State Supreme Court rejects petitions on tax proposals


CARSON CITY -- Three petitions signed by an estimated 130,000 registered voters and backed by Las Vegas Sands Inc. cannot appear on the November election ballot because their circulators did not follow the signature collection law, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 7-0 decision kills two petitions that would have given voters a chance to decide whether to divert some room tax money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to state education, transportation and public safety programs.

The third petition would have let voters decide whether to require a two-thirds vote requirement for ballot questions that seek to raise taxes.

The petition gathering effort was bankrolled by Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson whose convention operations compete with the publicly funded convention authority.

Former state Controller Steve Martin, who led the effort to put the room tax petitions on the ballot, said the real losers are the voters.

"There were mistakes made on all sides, from the secretary of state on down, but the real losers are the Nevada voters," he said. "We had 130,000 voters sign the petitions. We are disenfranchising 130,000 voters."

While the new law was designed to prevent fraud, Martin said he and his circulators never were accused of fraud.

Martin hopes to circulate the same petitions in 2010 if he can find financial backing.

Justices said petition circulators failed to follow a 2007 law that requires them to sign affidavits that they personally circulated the petitions and counted the signatures on their petitions, witnessed people sign in their presence and gave them an opportunity to read each petition in its entirety.

The court ruled that the Legislature added the requirements to prevent fraud and they were an essential part of the petition gathering process.

Justices said legislators were concerned about possible petition parties where circulators themselves would sign the names of registered voters.

The court said petition circulators complained the petitions should go on the ballot because they relied on rules found in an initiative petition guide on Secretary of State Ross Miller's Web site. That guide had not been amended to include the 2007 law.

Justices said that was not a valid excuse. The secretary of state included a disclaimer that the guide did not include the most recent petition law and circulators should check with the Legislature for revisions.

But Allen Lichtenstein, a Las Vegas lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he was disappointed in the decision. It was not the first time the secretary of state's office has given wrong information about a petition, Lichtenstein said.

"People should be able to rely on information given by a government agency on the initiative process," he said.

The high court decision means none of about a dozen petitions circulated in fall 2007 and this spring has qualified for the November ballot.

A petition circulated by former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, that would limit property tax increases to 2 percent a year still has a chance. But Angle's petition also has been challenged on the grounds circulators did not follow the law and a district court hearing on that challenge will be conducted Monday in Virginia City.

Miller hailed Thursday's high court decision.

"They affirmed the fact that the laws governing the petition process to amend our constitution must be followed," he said.

Miller said he was grateful the court made a swift decision because county clerks and election registrars have time to amend their ballots before the November election.

The secretary of state, who serves as the state's chief election officer, issued the original opinion that petitions were not valid because circulators failed to follow the new requirements.

His decision was upheld by District Judge James Todd Russell of Carson City, who chastised Miller for not updating his Web site, but said circulators were bound to follow the new law.

AFL-CIO state Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson, whose organization opposed the petitions, said the decision was right.

"The two-thirds petition would in effect have put a minority in charge of the majority," said Thompson, who was part of the Nevada for Nevada coalition representing firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, seniors, local governments and others opposing the petition. "That flies in the face of what this country was founded on."

Thompson said the room tax petition would have hurt the Las Vegas economy because its revenues are used to promote the tourism industry.

"When the gaming and tourism industry has a downturn, it affects us all," he said.

Vince Alberta, a spokesman for the convention authority, said his organization obviously was pleased by the decision.

"We also understand we must remain focused on our mission -- to attract visitors to Las Vegas," he said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley contributed to this report.

 

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