Of all the ways there are to make policy, initiatives are probably the worst.
They’re often circulated by a special interest with a parochial goal, targeting a specific industry or group. Once they’re written, they cannot be changed, no matter how many flaws emerge in the public debate. And the unintended consequences can be legion, as Nevada discovered in the wake of passing a ban on smoking in most public places.
By contrast, a bill in the Legislature can be amended as flaws emerge. It requires a consensus of representatives and the executive branch before it can become law. All sides of an issue have a chance to at least be heard, if not shape a compromise.
In every possible way, legislation beats an initiative as a tool to make policy.
So why could the most significant policy changes in Nevada only come through initiatives? And is Nevada doomed to repeat California’s legislation-by-vox-populi?
Already, liberal and labor groups have threatened to pass tax plans should the 2011 Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval fail to raise taxes. (And thus far, it does not appear the Democrats are going to have the votes to overcome Republican opposition to any tax plan, especially in the state Senate.) Targets of these initiatives may include business and mining companies. And some very intelligent observers of the Nevada political scene believe the only way certain taxes will ever become law is if they appear on the ballot.
It’s been tried before: In 2000, the Nevada State Education Association put a 4 percent business profits tax petition before the Legislature. (It was ultimately sidelined on a technicality.) That same year, former state Sen. Joe Neal tried to increase the gross gaming tax by petition. (That effort also failed.) And last year, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada couldn’t muster enough signatures on a petition to amend the state constitution to allow increased taxes on the mining industry.
So what’s to say things will change after the 2011 session, especially with the myriad hurdles to passing an initiative?
Although lawmakers frequently refer to the obvious superiority of the legislative process, the level of frustration with their lack of progress (or excess of progress, depending on your political perspective) has grown. Initiatives are supposed to be used when the Legislature cannot or will not act, sort of a safety valve for democracy when no other option exists.
More and more, however, they are becoming tools for specific policy proposals that don’t have the political clout to make it through the Legislature.
The rhetoric from the left on tax initiatives may explain why conservatives are mulling measures of their own, such as requiring a two-thirds vote of the people on any petition that seeks to create or raise taxes. (That measure was vetted in 2007, but failed to make the ballot on a technicality.)
Another idea is to repeal Chapter 288 of the Nevada Revised Statues, which governs collective bargaining.
“This is more a defensive move on our part,” says Robert Uithoven, a Republican strategist. “If (AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer) Danny Thompson is going to spend $3 million, I’d rather him spend it defending (against) an initiative to repeal (NRS) 288 than trying to pass a corporate income tax.”
Neither side has actually drafted measures yet.
So that’s Nevada’s future? Tax measures going up against anti-tax measures, liberal and conservative signature-gatherers, battling for support in front of grocery stories and the DMV, legal challenges and arguments?
The answer, unless the 2011 Legislature can craft a solution that satisfies everyone, is probably yes.
And the chances of that happening are about the same as the Nevada Mining Association donating $100,000 to PLAN.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column runs Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.