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August 26, 2004 - The Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)

Editorial: The 'Safest Depositary'

What's So Bad About 'Government by the People'?

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Until this year, there had never been more than four questions placed on a single statewide Nevada ballot through popular petitioning. But this year -- depending on the outcome of several court cases and signature re-checks -- Nevadans could vote on as many as 10 questions placed on their statewide Nov. 2 ballot through citizen petition drives. (An eleventh was placed there by lawmakers.)

The powers-that-be have noticed and begun raising objections that this means "outside special interests" have discovered it's relatively inexpensive to come to Nevada and "test-market" their proposed reforms.

"The special interests have really seized on this as a vehicle to promote their agendas," warns Eric Herzik, a political scientist who serves as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. "We have this romantic image of grass-roots volunteers collecting signatures, when in fact they are paid employees of firms."

But should Nevada voters fear these "special interests"?

The recurrent attempts to de-criminalize small amounts of marijuana are probably the clearest example of an "outside" national organization choosing this state as a low cost "test market." But Nevadans still get to vote on the matter -- and reject it out of hand, if they like.

Yes, leaders of the status quo at the Legislature are wringing their hands over this growth in direct citizen governance. But it's fully predictable that those who have grown accustomed to a monopoly on power would be jealous of any end-run around their prerogatives.

In fact, Secretary of State Dean Heller is closer to grasping what's really going on when he says, "I sense there is a real frustration by the public because of their inability to get the Legislature to act on their behalf. Most believe the Legislature runs circles around them. They see lobbyists running the Legislature."

Unfortunately, this is no exaggeration. Lobbyists and government employees (paid for time and travel) have plenty of leisure to whine to the lawmakers about their "needs" -- while net-taxpaying citizens are mighty thin on the ground in Carson City.

A few safeguards are necessary, of course. Questions are and must be reviewed for constitutionality -- a temporary majority in the grips of some passion must never be allowed to infringe the civil and constitutional liberties of any minority.

And second most important is the constitutional requirement that referenda be clear, simple, and deal with only a single subject. This year's question purportedly seeking to roll back auto and homeowners insurance rates by 20 percent, for example, should never have been allowed to pass muster. Such a rollback not only violates economic common sense, it was already ruled unconstitutional by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, back in 1990.

That portion of the question will therefore be squashed like a bug by the first court to see it (as the sponsoring lawyers surely know) -- leaving behind only a "Trojan Horse" rollback of the state's modest efforts at capping medical malpractice "pain and suffering" awards, tucked away in the fine print.

The sponsors should have been required to break that sneaky stratagem into separate questions.

Otherwise, it appears a new wave of "government by initiative" will be with us for some time. Like any other exercise in democracy, it may be messy and sometimes self-contradictory.

Well, tough.

As the man said, "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

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