned them in to county clerks.

While the attorneys said there was no specific allegation of fraud, the implication was that pages could have been inserted to get over the threshold, which requires signatures from at least 10 percent of those who voted in 2006.

Secretary of State Ross Miller declared Wednesday that counties should start printing ballots without Angle’s petition.

Joel Hansen, attorney for Angle’s We the People, said he will appeal the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. He has also asked the Supreme Court to suspend Judge McGee’s decision and leave the question on the ballot.

As of Thursday, the court had not done so.

Any change to the November ballot, which has to be ready in time to ship to absentee voters overseas, would at this point cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the secretary of state’s office.

The state Supreme Court rejected the three petitions backed by Las Vegas Sands this month, ruling organizers for the petitions didn’t follow requirements passed by the 2007 Legislature.

Two of the Las Vegas Sands-backed initiatives would have diverted hotel room tax money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to the state budget. Another would have required a two-thirds majority of voters to pass any ballot initiative that increases taxes.

Backers of those petitions blamed the secretary of state for issuing a voter guide that omitted the updated rules.

Miller pointed out that the guide states that those pushing petitions should check for the latest rules, and said he had updated the guide as soon as the new laws were on the books.

“They’re embarrassed they used the wrong copy. It’s political spin,” Miller said. “No other group except the hemp users had this problem.”

Hemp for Biomass failed to make the ballot for the same reason.

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