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New rules could slow how ballot questions submitted

Ballot questions have certainly played an important role in Nye County politics. Some only passed by the thinnest of margins.

In November 2006, Nye County voters passed a ballot question to increase the sales tax a half-cent, by 5,806 votes to 5,788, to fund police and fire services, a winning margin of only 18 votes. But the question wasn’t binding on county commissioners, who decided not to increase the half-cent sales tax in December 2007 by a vote of 3-2. Six years later it was resurrected and passed this year by a 3-2 margin.

In November 2012, Nye County voters passed a ballot question to discontinue the elected Pahrump town board form of government 7,294 votes to 7,063 votes, a winning margin of only 231 votes. The ramifications of that are on hold while the Nevada Supreme Court considers an appeal from the town of Pahrump.

Nye County Clerk Sam Merlino said she got a call recently while attending a conference between the secretary of state and county clerks from Pahrump Town Board members Bill Dolan and Harley Kulkin complaining they weren’t on a list of 2014 candidates published in the newspaper. Merlino said she’ll wait until the judge rules.

“The ballot question stays as it is. I can’t do anything until the judge overturns it,” Merlino said.

If the Pahrump town board reverts to an advisory board status, Nye County commissioners will appoint members. Already town board members like Amy Riches and Kulkin have said they wouldn’t be interested in serving as advisory town board members. Dolan is running for a county commissioner seat.

Merlino said the town of Pahrump could hold an informal election process, like Amargosa Valley did before its board reverted to an elected town board last year. Local residents voted at the Amargosa Community Center in November, putting paper ballots in a box the old-fashioned way.

Now the county clerk has informed county commissioners that a committee must be formed to draft ballot questions, according to a new law, Senate Bill 325, passed in the last legislative session. The Board of County Commissioners, in consultation with the county clerk, will be required to form two committees of at least three members, one to draft the language in support of a ballot question, the other to draft language opposing the question.

“What this means is you can’t just present a ballot question right before the deadline and hope it gets on the ballot,” Merlino told commissioners. “If any government entity does consider a ballot question, please submit them early. This is new to us and we’ll see how it goes.”

Previously, she said the district attorney’s office drafted ballot question language. For the ballot question on dissolving the Pahrump town board form of government, town board member Tom Waters was invited to draft the language opposing the question.

“The committee has to be for every question. It has to be for proponents and opponents of that question,” Merlino said.

There shouldn’t be a problem finding proponents to draft their language, but District Attorney Brian Kunzi said it may be harder to find people to draft opposition language.

“The pros are going to be easy because you’ve got the people who have been circulating the initative petition to put it on the ballot. The pros are going to come from them. The problem has always been the opposition. You’re going to have to find people on the committee to write that opposition,” Kunzi said.

County Manager Pam Webster asked if the DA’s office would have to do a legal review of the language the committee drafts.

“We would have to cross that bridge. If they said something that’s blatantly illegal, we might want to block it. It’s going to be a real fine line,” Kunzi said. “It’s really going to come probably from the con side of it, where they want to say something that is just not legal. We could run into those issues.”

Merlino said she’s able to only correct clerical issues.

County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen predicted a committee could jumble it up. “If you give a thoroughbred to a committee it will end up as a camel when it comes out on the other side.”

Merlino said the requirement to appoint committees will make the process of requesting a ballot question more time-consuming, but there shouldn’t be any additional costs, other than paying members a per diem travel stipend. She said hopefully they could communicate by video conference if they are separated by distances.

“I don’t know if you could find one general committee to write the pros and cons for every question. You may have a question for the town of Pahrump, you don’t want someone from Tonopah on that committee,” Merlino said.

County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen quickly volunteered to draft language for a ballot question on increasing the county gas tax, it failed miserably during the last attempt in November 2012, with 70 percent voting it down. It was the third time the county attempted to raise the local gas tax, currently four cents per gallon.

Merlino said the new law also requires a digest to any ballot questions that will hopefully make it easier to understand them, particularly state ballot questions over issues which can be complex.

“What legislators said, they had so many questions about statewide questions people read them but can’t understand them. Just spell it out without all this legal mumbo-jumbo,” she said.

The ballot question to dissolve the Pahrump town board was the only one of five ballot questions to make it in front of voters, that were circulated by the Concerned Citizens for a Safe Community who collected signatures outside the Ian Deutch Justice Facility in the summer of 2012. At the urging of County Commissioner Butch Borasky, commissioners voted July 3, 2012 to place that question on the ballot.

The CCSC also collected signatures for ballot questions asking whether voters should decide whether to deny any attempt by the Pahrump Town Board on incorporation; whether to make permanent a 50,000-foot buffer between correctional facilities and residences; whether the county should challenge the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over wild horse roundups and whether county residents want to deny the U.S. Department of Energy the right to store 77,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain.

The county clerk told the group circulating the petitions they would have to gather 1,445 signatures on the countywide petitions by June 29 to get them on the November 2012 ballot, 10 percent of the total that voted in the last election. But the DA later said they were initiatives that required more signatures.