Judge decides two petitions follow rules

CARSON CITY -- A Carson City district judge declined Friday to stop supporters of a pair of initiative petitions aimed at reallocating "excess" Las Vegas convention authority revenues to other uses, including education, from trying to qualify it for the ballot.

Judge Bill Maddox ruled from the bench after a three-hour hearing, finding that the two measures being bankrolled by Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson comply with initiative petition guidelines.

The ruling was a defeat for Clark County local governments and the convention authority, entities that had challenged the wording and legality of the two initiative petitions in an effort to stop them from being circulated.

Las Vegas attorney Todd Bice, representing the entities, said the decision will be appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

But any decision on appeal will likely come well after the May 20 deadline for turning in the 58,836 signatures needed to qualify the measures for the November ballot.

And Robert Uithoven, a Las Vegas Sands political consultant, said there is no doubt enough signatures will be collected in all 17 counties to qualify both measures.

One of the measures would take excess room tax funds from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and direct the money solely to education.

The second measure would take the money and direct it to education, transportation and public safety in equal amounts.

Using fiscal year 2006-07 as a base, any revenues in excess of this amount, less an annual increase for inflation, would be diverted to the Legislature for the identified programs.

The measures are both constitutional amendments, meaning they would have to be approved by voters twice, in 2008 and 2010, before they could take effect. If voters approved both, the one getting the most votes would become law.

The petitions would affect only Clark County initially because they limit room tax diversions to counties with a population of 800,000 or more.

Maddox expressed concern that the measures are aimed at amending the state constitution, rather than making changes to state law.

But he said voters can make the decision on whether to place such a proposal into the constitution where it would be difficult to change.

Bice raised a number of challenges to the petitions. He said they violate a requirement that such measures restrict themselves to a single subject. He also challenged the petition descriptions, saying they did not fully explain what was being asked of voters.

The real issue isn't funding education, but capping revenues for the convention authority because of Adelson's belief that it competes with his own convention business, Bice said.

"Don't play these games about education enhancement," he said.

Bice also suggested that the measures would divert nearly $25 million in the first five years from county and city parks and recreation projects, another consequence that is not made clear to petition signers.

Bice said the Nevada Constitution should not be amended or money diverted from the convention authority because of the concerns of a "bored millionaire."

Adelson is a billionaire.

Attorney Scott Scherer, representing the Las Vegas Sands, rejected the arguments raised by Bice. He said the petitions do follow the single-subject rule. The language in them is clear and concise, he said.

The issues raised by the local governments were intended only to stop the petitions from reaching the ballot, Scherer said.

The entities "are simply trying to run out the clock," he said.

Maddox didn't reject the challenge brought by the government entities based on an argument by petition supporters that they were violating state law by spending tax dollars to support or oppose a ballot question.

Bice said that restriction applies to questions that have already qualified for the ballot.

Representatives from most of the major casino corporations have voiced opposition to the petitions. Gaming leaders said they don't want to divert money used to market Las Vegas at a time when massive expansion is taking place on the Strip and a national economic downturn is curtailing U.S. tourism.

The convention authority now receives about $200 million per year in room taxes.

Former state Treasurer Bob Seale, who is heading what the petition backers are calling the School Funding Solutions Ballot Advocacy Group, said when the measures were filed in February that the revenue stream to education and the other priorities would be small at first.

Revenues would increase dramatically as additional hotel rooms open in Las Vegas, he said.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.