Three petitions backed by Las Vegas casino owner won't be on ballot

Three initiative petitions backed by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson " two of them designed to take money away from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority " won't be on Nevada's November ballot.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday none of the three complied with statutes designed to ensure there was no fraud in the signature gathering process.

Two of the petitions sought to raise the room tax from 3 percent to 13 percent. One would give the money specifically to public education. The other would spread the cash to public safety and transportation as well as public schools.

The third petition would have changed Nevada's initiative petition process to require a two-thirds vote of the people to raise any taxes or fees " the same super-majority the Legislature must get to do so. At present, a simple majority is all a petition needs to raise taxes.

Professional signature gatherers hired for the effort collected well over the 58,628 signatures for each of the three. Altogether, there were some 300,000 signatures on the three. But when they were turned in to the county clerks, the signature gatherers failed to attest that each signer had an opportunity to read the actual petitions " designed to prevent circulators from giving voters a biased or incorrect description of what the petition would do. And the gatherers failed to certify how many signatures they gathered on each bundle of petitions " a rule designed to prevent "signature parties" where more names were put on petitions.

Those two requirements were added by the 2007 Legislature to reduce chances of fraud in the petition process.

"We conclude that the affidavits do not substantially comply with the statutory requirements," the court's opinion states.

That ruling upholds the decision to invalidate the petitions by Secretary of State Ross Miller, which was upheld by Carson District Judge Todd Russell in July.

"This is a harsh remedy, but I don't think there is any other alternative," said Russell when he made his ruling. "I can't unring the bell."

Scott Scherer, representing the proponents, argued that while they didn't follow the rules precisely, they complied substantially with the law. He also said he offered to cure the defects by having petition circulators attest after the fact that they had met those requirements. The high court rejected that argument, saying that was insufficient.

Scherer also argued that circulators were within their rights to rely on the affidavits printed in the Secretary of State's Initiative Guide. But the court agreed with Deputy Attorney General Nhu Nguyen that the guide clearly states the law may have changed and anyone gathering signatures for an initiative petition should check current state law.

"In all honesty, they just didn't read the statutes," said Todd Bice, representing the convention authority, during the district court hearing.

He also argued to the Supreme Court that the petitions are a sham because they don't reveal their true purpose, which is to take money from the visitor authority's convention center operations. Those operations are in competition for convention business with Adelson's facilities at the Las Vegas Sands.

The high court heard arguments on the petitions just two weeks ago. In the opinion issued Thursday, the court noted that "substantial compliance cannot exist when there is a complete failure to address a particular statutory requirement." They said that is the case here where the affidavit doesn't include any tally of the number of signatures gathered or any indication signers were given the opportunity to ready the entire petition rather than just the 250 word description of effect.

Former state treasurer and Assemblyman Bob Seale, who spearheaded the signature drive for the two LVCVA petitions, said he was very disappointed the court threw the petitions out "for some relatively minor issues."

"We're going to have to step back a little bit and take a look at it but we're not done with this issue," he said.

Seale also laid blame on the Secretary of State.

"We followed the conscripts the Secretary of State put out," he said referring to the Initiative Guide. "There was no remedy for his error and 150,000 citizens are out of luck. I don't think they're going to be happy at that thought."

Steve Martin, former state controller and manager of the two-thirds vote petition, said the court "basically disenfranchised 130,000 voters in my case."

- Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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