Right to petition: Court correctly validates tax initiative

The Nevada State Education Association’s margins tax petition is an abomination, an overreaching, growth-suppressing campaign to tax even struggling businesses that aren’t profitable. “If it doesn’t create a new recession in Nevada, it may extend the one many of us believe we are not out of yet,” said Bryan Wachter, director of government affairs for the Retail Association of Nevada.

But the Nevada Supreme Court decision that brought the petition back from the dead and dropped it in the laps of state lawmakers was right on the money, a victory for voters of all political persuasions who can’t get their elected representatives to consider policies important to them.

On Thursday, the court ruled unanimously that the petition’s description of effect – the 200-word section that discloses to voters what an initiative will accomplish if it becomes law – did not mislead or confuse the public. A plaintiff business coalition asserted that voters who signed the petition should have been told margins tax proceeds, estimated at some $800 million per year, might not boost funding for Nevada’s K-12 schools. State lawmakers could decide to shift existing revenues away from schools to higher education, welfare or public safety, among other programs. A lower court had agreed. But everyone who signed the petition certainly knew they were backing a tax increase, one they want put toward schools.

“Given that limited purpose and the 200-word restriction, the description of effect cannot constitutionally be required to delineate every effect that an initiative will have; to conclude otherwise could obstruct, rather than facilitate, the people’s right to the initiative process,” Justice James Hardesty wrote for the court.

Over the years, the opponents of various petitions have used similar tactics to block initiatives they disagreed with. Lawmakers intentionally made it too difficult for voters to bring petitions before the Legislature and the electorate, and the courts have complied in killing too many measures over mere technicalities. The NSEA was given the runaround by the courts for months, and it deserves credit for sticking with its petition – and an appeal that led to better Nevada law.

The right to petition is enshrined in the First Amendment for good reason. It makes our elected representatives accountable. Nevadans should now have a much easier time qualifying petitions.

The Legislature, which convened Monday, has until early March to pass the initiative. If it doesn’t, the petition goes to the voters in November 2014. The 2 percent tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2015, if passed, and be applied to all business revenue above $1 million, with some deductions. It’s a brutal levy, and its mere presence on the 2014 ballot will be a deterrent to business investment and economic development.

It will be incumbent upon business interests to mount an opposition campaign against the tax, reminding voters that in a state with nation-leading unemployment, punishing employers isn’t helpful in putting people back to work. They must make use of another constitutional right, free expression.

This is the way the Founding Fathers envisioned America, with citizens directly engaging their governments. We get to debate. We get to decide.

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