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How Nevada politicians violate state constitution’s taxpayer protections

Legislators have been skirting the Nevada Constitution to pass tax increases for 20 years, and it’s time to expose their scheme.

They’re violating the Gibbons’ Tax Restraint Initiative, a voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires the support of two-thirds of lawmakers (or a majority vote of the people) on any bill that “creates, generates, or increases any public revenue.”

Nevada’s local governments already can’t raise taxes unless the Legislature approves first. That should provide state taxpayers with a double firewall against local tax increases.

But big government worked out an end-around. After the initiative went into effect in 1996, the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides legal advice to legislators, argued that if politicians punted their authority to a local government board on a particular tax, the bill wouldn’t require two-thirds support.

That opinion provided lawmakers with political cover that allows them to claim they aren’t voting for a tax increase. Because of that cover, many of these tax-authorization measures end up receiving two-thirds approval anyway. But some bills, including SB119 and SB207, which in 2015 authorized the Clark County School District’s current bond campaign, didn’t receive two-thirds approval and went into effect anyway.

In 2015, Assemblyman Ira Hansen requested an LCB opinion on the constitutionality of passing tax-authorization bills without a two-thirds majority. LCB opined that such bills — at the time they’re passed — don’t “create, generate, or increase” taxes because the bills authorize local boards to increase taxes, but don’t require them to, even when such a bill eventually leads to higher taxes.

Our constitutional protections are worthless if we allow government to use this kind of sleight of hand. Don’t like that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”? Just have Congress create a subordinate government with the “discretionary authority” to establish a national religion.

If you have a “no cookies without asking me” rule and your oldest son tells his younger siblings that they have the “discretionary authority” to have cookies without asking, you’d ground him. But if the LCB says it, the establishment will nod somberly, all while looking down their noses at you and me — the dummies who can’t see the emperor’s new clothes.

It’s also an argument that doesn’t fly with the author of the amendment, former Gov. Jim Gibbons, according to Gibbons’ former chief of staff and campaign manager, Robert Uithoven.

“Gov. Gibbons and I had many conversations about the Gibbons Tax Restraint Amendment,” Uithoven said. “He was always clear that the amendment applies to every tax or fee increase considered by the state Legislature.

“I firmly believe that Gov. Gibbons would have considered the Legislature authorizing a different governing body to increase a tax without a two-thirds vote as an attempt to circumvent an initiative that received over 70 percent voter approval. That’s a number you can only get when a measure has broad bipartisan support.”

It’s time our lawmakers respected the law.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

Letter regarding Senate Bill No. 119 by Las Vegas Review-Journal on Scribd

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