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Judith Lewis Mernit | Jun 17, 2010 10:00 AM

It wasn’t a lack of public support that killed the Fair Mining Tax Initiative in Nevada (see our cover story, "Nevada's Golden Child"): to the end, the measure to impose a 5 percent severance tax on hardrock mining’s gross earnings had the support of 40 percent of the state, with a roughly a quarter still undecided. Nor was the problem a lack of publicity: Anywhere you went in the state during the last few months you met people talking about whether gold mining corporations should pay more taxes. And most thought they should.

So what stopped the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada from meeting the June 15 deadline to collect the 97,002 signatures it needed to put the initiative on the November ballot? You can boil it down to this: “The price per signature went up,” says Bob Fulkerson, PLAN’s executive director (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a High Country News board member). “And we just didn’t have the money to pay people.”

That’s right – the price per signature. Since the U.S. Supreme Court determined (in Meyer vs. Grant, 1988), that Colorado couldn’t ban paid canvassers, ballot-measure politicking has been all about signature-gathering, and it’s no volunteer do-gooder’s mission but a full-time job for ambitious professionals.

Signature-gathering firms such as the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Progressive Campaigns and Kimball Petitions in Westlake Village, Calif., typically command around $1 to $1.50 a name; sometimes more – up to $15 per -- if the mission is urgent. Which means that to gather those signatures – 10 percent of the voters who showed up for Nevada’s last general election – would have cost PLAN at least $100,000. As time got tight toward the end, "they were going to need to put 300 people on buses and fan them out across the state," Fulkerson says. "And that drove the price up to a half-million dollars. We just couldn’t do it.”

It’s possible that PLAN would have run out of time and money under the best of circumstances. Nevada ballot-measure proponents face stiff competition from neighboring states, where signature gatherers can concentrate their energies on four or five or 10 big-money, corporate-sponsored petitions at once. In California, Pacific Gas & Electric spent $2.2 million gathering signatures for an initiative on the June 8 ballot that would have effectively stopped municipal co-ops buying their own power (the measure failed, but not as badly as it should have).

But PLAN had other hurdles, too – big ones. Last winter, the Nevada Mining Association went to court to challenge the legality of the initiative, which would have nullified the Net Proceeds of Minerals Tax enshrined in Nevada’s Constitution since 1865 – a law that allows mining corporations to deduct operating expenses from their earnings before calculating their state tax debt. Mining’s lobbyists lost, but the judge still forced PLAN to rewrite the measure and throw out its first 12,000 costly names.

Then, in May, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, without so much as a phone call’s warning, says Fulkerson, sued the nonprofit – one of its sources -- for posting entire articles on its web site. “That set us back another $10,000 in legal fees,” Fulkerson says. (PLAN and the paper settled on Wednesday for an undisclosed sum).

PLAN suspended its efforts on June 14 with 66,000 signatures -- not enough to get the measure before voters, but enough to encourage Fulkerson and his allies to soldier on: In a letter to volunteers and supporters, he has vowed to “take this fight to the 2011 Legislature so that mining’s mercenaries will not shut down debate and evade paying their fair share."

And if Nevada's legislators have declined to stick mining with the state’s bills in the past, the state just might be poor enough now to change all that. Three-fourths to four-fifths of the gold mined in the U.S. comes out of Nevada, which as a gold-rich region ranks on par with the entire continent of Australia. Yet while Australia expects to reap an extra $12 billion in mining taxes in 2012 – thanks to a new 40 percent “Resource Super Profits Tax” -- Nevada, in a good year, might reel in $125 million.

With gold prices pushing past $1,000 an ounce, a 5 percent tax on mining’s gross production would bring in $300 million. And when the state falls $3 billion short on its bills in 2011, as the state’s budget director, Andrew Clinger, predicts it will, a 5 percent tax on gross production might look not so radical -- in fact, it might look awfully good.

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