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SEBELIUS: Who Cares about single subject?

It was 2009, and a vexing problem was back before the Nevada Legislature.

In 2005, lawmakers passed a law limiting initiative petitions to a single subject. It came after a 2004 campaign that saw trial lawyers attempt to blunt the impact of medical malpractice caps with a pair of initiatives that promised one thing, but also undercut damage awards.

But in the years after the so-called single-subject rule passed, problems emerged. Courts so strictly interpreted the measure that otherwise sound initiatives were found to be invalid.

Into the debate stepped state Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, an attorney and former journalist. His Senate Bill 196 would be the first — and the last — serious attempt by the Legislature to fix problems related to the single-subject rule.

Essentially, his bill would have loosened the rule to more closely resemble a provision in the Nevada Constitution, which limits bills in the Legislature to one subject. But that law has been interpreted liberally to allow many inter-related items to be considered under a broad, general title, because bills in the Legislature are subject to debate and amendment, while initiatives aren’t. (The single-subject rule is now the subject of a lawsuit by veteran Las Vegas attorney Kermitt Waters, who alleges it was adopted in a bill that itself embraced multiple subjects.)

Under Care’s 2009 bill, an initiative would have to “embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith,” and courts were to construe that requirement broadly, “in favor of the proponents of a petition.” Finally, it would specify that a proposed initiative doesn’t violate the single-subject rule if it creates a new tax and then specifies how that money should be spent, a combination that killed at least one initiative in the courts.

Care, noting that more than 15 petitions failed in 2008, made the case for the people’s right to circulate initiatives.

“I have not been involved in these cases, but it is clear to me that anytime anyone tries to get a measure on the ballot, there will be a legal challenge on the single-subject rule,” Care said at a hearing. “This will incur legal fees and be time-consuming. It is a hindrance to the process and a disturbance of the right to petition the government. … Let the voice of the people be heard. This is their state.”

Others disagreed, to put it mildly.

Care’s bill was opposed by Secretary of State Ross Miller, who said in a letter that monied interests behind initiatives had “… left Nevada citizens vulnerable to misrepresentations regarding the subject matter of these petitions and their impact on the state.” It was opposed by Carole Vilardo of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, who disliked “ballot-box budgeting.” It was opposed by a then-lobbyist for what is now the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, who said the current single-subject law was working just fine. It was opposed by iconic state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who denounced government-by-initiative of the type found in California.

State Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said she’d like to amend the bill to outlaw initiatives that raise taxes, an obviously unconstitutional idea. (Presumably, initiatives that seek to limit or cut taxes would be fine. Nevada has seen both, and both types have fallen to the single-subject rule.)

At the final hearing, Care said some lawmakers might feel the initiative process intrudes onto their prerogative to pass laws, and that they might not like it as a result. (The hell you say!) Former state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, called for a vote, but never got a second. The bill died, and so did any attempt by the Nevada Legislature to help citizens who want to circulate initiatives to change laws or the state constitution.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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