Thursday, October 16, 2014

Voter Guide 2014 - The Questions

VOTE by Theresa Thompson is licensed CC BY 2.0
I received my voting guide in the mail today, which reminded me that - ah, yes! - it's time to exercise my franchise. So, I put on my coat, put the leash on it, and gave a quick tug.

Nothing happened.

I gave another tug, a little more forceful this time. Still nothing. However, my franchise finally paid some attention to me, looking at me with tired eyes, as if to say, "How about warming me up a bit first, hmm? Maybe letting me stretch a bit first?" That's when I realized that I was about to exercise my franchise without properly preparing it for the ordeal ahead. So, I sat down, got to work, started massaging its enfeebled muscles, and began my own personal voter guide.

Today I'm going to cover the statewide questions in Nevada this year.

Statewide Question No. 1
Shall the Nevada Constitution be amended to create a Court of Appeals that would decide appeals of District Court decisions in certain civil and criminal cases?

My vote: NO

This question has been on the ballot several times over the years, and, each time the voters have shot it down pretty resoundingly. So, why does it keep coming back? Good question - and there's a good answer. The Nevada Supreme Court is a busy, busy court. Last year alone, the Supreme Court heard 2,373 cases, or 339 cases per justice. That's almost one case per day, including weekends, being tried by each of the justices - or, at least, it would be if each judge was allowed to try cases individually. Instead, the Nevada Supreme Court uses two groups of three-justice panels to try most cases, with the Chief Justice filling in as needed and otherwise supervising the groups. This means that, in order to keep up with the current caseload, each panel must somehow try over 1,000 cases each year.

There's no way justice is being served at that rate.

The proposed solution in Question 1 is pretty straightforward - create a Court of Appeals to handle some of the caseload and add an additional layer between the District Court system and the Nevada Supreme Court. By itself, this actually isn't a bad idea - since appellate justices can handle cases individually, while higher courts traditionally handle cases as a body, a few individual appellate justices can clear out casework considerably more efficiently and effectively than an extra few Supreme Court justices. This also prevents the Supreme Court from having to unofficially create a court of appeals by hearing cases in small groups, only for each group to contradict each other and then have to rehear the case (or hear a similar case in the future) as a full group to sort it out. 

So what's the problem?

The biggest problem is that the proposed Court of Appeals is way too small. Assuming that the same number of cases are appealed as there are now, each justice would still have to somehow handle over 700 cases each per year. Given that kind of a caseload, there would be considerable pressure to simply push the cases out of their hair and into the Supreme Court as fast as humanly possible - or, worse yet, categorically reject appeals out of hand regardless of merit. The result would be a traditional Nevada solution - a well meaning, half baked, inadequate mess that makes a bad problem just that much worse. 

Eventually, if the political will is there, it's possible that the Legislature might expand the Court of Appeals - if Question 1 passes, that's certainly on the table. However, this is the Nevada Legislature we're talking about; the only time our august body exercises anything resembling "political will" is when a rich tycoon shows up and promises riches beyond the dreams of avarice, if only someone will zero out his tax bill. Consequently, we can be guaranteed to see a still-overloaded Nevada Supreme Court with a harried Court of Appeals running interference - the worst of both worlds.

Statewide Question No. 2
Shall the Nevada Constitution be amended to remove the cap on the taxation of minerals and other requirements and restrictions relating to the taxation of mines, mining claims, and minerals and the distribution of money collected from such taxation?

My vote: YES

Before I go any further with this, I'd like to take a moment to outline my overall political philosophy. I generally lean heavily libertarian - not full Anarcho-Capitalist, for reasons I'll get into one of these days - with a twist of utilitarianism sprinkled in for good measure (as opposed to a Deontologically-minded Libertarian; again, I'll go into the difference some other time). What this means is that I'm generally against taxation and generally against the growth of government, but not exclusively so. For example, regarding Question 1, I'd be willing to technically grow the size of government if it meant we would have a faster, more effective justice system since I value an effective justice system without bottlenecks over a categorical opposition to the growth of government under any and all possible circumstances. Ideally, of course, I'd rather see a private solution to the problem - I have to imagine independent arbitration is pretty popular here - but, in the absence of that, I'd rather have an effective justice system than one that's doing its best imitation of India's oft-maligned court system

This brings me to Question #2. I'm not naive - I know why this measure is on the ballot. It's to enable the legislature to raise mining taxes. I'm against that. I know friends and family that would be directly affected by this measure. I've spent a considerable amount of time in rural Nevada and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future. And yet... I'm going to vote "yes". Why?

