Judge throws property tax petition off ballot

VIRGINIA CITY " The initiative petition to impose California's property tax cutting Proposition 13 on Nevada was thrown off the November ballot Tuesday.

After two days of hearings, Washoe District Judge Charles McGee, sitting in the historic Virginia City courthouse, ruled there were "exponentially more petitions containing serious deficiencies in the affidavits than are necessary to defeat the initiative."

Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has tried a half-dozen times to put the amendment on the Nevada ballot, promised an immediate appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.

"We are on the way to the Supreme Court," she said. "We can't stop now."

McGee, one of Nevada's founding family court judges, underwent a steep learning curve over the past week after being assigned the case but, by Tuesday, appeared knowledgeable and comfortable with the complexities of election law in Nevada.

He said in making his ruling that he agreed there was precious little guidance as to how to meet the standards requiring each petition circulator to certify the number of signatures gathered, that each was signed in his presence, that each signer was offered the chance to read the actual petition instead of just the 250 word description of its effect and that each signer was, to their knowledge, a registered Nevada voter.

The issue raised by teachers' union lawyers Mike Dyer and Jim Penrose was that hundreds of petition documents, some with several hundred signatures, had no total number of signatures " one of the requirements added in 2007 to prevent pages from being added after the circulator turned them in. Many of the signature pages had no circulator's signature on them at all. And in those bundled petition signature sheets, many were misnumbered and not sequential, leaving open the question whether more sheets were added later.

In some cases, there was no notarized affidavit to accompany signature sheets, leaving no way to determine who circulated them and whether the rules were followed. And he said some of the circulators violated statute by putting down a post office box instead of their actual residence, which is required on the affidavits.

Joel Hansen, representing We the People and Angle, argued those were just clerical errors. He said with no guidance on how to correctly fill out that affidavit, it is nearly impossible to do it correctly.

He said the changes by lawmakers in 2007 and the lack of guidance by the secretary of state put "an impossible burden" on people trying to put a question on the ballot.

McGee agreed there should be a clear set of guidelines for proponents of any issue to follow.

But he said the deficiencies in the petitions were serious and extensive. He said those petition pages with no signatures at all, "are worthless when it comes to meeting (statutory requirements) because it's blank."

He said those pages in a bundle of petition sheets that were misnumbered, out of sequence and had gaps in the numbering were "basically worse" because there is no way to determine whether they were properly collected, totaled and recorded.

And he rejected Hansen's argument those were just clerical errors. He said the requirements in statute " including stating how many signatures were collected and numbering the pages each circulator collected " aren't difficult burdens.

Hansen and Angle both said they would appeal the decision.

It was the latest step in what has been a rollercoaster ride for Angle and her supporters this election season, beginning with a successful challenge of the petition in May 2007 when its description of effect was ruled inappropriate. They refiled but were, again, challenged by the Nevada State Education Association, which believes Prop-13 would seriously damage Nevada public schools. The judge at that time told proponents and the teachers to work out a compromise.

They did and a third version of the petition was filed. They collected some 83,000 signatures to qualify it for the ballot but didn't get them into the clerk's offices by the legislative deadline on May 20, again disqualifying the question from the ballot.

Her organization, We the People of Nevada, took it to court and the Nevada Supreme Court agreed that statutory deadline contradicted the state constitution, which gives until June 17 to submit signatures. With the added time, they filed and the Secretary of State's office certified the question to the ballot. But they made it by less than 5,400 signatures.

The teachers sued arguing there were too many violations of statute " including not numbering and permanently binding petition documents so that more signatures couldn't be fraudulently added later.

Tuesday's ruling effectively disqualified nearly 8,000 signatures, putting the petitions several thousand short of the 58,628 valid signatures needed to put the question on the ballot.

Hansen said he would file for a stay so that clerks don't remove the question from the ballot while the Supreme Court considers the issue. He said if they lose, the votes on the question won't be counted but that, if they win, there's no way a month from now to put the question back on the ballot without reprinting thousands of ballots across the state.

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


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