What a difference a few words can make

Oh, how a few little words can cause so much trouble.

The Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled Clark County must give the Southern Nevada Health District all the money it asks for, up to a cap found in state law, regardless of economic conditions or the preference of commissioners.

And it’s all because of a couple of little words.

The law says Clark County “must” adopt a budget for the health district, which “shall” give the health district “an amount that does not exceed” the number you get when you collect 3.5 cents in property taxes on every $100 of assessed valuation in the county.

Now you might think – and Clark County sure did – that the little phrase “an amount that does not exceed” means the county was perfectly free to fund the health district at any amount, so long as it didn’t exceed the cap of 3.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

But you might also think – as the health district did – that because the county “must” adopt a budget, which “shall” be calculated on the 3.5-cent formula, that commissioners don’t have any discretion.

Because of that conflict, a majority of the Nevada Supreme Court said the law was ambiguous. (Only Justice Kristina Pickering ruled, reasonably enough, that the law can be read as to require the county to adopt a budget, which could be any amount up to but not exceeding the 3.5-cent cap.)

The rest of the court looked instead to the 2005 hearings that led to the law’s passage, where lawmakers and lobbyists both testified that the intent was to give the health district a stable funding source. “Before this proposed bill, they have to come in and ask the county commission every year, and depending on how the commissioners feel about the department [sic], their budget might go up or down,” said then-Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.

So, you might ask, why didn’t the Legislature simply pass a law that said the county must set the health district’s budget at 3.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and leave it at that? Good question. Had lawmakers and bill drafters done so, they could have saved us all a lot of trouble.

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Another area where the law is not ambiguous is the Nevada Constitution, Article 4, Section 5: “Senators and members of the Assembly shall be duly qualified electors in the respective counties and districts which they represent.”

That mirrors a state law, which says a person for at least 30 days before the close of filing for office must “… actually, as opposed to constructively, [reside] in the state, district, county, township or other area … over which he or she will have jurisdiction or will represent.”

So, what to make of District Judge Rob Bare’s ruling just before the Nov. 6 election that Democrat Andrew Martin, a candidate for Assembly District 9, actually lives in a home he owns in District 2?

Bare’s ruling – based on surveillance conducted by a private detective hired by Martin’s Republican opponent, Kelly Hurst – is clear: “This court finds that Andrew Martin is not an actual resident of Assembly District Number 9, the Assembly district of the office which he seeks.” (Actually, make that the Assembly district to which he was elected on Nov. 6. The judge’s ruling came way too late for Martin to be removed from the ballot.)

If Martin really isn’t a resident of District 9, he doesn’t meet the qualifications of law or the constitution.

But a few little words are relevant here: Article 4, Section 6 of the constitution says “Each House [of the Legislature] shall judge of the qualifications, elections and returns of its own members.” That means, regardless of where Martin really lives or lived at the time he was elected, he’s a qualified elector if the Assembly says he is, and there’s nothing any judge or court can do about it.

Now wouldn’t it be something if Assembly Speaker-designate Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, refused to seat Martin, citing Bare’s ruling and insisting that her caucus will, at the very least, obey the rule of law? She’d lose nothing in the bargain; by law, the County Commission must appoint another Democrat to the seat in the event it’s declared vacant. And she’d sure gain a lot of respect in the process.

If she doesn’t, the only intellectually honest thing to do would be to repeal the residency requirements for officeholders. If nobody’s going to follow them anyway, we mock justice by leaving them on the books.

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

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