Nevada's top election official is challenging the status of two ballot measures that the state's largest teacher's union promised to withdraw after successfully using them as bargaining chips and pressuring legislators to boost education funding.
In a Sept. 7 letter first published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske wrote that state law required she include measures that propose raising taxes on sales and gambling on the 2022 ballot.
Neither Democrats nor Nevada's powerful resort industry want the tax measures to appear before voters next year, both have said. Democrats worry their inclusion could allow Republicans to frame the election around taxes. And resorts and casinos do not want to risk a hike that could deter tourists from visiting Las Vegas.
The initiatives originated almost a year ago, when the Clark County Education Association submitted the tens of thousands of signatures necessary to qualify the two proposals for the 2022 ballot.
The first measure proposes raising the portion of sales taxes dedicated to school funding from 2.6% to 4.1%, pushing sales taxes in Las Vegas to nearly 9.9%. The second proposes increasing the gambling tax rate from 6.75% to 9.75%, with tax revenue directed to the state's general fund for unrestricted spending.
John Vellardita, the teachers union's executive director, told the Associated Press in March that the measures were designed to "start a conversation" about education funding and said they'd remain on the ballot unless lawmakers increased education funding before adjourning in June.
Lawmakers increased taxes on the mining industry and tucked a new statute into an unrelated bill about mail-in ballots to give petitioners more flexibility to withdraw initiatives. On the final day of the legislative session, Vellardita credited his strategy for the passage of the taxes and said he intended to withdraw the initiatives from the ballot as promised.
In a July letter sent amid discussion about Cegavske thwarting Democrats' plans and keeping initiatives on the ballot, lawyers in Attorney General Aaron Ford's office wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak's general counsel that the initiatives could legally be withdrawn, citing legislative intent and the absence of an explicit prohibition.
In her subsequent letter to the Attorney General, Cegavske writes that Ford's legal opinion "fails to address the constitutional imperative and compels the secretary to act in a certain manner."
Cegavske argues that if the Legislature doesn't take up the petitions, the constitution says the secretary of State, upon receiving the necessary signatures, "shall submit the question of approval or disapproval of such statute or amendment to a statute to a vote of the voters at the next succeeding general election." The former Republican state senator says the Legislature has repeatedly interpreted "shall" as imposing a requirement, not an option.
The secretary of State oversees elections and ballot initiatives in Nevada. But the clash will likely prompt legal battles over whether to include the tax measures before November 2022.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.