Throw out state term limits

It is true that some Nevada politicians have latched onto the term limit case to save their seats or oust their opponents.

But Jon Ralston’s admonishment of this practice in the “Sunsert” Wednesday fails to acknowledge the overriding issue as the state’s high court prepares to hear the case next week.

Ralston is rightly a critic of term limits as a shortsighted solution to long-term problems with the elected class. But his suggestion that the will of the voters should be upheld (however misguided) is as flawed as thinking it’s OK for voters to pass a poll tax in 2008. As long as it’s the will of the people, it’s OK?

Ralston seemed to take the other tack back when Richard Ziser was peddling his homophobic defense of marriage act. At that time, the majority of Nevadans supported the measure to define marriage as only between a man and woman. Because the majority wanted it, Ziser said it was just.

There was a time in our country when a majority of our fellow citizens also supported segregation.

Someday, just as the nation’s high court overturned that ugly practice, it may again denounce the type of language now embedded in Nevada’s constitution about marriage as an affront to civil rights.

Thankfully, citizens have a distinct right to petition the government and vote for change. But Ralston, in his Fourth Estate role as arbiter of fairness and good government, somehow thinks it OK to toss the U.S. Constitution just to adhere to the will of the people.

Nevada’s term limits have been flawed from the start.

Ralston is correct that term limits for Nevada lawmakers, in particular, would only exacerbate the systemic problems we get when we pay people $3,900 a year (no, I didn’t miss any zeroes) to pass meaningful policy in a rapidly growing, diverse state.

A voter-approved petition drive is no way to enact the best policy. Just look at the unintended consequences of the recent smoking restrictions and minimum wage increase.

For instance, anytime citizens earmark a percentage of a tax or approve a bond, they are tying the hands of policymakers to make broader financial decisions.

California may have a spending problem, to quote Gov. Jim Gibbons, but it also has a budget problem. More than half of the Golden State’s revenue sources are earmarked to specific funds voters approved.

They’re off limits to legislators or the governor.

In Nevada, the Supreme Court — which actually screwed up the constitutionality of the state’s term limits proposal to begin with — has three questions to answer.

But it’s the one big question that renders moot the other two: The court needs to decide whether the constitutional amendment creating term limits is constitutional.

After the ballot initiative limiting office holders to 12 years of service in a single post passed the first time in 1994, the state Supreme Court separated the question into two initiatives, one involving the judiciary, the second dealing with other elected officials. So when voters OK’d the latter for the second time in 1996, they were approving something different. Last time I consulted the state constitution, it said amendments must pass twice in identical manner to be approved.

How ironic that the same court which created this constitutional question is now the arbiter of the dispute.

Let’s assume the court can triangulate around the constitution. You only need look to 2003’s Guinn v. Legislature for precedent.

If somehow the court thinks term limits pass muster, it must determine when the cap on service takes effect. And which veteran lawmakers are actually subject to the ban?

But until it solves the greater issue, the high court really doesn’t need to fuss over particulars such as whether a state politician who literally took office the day after the 1996 election somehow beat the clock that supposedly started ticking few weeks later.

Whatever the court does after hearing the arguments next Monday, it had better do it quickly.

Saturday is the final day for voters to register for the primary without having to schlep down to the Election Department in person. And early voting begins just 12 days after the arguments will be heard.

This is one rush to judgment that’s actually been brewing for more than a decade.

So, let the arguments commence, and let the court right a wrong. And if voters really think they can clean up Carson City or Stewart or Bonneville avenues by limiting the damage to 12 years, they can pass an initiative the right way.

We’ll see if the current justices can right the wrong their colleagues created in 1996 when they changed the language of the initiative petition.

The court certainly has legal grounds to toss term limits. The problem is that these elected judges are standing on political soil.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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