"The people of the state of Nevada do enact as follows:
NRS 295.001(1) and NRS 295.009(3) are hereby repealed."
If you wanted to propose erasing the infamous single-subject
requirement that has torpedoed many a ballot initiative in Nevada, that one
line is all you'd need to do it.
Instead, a group of activists opposed to the package of
taxes passed by the 2015 Legislature is aiming to kill either taxes or the
single-subject rule with a referendum. Here's how:
Article 19, Section 1 of the Nevada Constitution allows
citizens to request a vote on any statute or resolution passed by the
Legislature. All they have to do is collect enough signatures to put it on the
But here's the thing: NRS 295.009(1) specifies any
referendum must "embrace but one subject and matters necessarily connected
therewith and pertaining thereto." That means you can't try in a single
referendum to repeal a law that raises the sales tax along with one that
requires wearing seat belts.
Why? Back in 2004, some clever trial lawyers tried to sneak
an attack on medical malpractice caps into an initiative purporting lower car
insurance rates. Voters saw through the charade, but lawmakers decided in 2005
to impose the single-subject rule on initiatives and referendums anyway.
That could be a big problem for the We Decide Coalition,
which has proposed an up-or-down vote on the entire text of Senate Bill 483.
That's the bill that created the new commerce tax on business, made a package
of expiring taxes permanent and raised other taxes, including those on
cigarettes. The coalition has literally cut-and-pasted the exact text of the
bill onto a petition form.
The referendum clearly embraces more than one subject. And
that's just the point.
The We Decide Coalition isn't afraid a judge will strike the
referendum down on single-subject grounds, even though that would keep the
petition off the ballot.
Why? Because the coalition thinks such a ruling would be a
de facto admission that the Legislature violated the state constitution! As it
turns out, Article 4, Section 17 has some awfully familiar language: "Each
law enacted by the Legislature shall embrace but one subject, and matter,
properly connected therewith."
So if a referendum to repeal SB483 violates the statutory
single-subject rule, the coalition reasons, it must mean that the bill itself
violated the constitutional single-subject rule (and is therefore unconstitutional).
Presto! Taxes repealed by judicial fiat!
On the other hand, if a court were to rule that the
referendum doesn't violate the single-subject rule, the anti-tax petition could
be circulated to voters and potentially go on the 2016 ballot. Presto! Taxes
repealed by popular will!
Sadly for the We Decide Coalition, their win-win scenario
faces some legal flaws. First, it targets a bill, not a statute. That's
happened in the past, but lawyers never made an issue of it. They surely will
Second, as the Legislative Counsel Bureau's Brenda Erdoes
has noted, courts have construed the Legislature's powers with respect to
bill-writing far more broadly than citizen powers with regard to writing
initiatives. It's entirely possible courts could rule SB483 was legal, but a
referendum trying to repeal it is not.
That's why another group of anti-tax conservatives is taking
aim only at the commerce tax created within SB483. Targeting that single
provision has a much greater chance of legal success.
Besides, if the We Decide Coalition wants to kill the
single-subject rule, there's a more straightforward way to do it. Copy and
paste the line at the top of this column, slap it onto an initiative form and
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Easier said than
done.Filing the suggested one-line
repeal referendum for the single-subject law is the easy part.Raising the money to pay for the signature-gathering
for such an “inside baseball” issue would be a heckuva lot harder than raising
the money to repeal the largest tax hike in history.Otherwise, I’d take Mr. Sebelius’
recommendation in a heartbeat. – Chuck]