High court questions validity of tax and spending petition
The Tax and Spending Control initiative ran into tough questions from a skeptical Supreme Court on Wednesday. Supporters argued differences between the version filed with the state and the version actually circulated to voters were insignificant and that “strict compliance” with the Nevada Constitution in qualifying the petition wasn’t necessary.
A group representing public employees, among others, wants the amendment limiting any government spending increases to population growth plus inflation removed from the November ballot. Carson District Judge Bill Maddox refused to do so saying despite the issues raised, he wouldn’t ignore the fact 156,000 people signed the petition.
Paul More representing Nevadans for Nevada said there is no question supporters filed one version of the petition but circulated a different version.
He said both longtime government finance expert Guy Hobbs and the Legislative fiscal staff say the difference amounts to $1.5 billion in spending the first budget cycle the amendment would take effect and “billions more in the future.”
And he said that is billions more than would have been spent under the correct version – the opposite of what the amendment’s supporters wanted.
He also said allowing changes in amendments filed with the secretary of state would set a dangerous precedent.
“What if an initiative’s supporters, after filing their petition, added a whole new substantive provision?” he asked.
TASC lawyer Joel Hansen said the two versions are different but that they “substantially complied” with the constitutional requirements in qualifying the petition. He said the court has numerous times ruled substantial compliance with statutes is OK and the same rule should apply here.
He made the same argument against the claim the amendment violates the requirement initiative petitions deal with just one subject. TASC makes a variety of changes to different parts of the constitution – according to More – including changing the process for future amendments to the constitution which he said has nothing to do with taxation or spending.
Justice Jim Hardesty pointed to Hansen’s long history as a strict constitutionalist representing the Independent American Party, saying, “I find that interesting coming from you Mr. Hansen knowing your view on strict adherence to the constitution.”
Chief Justice Bob Rose said the court gives “higher deference” to the Constitution than statutory language and could require strict compliance.
“And if we do that, you can see that you will then lose,” he said. “After all, $1.5 billion is not pocket change.”
Hardesty said relaxing the rules for interpreting the Nevada Constitution would “open a slippery slope” for future court rulings, potentially allowing wide variations in interpreting the Constitution.
Hansen said the correct language was contained in a version of the petition filed Dec. 22, but that the wrong version was filed March 8 after Maddox resolved the dispute over language in the 200-word summary of the amendment’s effect. He said that makes it just as valid as the later version even though the explanation is different.
Hansen urged the court to be flexible in allowing a petition signed by thousands on to the ballot.
Justice Nancy Becker said maybe the constitution was intended to be interpreted strictly. She said the difference between the two versions “has a substantial effect on the petition.”
Justice Bill Maupin asked Hansen to confirm that the March 8 version – which would cap government spending at a much lower total – was the version the group actually wanted to circulate. Hansen said the question doesn’t apply because both versions were filed with the secretary of state and the difference was the result of a typographical error.
The court took the case under submission after being advised by the secretary of state’s office they must act quickly because election officials must order sample ballots by the first week of October.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.