The Nevada Supreme Court was asked Tuesday to make it easier for citizen groups to put measures on the ballot by liberalizing existing rules limiting such proposals to a single subject.
The challenge to the current single-subject rule was brought by Las Vegas attorney Kermitt Waters on behalf of Citizen Outreach and two other groups who argue the limitation makes it nearly impossible for citizens to put proposals to the voters.
In oral arguments before the court in Las Vegas, Waters said the single-subject rule is used by opponents of ballot measures to hold up signature gathering efforts in court until the groups run out of time.
The rule for citizen petitions should be the same as the more liberal single-subject requirement for the Legislature, which allows it to enact bills dealing with multiple subjects, he said.
In the alternative, the court could use the case to set down new rules restricting the Legislature’s ability to pass bills dealing with multiple subjects, Waters said.
So the rules should be the same for both, Chief Justice Mark Gibbons argued to Waters.
“That’s what I’m asking the court to do,” Waters said.
Apply a strict or liberal standard, but apply it to both processes, he asked the court.
Waters is appealing a lower-court ruling rejecting his case.
Opponents in the case range from the Nevada secretary of state and the Legislative Counsel Bureau to the Nevada Resort Association and the Nevada Mining Association. The court will rule later in the case.
At issue in the appeal are two bills passed by the Legislature: Senate Bill 224 from the 2005 session, which enacted the single-subject rule for initiative petitions, and Assembly Bill 81 from the 2011 session, which requires signatures to be gathered in each of the state’s four congressional districts.
Kevin Benson, representing the secretary of state on behalf of the attorney general’s office, said the rules for creating laws are different because the processes of direct and representative democracy have almost nothing in common.
“So it naturally follows that there are different rules to govern those difference processes,” he said.
Benson also argued that the proposed change to the legislative single-subject rule would be stricter than that used in any other state.
“Every state that has a similar rule in their constitution has applied that very liberally,” he said. “So there is simply no reason to change the rule in this case.”
Kevin Powers, deputy legislative counsel for the Nevada Legislature, argued that if the liberal interpretation for the single-subject rule used by lawmakers is restricted by the court, it would have a drastic effect on the legislative process.
Waters has argued that the two bills at issue should have been drafted as 20 separate measures to satisfy the single-subject rule, Powers told the court.
Such a rule would require the Legislature to draft thousands of more bills than the 1,300 or so measures requested each session, Powers said.
Members of the court also asked whether Waters had standing to bring the appeal, given that he has not submitted an initiative petition to the secretary of state’s office for circulation for the 2014 ballot.
Any claim of injury is speculative without a petition, Justice Kris Pickering told Waters.
Waters has included in his filing with the court a proposed initiative petition to amend the state constitution to establish a two-pronged tax measure in Nevada to raise the mining tax and impose a broad-based gross receipts tax.
But Waters said he wants the Supreme Court to sign off on the language of the measure before filing it with the secretary of state’s office to head off any legal challenges over the single-subject rule. Otherwise, once the petition is filed, it will be challenged in court and the groups will simply run out of time to qualify it for the ballot, he said.
The proposed margins tax placed on the November 2014 ballot by the Nevada State Education Association is the first initiative petition to qualify since 2006. It too had to survive a legal challenge based in part on the single-subject rule.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.