The political lessons to be gleaned from the teacher union’s tax initiative saga are significantly more interesting than the legal ones.
Last week, a Carson City judge ruled that the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) could withdraw its two tax initiatives from the upcoming ballot, despite the objections of the Republican secretary of state.
The fact that we’re in a world where a legal victory for the CCEA against a Republican state official includes the removal of tax proposals from the ballot almost seems like definitive proof that we’re experiencing a glitch in the Matrix.
The CCEA had started collecting signatures for their pair of tax hikes early in 2020, and by November of that year both petitions had received nearly 200,000 signatures — roughly double the number required to qualify for the ballot. One petition would have raised the state’s gaming tax rate, while the other would have pushed the state’s weighted average sales tax rate to a national high of nearly 10 percent.
Together, the proposals were projected to bring in more than a billion dollars a year.
However, in the chaotic absurdity of the legislative session’s final days, lawmakers and the union struck a last-minute deal, increasing taxes on mining to fund increased spending on public education. The Legislature also approved a statute allowing the union to withdraw its tax initiatives from the ballot as part of the agreement… and that’s when reality started to get strange.
Despite her Republican disposition against increasing taxes, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske wrote a letter to the attorney general’s office arguing that the initiatives could not be removed from the ballot. As first reported by the Las Vegas Review JournalCegavske wrote “the Nevada Constitution requires the Secretary of State to follow a procedure once an initiative petition has obtained the required number of verified signatures,” and a mere statute passed by the legislature “cannot interfere with that duty.”
Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson, however, apparently disagreed. Last week, Judge Wilson ruled that the statute allowing the proposals to be removed from the ballot somehow changes the secretary of state’s constitutional obligations. The judge reasoned that because other statutes regarding ballot initiatives are constitutional, any statutory alteration to the process must ostensibly be permissible as well.
The problem with the judge’s ruling, however, is that state statutes aren’t capable of amending, nullifying or altering constitutional obligations. Statutes governing the number of signatures or the nature of how petitions are structured are fundamentally different from a statute that attempts to alter the constitutional responsibilities of government officials — an argument the secretary of state may bring very well before the Nevada Supreme Court, should she decide to appeal to Judge Wilson’s ruling.
However, whether or not these initiatives ultimately end up in front of voters is interesting for reasons beyond such constitutional disagreements. From the beginning, the saga has been a master class in the way shady and extortionist backroom deals are so often the pillars of our modern political moment.
One wonder, after all, why the CCEA might be so insistent on removing two potentially huge funding proposals for public education from the ballot — especially given that at least one of the proposals (the gaming tax hike) might actually have support from a majority of voters. Does the union suddenly believe additional public-school funding is no longer needed? Did the mining tax — which provides less funding than what was sought through the initiatives — manage to “fully fund” Nevada’s education system in the eyes of the union?
Of course not. But the wheeling and dealing that took place in the last days of the legislative session forced the union to cast aside the wishes of those 200,000 Nevadans who signed their petitions — and that may very well have been the intent from the beginning.
Such manipulative politicking wouldn’t exactly be unheard of — especially given the wild west nature of Nevada’s legislative process in the final days of every session. The effort to hike education funding by a whopping billion dollars on the backs of Nevada consumers was most likely never a serious bid to improve education — it was a bludgeon to cajole lawmakers, industry lobbyists and activists into considering a politically palatable alternative before the legislative building closed its doors for the rest of the biennium.
After all, the union knew it’s plan to target the politically powerful gaming industry with a ballot initiative would cause headaches for lawmakers who depend on support from the industry for their reelection campaigns. Likewise, a regressive and especially painful sales tax hike in the name of public education is a contentious issue most politicians would like to avoid in an important midterm election year — let alone in a year when Nevadans are suffering from the lingering economic effects of pandemic shutdowns, soaring housing costs and historic levels of inflation.
The union had to know, from the beginning, that both initiatives would be a significant point of friction for politicians — including those who are otherwise sympathetic to increasing education spending. The proposals, therefore, were more useful as a form of “insurance” against an uncertain legislative session than some measured or serious policy proposal meant to be put before voters.
Of course, that might come as a surprise to the 200,000 people who volunteered their signatures to get it on the ballot. Many of those souls probably thought they were taking part in a democratic process of self-governance… not playing an unwitting role in some backroom game of political extortion.
Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.