Petition politics

The 2007 Legislature had no interest in hearing, let alone passing, a plan to cap state revenue growth the way the unsuccessful Tax and Spending Control initiative of 2006 had envisioned.

But aside from making sure the proposal never received a vote, lawmakers quietly passed two very strict reforms that could make it nearly impossible for outside interests to qualify a similar initiative in future election cycles.

Senate Bill 549 requires initiative petitioners to collect signatures in all 17 counties to qualify a proposal for the statewide ballot. Even more onerous, Assembly Bill 604 requires anyone who gathers signatures to be registered with the secretary of state and mandates more frequent campaign finance reporting than the system now in place for candidates. Gov. Jim Gibbons signed both bills into law.

AB604 passed with just two Democrats in the Senate and five Republicans in the Assembly voting no. Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, the one-man champion of TASC, voted yes on both reforms.

AB604 was pushed by the Nevada AFL-CIO as an anti-fraud measure. When AFL-CIO lobbyist Gail Tuzzolo described the law’s effect to national colleagues on a conference call, they buzzed with excitement over the Nevada provisions.

The national Ballot Initiative Strategy Center was established by labor organizations in response to national efforts to pass legislation similar to Colorado’s spending limitation, known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. In Nevada, the AFL-CIO aggressively campaigned against TASC and successfully sued to get the measure thrown off the ballot.

Nationally, the labor movement is considering a racketeering lawsuit against organized efforts between states to pass similar revenue-capping measures. But the Nevada law is now something of a model, Tuzzolo said.

“Our goal was to prevent signature gatherers from being paid per signature rather than by the hour,” she said. “There was so many problems and rampant wage and hour violations we wanted to change the system.”

The law doesn’t go that far, but it does make sweeping changes to how organizations can pursue signatures for petitions.

The measure requires a group that has raised at least $10,000 for a ballot initiative to submit a statement of organization with the secretary of state’s office, including names and addresses of board members and anyone circulating a petition for the cause. The law also requires the group to specify a range of how much it is paying its petitioners. Section 7 requires increased reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures.

Petitioners would have to include a statement of the “anticipated fiscal effect” to the actual language of the initiative that voters traditionally see when they sign such a measure.

The term “anticipated fiscal effect” is different than the phrase “financial impact” in ways lawyers will be arguing in court in the future. To my own untrained legal eye, petitioners won’t be able to wiggle away from filing such a statement by simply saying they just don’t know what it will do.

The law also changes the game once signatures are filed. County clerks must make public copies of the actual petitions for outside inspection. The statement of anticipated fiscal effect will also be included in sample ballots with the pro and con description of the initiative.

Like it or not, ballot-box policy is here to stay. And limiting the petition process rubs so hard against the First Amendment it’s hard to see how AB604 or SB549 will survive a challenge.

The real question is who is going to challenge the laws, which take effect July 1.

The ACLU of Nevada called SB549 a “repackaging” of an old petition rule already deemed unconstitutional by the courts. In the past, signatures had to be collected in 13 of the 17 counties. But this gave rural counties a disproportionate say in which measures qualified for the ballot. The rule was tossed in 2004, giving petitioners the ability to swoop into populous Clark County and gather tens of thousands of signatures.

Tuzzolo said her union supported the change because the AFL-CIO’s initiatives sought to qualify in all 17 counties.

“We just feel like these are the rules,” said Tuzzolo, whose union was successful in passing an increase in Nevada’s minimum wage in 2006. Tuzzolo said getting signatures statewide helps build support for the initiative and is a symbolic representation of statewide backing.

It’s also easier for a well-funded group to set up an operation in remote Esmeralda or Eureka counties.

Just because Esmeralda has the highest point in the state doesn’t mean it should become the apex of petition politics. Yet that’s what SB549 allows with its complicated formula outlining the required number of signatures. I won’t bog you down by describing it here. The first rule of legislative politics is to count your votes, but this is ridiculous.

It doesn’t bother Tuzzolo, though.

“I’m counting on the secretary of state,” she said. “I’m sure he’s got a math person on staff.”

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at

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