It’s sometimes difficult to keep the lines straight in politics, as in the closing days of the old Soviet Union when communists were conservatives and capitalists were the liberals, or the 2000 election when Al Gore was the voice of the establishment and Republican John McCain was the voice of reform.

This year, a Nevada group long thought of as hidebound old fogies is acting like a social-reform group in opposing what it considers an out-of-control ballot petition process, while liberals are backing ballot measures on subjects such as marijuana and school spending.

Since its founding in 1922, the Nevada Taxpayers Association has been principally a business organization that generally opposed taxes, though that is too simplistic a description. Its first goal was not low taxes but a business-friendly tax structure. In the 1950s, for instance, it supported a sales tax that heavily burdened low-income people rather than businesspeople.

NTA has always been suspicious of the initiative petition process and has long wanted protections in the law against ballot measures. In 1972, the group supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting initiative petitions from creating programs without providing taxes to pay for them. NTA director Ernest Newton said it was needed because in other states initiatives “were adopted by the voters with disastrous results for other desirable programs.” The change has helped avoid California’s practice of approving spending and tax cuts in competing ballot measures.

NTA’s posture has become more reformist in recent years as members worried about Nevada sliding into the dangerous ways of California, whose voters have wreaked havoc on state programs, budgets, and the legislative process. Nevada has started showing signs of doing the same. (Until 1978, the initiative process was rarely used in Nevada.) Budget crises and stalemates that have ensued concern NTA officials. Last week, the organization adopted a sharply worded denunciation of the use of ballot petitions by special-interest groups to micromanage government:

“[T]he Nevada Constitution … provides a process by which the people of Nevada can circulate an initiative petition to amend the State’s constitution or create a statute, or circulate a referendum petition to approve a statute. They are not processes to be taken lightly and used frivolously. … We are a republican form of government whereby we elect officials to represent us and our views. The unbridled use of petitions, particularly in the area of taxes and spending, if they are approved by the voters, will put us on the same course as California. … These concerns and opposition are based in some cases on procedural defects and in others because of the amount of detail that may ultimately prove unworkable.”

And now, the Nevada Bankers Association has joined NTA in opposing an initiative petition that would repeal taxes on banks. The bankers group also committed $60,000 to a campaign to defeat the petition if it qualifies for the ballot. While many individual bankers have been critical of the petition, their association’s action came as a surprise.

George Harris, sponsor of the referendum, told the Las Vegas Business Press that the banking group does not represent small bankers.

“It’s the Nevada Big Bankers Association,” he said.

But NBA President William Uffelman said every bank in the state but one is a member of the group.

In addition, executives of small banks have been among the most critical of the ballot measure because it could lock the new taxes into the law books, making it difficult for the Legislature to reduce or repeal them.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...