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Petition politics: All the games of the legislative process

Critics of the initiative process complain that direct democracy undermines the legislative branch by taking the horse-trading out of policymaking.

If they still believe that, they’re not paying attention to Nevada’s political landscape. Two initiatives appear to be dead and a third might yet join them – and none were really meant to make it onto a ballot in the first place. All were conceived to create leverage and, ultimately, lead to a tax policy compromise. Sounds like a typical day in Carson City.

Las Vegas businessman Monte Miller announced this week that he will abandon his petition to boost mining taxes, and that he won’t revive a gaming tax initiative that was thrown out by a judge last week. The mining petition sought to increase the industry’s net proceeds tax rate from 5 percent to 9 percent, and the gaming petition would have raised the top casino tax rate from 6.75 percent to 9 percent.

But Mr. Miller never wanted to engage in the kind of fundraising and campaigning required to get voter support for such controversial issues. He didn’t agree with his own petitions. He merely wanted to pressure the gaming and mining industries into opposing the creation of a broad-based tax on all businesses – the kind of tax the AFL-CIO wants to impose through its own initiative.

Mr. Miller told the Review-Journal his mission is accomplished. He now believes the AFL-CIO won’t bother circulating its petition. However, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson told the newspaper he’ll go forward with a plan to create a 2 percent business margin tax that would exempt a company’s first $500,000 in profits – and exempt casinos altogether because they already pay the 6.75 percent levy on gross gaming revenue. He estimates the tax would take more than $1 billion from the private sector every biennium, with the money funding public education exclusively.

Mr. Thompson said he doesn’t need the backing of gaming or mining – he says he can collect enough signatures from union members, union retirees and their families. "I don’t have to go to the streets to do it," he said.

If he can collect 72,352 valid signatures by Nov. 13, the Legislature must consider the initiative within the first 40 days of the 2013 session. If they ignore it or reject it, the question would go before Nevada voters in November 2014.

Getting voters in the state with the country’s worst unemployment rate to raise taxes on their employers would be a tall order – every bit as hard as getting the Legislature to pass it, which remains Mr. Thompson’s misguided goal.

None of these petitions is good policy, not with a fragile economic recovery taking hold. The petition process, however, is very good policy. It’s a constitutionally protected safety valve that lets voters hold government accountable and protect their interests. And, clearly, it’s subject to all the game-playing and showmanship lawmakers have long wanted reserved for themselves.

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