Nevada Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday they were “disheartened” by a state Supreme Court ruling that a pair of tax measures legislators passed in 2019 were unconstitutional because they did not pass by a two-thirds majority.
And in a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson complained the Supreme Court’s decision would have been unnecessary if only Republican legislators would “stop playing partisan politics with our children’s education dollars.”
But when asked later in the day, neither Cannizarro nor Frierson were willing to suggest Democrats should try to change the basis of the court’s unanimous hearing: the constitutional two-thirds requirement itself.
The two-thirds requirement to raise taxes was solidified into the Nevada Constitution a quarter of a century ago in 1996. It is still sometimes referred to by Republicans, approvingly, as the “Gibbons Tax Restraint Amendment,” after its champion, former Republican legislator, U.S. representative and governor Jim Gibbons.
The requirement has since proven to be a thorn in the side of governors and lawmakers hoping to raise revenue within the state. During the 2019 Legislative Session, Senate Democrats tried to sidestep the two-thirds requirement by arguing that repealing a scheduled reduction in taxes and fees did not constitute a tax increase and therefore was not subject to the two-thirds requirement. That effort was deemed unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday.
It appears the court ruling isn’t inspiring Democrats to get the ball rolling on removing the constitutional requirement — something progressive advocates have been calling on for years.
“I don’t think we are trying to have that conversation,” said Senate Majority Leaders Nicole Cannizzao. “The conversation we’re trying to have is how do we get revenue, especially where we know we need it.”
She continued on to say that the past year has highlighted how the state “desperately needs” to find solutions for systemic problems, such as its K-12 education system.
Cannizzaro accused Republicans of “hiding behind” the two-thirds requirement.
“I don’t mind there is a two-thirds” requirement, she said. “We should be working in a bipartisan fashion. We should care enough … When we get up and say we care about education, we want to support education, and we want to support teachers and students. If you’re willing to make those statements, you should also be willing to back that up with a vote to put money into those places.”
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said there hasn’t been any discussion about changing the two-thirds requirement.
“I’m not thinking about anything other than closing our budgets and finishing up the session,” he said.
The Current reached out to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office for his opinion on the two-thirds requirement but has not received a response.
Cannizzaro acknowledged the political challenges of attempting to remove the two-thirds requirement from the constitution, which would have to be approved by voters once, possibly twice, depending on what path was taken.
“There is a lot of work that goes into a constitutional amendment and getting over the ballot,” said Cannizzaro. “We’re still years down the road from that.”
The two 2019 bills recently deemed unconstitutional passed the Senate on a party-line vote of 13-8, one vote shy of a supermajority.
One year later, during a special session focused on budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic, Senate Democrats again fell one Republican senator shy of a supermajority during their attempts to raise taxes on the lucrative mining industry. (They got close, though.)
Now, in the current legislative session set to end May 31, Democrats are again discussing revenue solutions behind closed doors. This time, Democrats will need four Republicans — two in the Assembly and two in the Senate — to vote with them on any proposed revenue increases.
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who served in the Legislature for more than a decade, has been one of the few Democrats to publicly express opposition to the two-thirds requirement. He says the Gibbons rule “basically tied our hands behind our backs” and hamstrung progress for the state.
“It takes away the majority vote rule,” he said. “It emasculates elections. If you can’t raise taxes and all you can do is give money back, you can’t get anything done. … It makes government not function. It makes elections meaningless.”
While many Democrats have held that position since the Gibbons amendment was passed a quarter century ago, they have shown no appetite for making a case to voters that it should be overturned.
“My sense is that they don’t bother trying since such an effort would fail,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore, “and it would give the GOP a big campaign issue.”
Damore notes that voters overwhelmingly supported the initiative, which had to be passed on two general election ballots because it was a signature-driven effort. Voters first approved it in 1994 with 78% support. Two years later, they passed it again with 70% support.
Segerblom is more optimistic. He believes the Nevada Democratic Party should back a signature-driven referendum to remove the two-thirds requirement from the state constitution. He expressed that position in his recent run for chair of the state party, a position he lost to Judith Whitmer.
He acknowledged that the prospect of making it easier for lawmakers to raise taxes might be a difficult sell to the public, but he argued it’s “probably easier” than maintaining a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature.
“It’s just one of those things we need to put to Democratic voters,” added Segerblom. “The good news is, (only a simple) majority of people can vote to amend the constitution.”
Former Democratic state lawmaker Sheila Leslie, who was first elected to the Nevada Assembly from Washoe County shortly after voters approved the Gibbons rule, said she is not aware of any organized effort undertaken in Nevada to address the issue head-on since the two-thirds rule was approved in the 1990s
“Seems like it’s past time to do it,” she added. “But as long as we have politicians who are beholden to Nevada Inc. to fund their campaigns, I don’t think it’ll come from the political elite. It would have to be a grassroots effort.”