Nevada High Court Won't Overturn its Tax Ruling

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The Nevada Supreme Court refused Wednesday to change its July ruling that lifted a two-thirds majority voting requirement on tax bills and helped in the effort to pass a record $836 million tax increase.

The high court said the two-thirds supermajority provision "created the potential for an absolute budgetary stalemate in the Legislature; that potential was realized this year and has done significant damage to public education."

"A judicial resolution of the constitutional conflict was necessary, so that the Legislature could perform its constitutionally mandated duties," the court said. "Our prior opinion did just that."

Justice Bill Maupin dissented, saying the rehearing petition should be granted.

The court held July 10 that lawmakers could pass the biggest tax increase in state history with a simple majority vote after Gov. Kenny Guinn sought its help in resolving a deadlock that stalled the Legislature for weeks.

Tied to the bottled-up tax bill was a measure to fund the education budget, which left the state's schools in limbo.

The $836 million tax plan was finally approved July 21 by a two-thirds majority vote, but a group of Republican legislators who opposed the tax increase said the Supreme Court opinion had to go because it set a dangerous constitutional precedent.

A majority of state legislators countered that the rehearing request had no practical significance because lawmakers wound up with a two-thirds' majority - barely - for the tax plan.

The Supreme Court's July 10 decision said the supermajority requirement had to give way to another constitutional requirement to fund public education.

But critics of the decision said the ruling violated the state and federal constitutional rights of the lawmakers by diluting the votes of the citizens who voted for those lawmakers and of the citizens who supported the initiative.

The two-thirds majority requirement was added to the Nevada Constitution through a citizen's initiative that passed with strong support in 1994 and 1996.

Opponents of the Supreme Court ruling started but then dropped a recall attempt aimed at the six justices who signed the July 10 ruling. However, a group of conservatives upset with Guinn's backing of the largest tax increase in state history are continuing recall efforts against the popular Republican governor.

In Wednesday's ruling, the majority said conflicting constitutional requirements for a two-thirds' vote on taxes and to fund education created "the likelihood of legislative paralysis," but voters weren't made aware of that possibility when they approved the supermajority requirement.

"The primary interest supported by permitting the Legislature to suspend the supermajority requirement in this case was nothing less than the constitutional mandate to fund public education," justices added.

"To avoid an impasse harmful to public education, we determined that the supermajority provision could not be improperly used to avoid majority rule on budget appropriations."

"Our opinion did not eliminate the two-thirds' requirement, but it did indicate that the supermajority provision could not be used to avoid other constitutional duties."

Maupin, in his dissent, said the July 10 court opinion should be erased because lawmakers completed their work without relying on it. He also said the original decision applied only to the regular and two special 2003 legislative sessions and there's no need for a precedent-setting ruling that might apply to future sessions.

Maupin also said he "strongly" disputed the majority's comments that the supermajority initiative was flawed and that voters didn't realize a stalemate could occur.

The majority preserved the "basic validity" of the two-thirds' voting requirement and should recognize that "such initiatives, however inconvenient to the operatives of government they may be at times, represent the ultimate form of citizen consent to government," he said.