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Sean Whaley

Initiative petitions rejected

8 July 2008

CARSON CITY, Nevada -- Initiative petitions seeking to divert room taxes from the Las Vegas convention authority to state needs, including education, will not be on the November ballot, a Carson City district judge ruled Wednesday.

A third petition, requiring a two-thirds vote to approve ballot measures that would raise taxes, was disqualified too.

All three were disqualified by Judge James Todd Russell because of problems with affidavits signed by the signature gatherers.

A spokesman for Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled the three petitions, said a decision has not yet been made on whether to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.

In a ruling from the bench, Russell said it is unfortunate that the petition backers, including former state Treasurer Bob Seale and former state Controller Steve Martin, spent so much money and time on gathering the signatures to qualify the three constitutional amendments for the general election ballot.

Russell also chastised Secretary of State Ross Miller for not updating his Web site, which contained outdated information on the requirements for signature gatherers working on initiative petitions. The outdated information was used by Seale and Martin.

Russell said the Nevada Legislature adopted new requirements, which took effect July 1, 2007, for affidavits for signature gatherers. The requirements include a statement that the gatherer personally circulated the document, that the number of signatures on the petition were counted, that the signatures were made in his presence and that each signer had the opportunity to read the full text of the initiative petition.

The requirements that the number of signatures be counted and that the signer have the opportunity to read the initiative were added by the 2007 Legislature and were not included in the affidavits for the three petitions because the circulators relied on the old rules on the secretary of state's Web site.

The requirements were adopted by lawmakers to prevent fraud in the signature-gathering process.

Attorney Scott Scherer, representing the petition sponsors, argued that the petitions substantially complied with the law, but Russell disagreed.

"It is unfortunate here that someone didn't do their homework prior to the circulation of these initiatives," Russell said, "although I think the secretary of state could probably have done a better job in this particular case."

Even so, he said: "The statute is clear. This is a harsh remedy. But I don't think there is any other alternative."

Robert Uithoven, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Sands, said there are several options to consider before deciding whether to appeal.

One option would be to circulate new petitions on the room tax question. If the petitions sought only to change state law rather than amend the state constitution, they could be circulated through November and submitted to the Legislature.

If the Legislature did not act on the proposals, they could go on the November 2010 ballot.

Matt Griffin, deputy secretary of state for elections, called the decision a victory for the office and Miller.

"Our position was upheld," he said.

Responding to the criticism of the out-of-date initiative petition guide, Griffin said the site had a disclaimer noting that the law might have changed. The office updated its rules, but some time passed before the new language was forwarded from the Legislature, he said.

"That's why we had the disclaimer up there," he said.

The three petitions were turned in May 15 with approximately twice the number of signatures required to get them on the November ballot.

But the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority challenged the two room tax petitions over the affidavit issues. The two-thirds vote measure was challenged on the same issue by the Nevada AFL-CIO.

One of the convention authority measures would take most of the new room tax money directed each year to the agency and divert it instead for use by the Legislature for public education. A second measure would do the same but would direct the money instead to state education, transportation and public safety needs in equal amounts.