The answer? Equality before the law.

Here's the thing - I value low taxes and less government, but I value fairness and equality before the law more. This is part of the reason why I wouldn't mind seeing a faster, more effective court system; as India and countless other examples throughout history have proven, a slow, underfunded mess of one is prone to corruption, specially carved out "fast lanes", and other distortions that are several orders of magnitude worse than the confiscatory effects of a slightly higher tax rate. It's also part of the reason why I'm going to vote in favor of this measure - simply put, I don't think it's right that the mining industry has a special tax arrangement carved into the Nevada Constitution. 

Mining's arrangement is particularly special indeed.

As outlined nicely by the Nevada Taxpayers Association, the Nevada Constitution sets a taxation cap of 5% of all net proceeds from a given mine. This is not only less than Nevada's current sales and use tax rate, which ranges from 6.85%-8.1%, depending on the county you live in, it's also the only industry-specific tax exemption listed in the Nevada Constitution. On top of that, most mining activity takes place in Nevada's expansive BLM-owned territory, which, being federal land, isn't taxed at anything approaching fair market value. 

The deontologically Libertarian answer here is to say, "Fine - let's set everyone else's taxes at 5% and be done with it." If that answer was on the ballot, I'd vote for it in a heartbeat. Since it's not, however, I'll go with the best option that's available to me. To quote Coyote Blog, who wrote about a similar example of politically connected cronyism:
I used to be OK with anything that reduced taxes for anyone, but now I have come to realize that discounting taxes for one preferred crony just raises taxes for the rest of us.
That's about where I am as well. It's time for the mining industry's special exemption to be written back out of the Nevada Constitution - honestly, it never should have been added in the first place.

Statewide Question No. 3
Shall the Nevada Revised Statutes be amended to create a 2% tax to be imposed on a margin of the gross revenue of entities doing business in Nevada whose total revenue for any taxable year exceeds $1 million, with the proceeds of the tax going to the State Distributive School Account to be apportioned among Nevada's school districts and charter schools?

My vote: NO

To give you an idea of how little trust people in Nevada have for our government, I talked to a couple of openly progressive individuals about this tax measure. One had an Obama sticker on the back of her Toyota in 2008. The other makes regular trips to the Bay Area and has political opinions that generally blend in nicely there. I asked them how they were going to vote on the measure.

Their answer: No.

Both gave near-identical reasons - they flat out don't trust the Nevada Legislature to let this money actually add to education's funding. They agree that something must be done, that our schools are woefully underfunded and that our education system needs some serious help, but they also agree that the Legislature is almost certainly guaranteed to simply cancel out any gains in education funding this measure might provide by pulling that money out of the General Fund and giving it to some other special interest somewhere.  They're concerned that, if this measure passes, the Legislature will take 2% out of the pockets of every business in Nevada and use it to build stadiums, provide targeted handouts to well-connected corporate interests, and a whole host of other frivolous things that have nothing to do with educating students and everything to do with lining the Legislature in yet another layer of graft and corruption. 

Why? Because the Nevada Legislature has done it before. See STAR Bonds

If this measure passes, it will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that discounting taxes for one crony just raises taxes for the rest of us. If we really want to fix education by throwing more money at the problem (and, personally, I'm not sold about that fix but I'll concede the point for now), get rid of STAR bonds, get rid of the various special interest exceptions that dot Nevada's tax code, get everyone on a more or less even footing, and then let's talk. I personally bet that getting rid of all of the political carve-outs would get us to a close enough number in the General Fund where we can talk about funding education without pulling 2% out of every single receipt in the state. 

Now you know how I'm voting on the questions and why. Agree with me? Disagree with me? Tell me why in the comments below. Next up... candidates!

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