Democracy Run Amok?

Nevada Senate Republican floor leader William Raggio says he hopes all initiative petitions – those sponsored by liberals and those sponsored by conservatives – are defeated by the voters.

And, in a surprising move, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) has withheld support for an initiative petition that seeks increased education funding in the state.

Raggio's comments before the Reno Downtown Rotary came in a wide-ranging speech on political affairs in which he was critical of both parties.

"I'm disappointed in this national election because I think it's the most disharmonious, acrimonious election I've ever seen in the history of this country. It shouldn't be. I think a lot of this rhetoric can be toned down. And I see some of that on our local level as well. We've got a lot of initiative petitions flying around. Certainly it's a constitutional privilege, and everybody has a right to do that, but I stand back and hope that all of them don't pass because, I'll tell you, we will have some real problems."

Raggio said he was not endorsing or opposing any of the ballot measures, but he discussed the complications they can create when legislators are trying to put together a budget. Sweeping initiatives can cost money voters never dreamed of or gum up the works of public programs in ways they wouldn't have approved if they had understood the implications, he explained.

One measure could cost both the taxpayers and private businesses money, he said.

"You know, I don't want to take sides on them. That isn't my purpose here today. But raising the minimum wage – that may qualify [for the ballot]. Both public and private [payrolls] could be costly."

Discussing an initiative petition requiring that education be funded ahead of other needs, Raggio said that, like other lawmakers, he is not certain how it would work in the real budget process.

In one scenario, he said later, the lawmakers could be forced to fund education before receiving revenue estimates from the Nevada Economic Forum, which lawmakers are required to use but which don't arrive until May, three months into the legislative session. If that happened, it could well mean that education would be harmed because legislators would be building a budget without knowing how much money was available. Acting in the dark, Raggio said, legislators would be super-cautious in appropriating money and so would cut back school funding.

"If we had to pass the education budget before we got the final figures from the Economic Forum, then I think it would cost the schools some money," he said.

In another scenario, the lawmakers could build the budget as they always have but keep the formal votes until the end and hold all votes at once, with the education vote first. That would technically satisfy the requirements of the initiative but would also render it meaningless.

"You've got one [initiative] on education first, funding education first. Sounds good, you know, but what does it mean? It means that we'll divide the budget up, and when the education budget is ready, we'll pass that and five minutes later or ten minutes later we'll pass the next one."

In comments after his speech, Raggio made clear he was not condemning the initiative and referendum process, but that he thinks it is overused and often does not produce good law. In some cases, he pointed out, a public vote on a law locks it into the law books so it can't be changed without another vote of the public.

"Over experience of time, we know we should modify, favorably for the taxpayer, [Nevada's sales tax law], but you can't do it because it needs a vote of the people." The sales tax law was placed on the ballot by referendum petition in 1956 and approved, so any changes to it must also be voted on by the public. (This applies to the statutory provisions creating the sales tax, not the level at which it is set.)

AFL/CIO state director Danny Thompson, himself a former state legislator, says he agrees with Raggio that legislation by referendum is not always the best way to go, but his group is being forced to action on minimum wage.

"I just left the growth task force meeting, and people aren't just being forced out of the housing market, they're being forced out of the apartment market or even made homeless... I don't see the legislature introducing any bills to change that, which has led us to the initiative process."

In the case of the education funding initiative, the coalition of organizations that make up the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada met and chose to take no position on the initiative petition sponsored by the state teachers group, the Nevada State Education Association.

This was even more surprising because NSEA is a member of PLAN. However, many of the board members, such as PLAN Director Bob Fulkerson and Nevada Legal Services Director Jon Sasser, believed that if the initiative requiring that Nevada fund schools at the national average were approved by voters, the money for it would come out of other human services such as Medicaid.

PLAN official Jan Gilbert said the initiative does not designate a funding source to pay for bringing Nevada to the national average.

"Most of the people in our group support the concept. It was how the money was raised that concerned people. If that money had to be taken from other parts of the human resources budget, that's no gain for anyone."

No representatives of the teachers attended the meeting at which PLAN decided its stance on the initiative, but American Civil Liberties Union representative Richard Siegel spoke in favor of the initiative, saying he thinks it is "a sad day" when progressives fail to support education.

"A progressive coalition has a choice – seeing things as a zero-sum game or moving forward in both areas. ..." Siegel said. "They may be right that the money will come out of the hide of Nevada Medicaid. But I would rather see it pass and have us fight for human services and hope that human services maintains its share and perhaps a percent or two more or gain in the natural growth of revenues. I'm an optimist, and I bet on the come and I bet we can grow human services together with education."

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