Buy buy ballot

Nevada mines squash tax hike

  • Mining for gold in Nevada.

    Barrick Gold Of North America
 

This spring, it looked as though a ballot initiative to raise taxes on Nevada's hardrock mining industry might actually succeed: With the state sliding toward bankruptcy and gold mines booming -- Nevada produces three-fourths of this country's supply -- the measure to impose a 5 percent severance on the industry's gross earnings had the support of close to half the state in last-minute polls. Nevadans were even buttonholing legislators in grocery stores to ask whether they'd make the state's multinational gold-mining companies pay up. And most people thought they should.

None of them, however, will get a chance to express that opinion in November's general election. On June 14, members of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), which sponsored the initiative, announced that they had secured only 66,000 of the 97,002 signatures they needed to get the measure on the ballot. Says PLAN executive director Bob Fulkerson (an HCN board member), "We just didn't have the money to pay people" to get more.

That's right, circulating petitions costs money: Signature-gathering is a full-time job that in the run-up to an election season commands premium rates. Firms such as the Denver, Colo.-based Lamm Consulting and Kimball Petitions in Westlake Village, Calif., typically charge a dollar or two per signature, but when time is running short, the price can climb as high as $10. The signatures of 97,002 people -- 10 percent of the voters who showed up for Nevada's last general election -- were always going to cost PLAN at least $100,000.  And that's just if everything went smoothly.

Which, of course, it didn't. Last winter, the Nevada Mining Association challenged 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. The mining lobbyists lost, but the judge still forced PLAN to rewrite the measure and throw out its first 12,000 costly names.

By then, PLAN's signature-collecting time was almost up. And the nonprofit, which promotes economic justice in its obstinately tax-averse state, was too broke to afford the last-minute push by professional petition-circulators necessary to finish the task.  "They were going to need to put 300 people on buses and fan them out across the state," Fulkerson says. "That drove the price up to a half-million dollars."

If that sounds to you like a perversion of democracy, you're not alone: Ever since lawmaking by statewide initiative debuted on the Oregon ballot in 1904, partisans have hotly debated the merits of paying for signatures. One side argues that the First Amendment guarantees one's right to buy names; the other insists that the practice gives the well-heeled and funded an edge in controlling politics in those 24 states -- all but seven of them west of the 100th meridian -- where ballot initiatives make law.

Would that the issue broke down so simply. Several states prohibit pay-per-signature contracts, but by law they can't ban professional petition-circulating altogether -- the U.S. Supreme Court declared such bans unconstitutional in 1988. So while Oregon's Measure 26, passed in 2002 and upheld by the 9th Circuit Court in 2006, forbids paying workers by the signature, it can't prohibit hiring professionals by the hour, day or month, whether they collect names or not. Its effect has been to more than double the cost of qualifying a ballot initiative in the state, killing grassroots efforts altogether.

Mason Tvert, co-founder of the pro-marijuana nonprofit Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), joined libertarian activists in challenging a law passed in Colorado last year, which limited per-signature payments to 20 percent of signatures gathered. The law not only increased the cost of professional services, Tvert says, but made it impossible to incentivize volunteers at a few cents per name.

A federal judge put a hold on the Colorado law last month, "but it came a little too late for us," says Tvert, who has deferred until 2012 his plan to get a measure on the Colorado ballot legalizing marijuana. "We only had 35 days left before the deadline. It was too much of a risk and too costly."

PLAN has given up on its ballot initiative effort for now, and has vowed instead to take the fight for a higher mining tax to the 2011 Legislature. Lawmakers in the past have resisted such a move, but that was before the gambling and sales tax revenues that pay the state's bills crashed, and before the state's budget director, Andrew Clinger, forecast a $3 billion hole in the state's next biennial budget. And with gold prices shooting past $1,000 an ounce -- meaning a 5 percent gross tax could yield $300 million a year -- the state may begin looking at its mining industry less as a sacred cow and more as a golden calf -- one that lawmakers might have to slaughter to survive.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...