weather icon Drizzle
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

So who’s really in charge around here?

Up in Carson City, there’s an organizational chart of state government. At the top, above even the governor, there’s a box for the people of the state of Nevada.

But that’s not really how it is.

More confirmation came this week in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the so-called single-subject rule that has torpedoed most citizen initiatives since it was enacted in 2005.

By way of background, the Nevada Constitution, in Article 4, Section 17, reads as follows: “Each law enacted by the Legislature shall embrace but one subject, and matter, properly connected therewith.”

Of course, this provision is routinely ignored in Carson City.

Such was the case in 2005, when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 224. Among (many) other things, it limited citizen initiatives to a single subject: “Each petition for initiative or referendum must embrace but one subject and matters necessarily connected therewith and pertaining thereto.”

But wait, there’s more. That same bill also changed who was eligible to sign petitions, where signatures could be solicited in front of public buildings, required groups that collect signatures to file campaign reports, requiring a 200-word description of the petition, requiring legal challenges to be filed within seven days, and providing for procedures for legal challenges to petitions.

Seriously, the 299-word summary of what the law does takes up most of the first page.

So attorney Kermitt Waters – a man who has circulated his share of petitions in Nevada – sued, claiming the Legislature (irony alert!) violated its single-subject rule when it imposed a single-subject rule on people who want to circulate petitions.

Alas, on Tuesday, a District Court judge ruled that the two single-subject rules – although they are almost identical in wording – are not the same. The reason: Legislation goes through an arduous process with plenty of opportunities for amendment, but an initiative cannot be changed once written.

“While the Nevada Supreme Court has not expressly held that the ‘single subject’ rules in Article 4, Section 17 of the Nevada Constitution, and as contained in SB 224, should be applied differently from one another, the case law in Nevada seems to suggest that these rules have been applied differently, with the ‘single subject’ rule being applied liberally to the Legislature, and strictly with regard to initiative petitions,” wrote Judge Jerry Wiese.

In other words, do as the Legislature says, not as it’s supposed to do. That’s precisely the opposite of how it should be, by the way. The constitution should strictly control the Legislature, while the ability of the people to propose laws should be construed as liberally as possible.

It’s interesting to note Waters’ lawsuit was opposed by the Nevada Resort Association, the Nevada Mining Association, the Retail Association of Nevada, the Wynn Las Vegas and the partially taxpayer-funded Nevada Development Authority. Now, what could those groups possibly have against the right of the citizens to pursue initiatives?

Wiese’s ruling properly blames the Legislature for the mess.

“While this court believes that the initiative process in Nevada may be overly difficult to pursue by the citizens of the state, the Legislature has made it this way by enacting the statues which it has enacted,” Wiese wrote. “If the Legislature did not intend for the statues to be applied as they have been applied, then it is for the Legislature to enact different legislation, repeal the current legislation, or otherwise modify the statutes to effectuate the Legislature’s intent.”

Ah, but that’s just the thing. It was the Legislature’s intent to keep citizens from easily passing initiatives, lest its power (and the power of special interests in this state) be diminished.

Because in Nevada, they’re the ones on top of that organizational chart.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.