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INTRO: Last week a Carson City court set a hearing date for arguments regarding the Axe The Tax petition. This question before voters would repeal new taxes enacted earlier this year. As KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports, lawsuits are an increasing trend accompanying voter initiatives.
PLASKON: In a few months voters will stand before these electronic voting machines and ask themselves: Do I want to raise the minimum wage, legally smoke pot, pay lower insurance rates and fund schools at the national average. They seem like simple enough questions that'll appear on this year's ballot, but community leaders warn that initiatives could have a devastating effect. Kara Kelly CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce predicts financial doom if voters pass the mandate to fund schools at the national average.
KELLY: There is not going to be one thing that is going to be worse to bankrupt our state than something like that.
PLASKON: According to the California Tax Payers Association, voter initiatives nearly bankrupted California. Fearing a similar scenario in Nevada, two former governors and the Nevada Taxpayer's Association spoke out against an initiative that would cost Nevada's government 806 million dollars, the Axe The Tax initiative. If approved by voters it would repeal 200 sections of tax law passed in the last legislative session. It's a scary thought for former Governor Bob Miller.
LIST: You would have to re-structure the whole budget. It could potentially close down everything.
PLASKON: He's encouraging the public not to vote for Axe The Tax if it makes it to the ballot and be patient: Let legislators adjust tax law they admit is flawed he says. Tomorrow a Legislative committee will meet to hold a workshop to do just that, re-consider policy directly related to the taxes it passed. Former Governor Robert List says the tax issue doesn't need an initiative. It can be solved through the political process.
LIST: And we do have that opportunity this fall, there are a number of legislators that took various positions on the tax package that are in play and there is no question in my mind that there will be a fresh look at that as tax structure when the new legislature comes back.
PLASKON: Nonetheless, Axe the Tax and other initiatives are bogged down in court as special interests try to protect the status quo. Of the 14 initiatives that circulated this year only 2 outright qualified, the other 5 have faced court action. Some went to court after they were disqualified by the Secretary of State on a technicality: Signature gatherers hadn't signed a special affidavit. That technicality was challenged by the ACLU and subsequently discarded. The Axe The Tax initiative has had one of the toughest climbs through the court system. George Harris chairman of Nevadan's for Sound Government funding the Axe The Tax petition drive, remembers being denied an extension to collect signatures and so he filed suit.
HARRIS: During that time we filed the lawsuit, 3-4-5 people were arrested for the high crime of going up to someone and saying hey, would you like to repeal the taxes.
PLASKON: The extension was granted when the court found petitioners' First Amendment rights were violated when they were kicked off government property. Now, the petition is again moving forward.
SOUND: Election Workers.
PLASKON: In Clark County election workers are verifying each of the 60 thousand signatures is being verified to meet a 51-thousand signature requirement to put it on the ballot. However, last week opposition groups filed a new court challenge to the constitutionality of Axe The Tax and the Keep Our Doctors in Nevada initiative. The Carson City District Court will hear arguments next week from the Nevada Taxpayers Association, the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce and Nevada Motor Transport Association.
VILLARDO: It's a loose-loose proposition.
PLASKON: Carole Vilardo of the Nevada Taxpayers Association wants to keep Axe The Tax off the ballot entirely because even a no vote on the initiative would mean legislators have to go back to the voters to raise some taxes. So it's filed a claim that Axe The Tax should be disqualified from the ballot as unconstitutional because it didn't contain the full text of the law it would repeal for voters to read.
VILARDO: The issue is not, should you be able to file petitions or not if you are going to do them they should follow the constitution and law.
PLASKON: Harris says the law is prohibitive. Axe The Tax petitioners couldn't carry the 200 sections of the law the initiative would repeal.
HARRIS: They were trying to say that we needed to put the entire SB 8 on the petition. SB 8 is about 126 pages, there was never any thought from any of the fore fathers that a petition should be 126 pages long for someone to sign it. It is just ridiculous and there is not a judge in the world that is going to go for that nonsense.
PLASKON: The petition only listed the arcane code section of the laws that would be repealed. The argument that the text of petition is too vague is a common one says David Damore Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNLV.
DAMORE: Confusing, very confusing. And a lot of that stems from the fact that you have special interest groups writing public policy. As opposed to legislatures, so they have in their mind the intent but they might not reflect that and so often times you will see these things left up to the courts to decide what they mean.
PLASKON: And while the argument against vagueness is a good one for courts, Steve Johnson UNLV E-L Weigand School of Law professor says this litigious atmosphere puts this progressive idea of voter initiatives in jeopardy.
JOHNSON: As a result of that courts have been asked to be involved more and more. When the courts get involved the whole aspect of the democratic flavor is undercut, second because of the uncertainty are they going to be on the ballot are they constitutional, what are the voters or election officials supposed to do. The late challenges unsettle the utility of this device.
PLASKON: But the utility of this form of direct democracy is not just damaged by the legal haggling petitioners engage in defending the right to put questions before the people. Johnson says the utility of the device is also damaged by the petitioning organizations.
JOHNSON: What makes direct democracy so appealing you know the voice of the people unmoderated. But if the outcome of the referendum depends on how much the proponents and opponents spend on it, it is not the voice of the people, it is the voice of the dollar sign.
PLASKON: Court actions mean more money is involved as well. The voice of the dollar sign could be strong behind the Axe The Tax petition. It's scoffed at the state law to reveal its donors. That issue is in court too. Now, even this year's Stop Frivolous Lawsuits initiative is on it's way to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR