Lotteries were in poor repute when the Nevada Constitution was written, and the framers wrote a prohibition on them in that document. In the last third of the 20th century, lotteries took on a grass-roots popularity as an alternative to taxes for raising revenue. In Nevada, there were a couple of efforts to repeal the constitutional prohibition by initiative, but they failed—once by being overturned in court, once by being defeated by voters. But agitation for lotteries continued, and bills were occasionally introduced in the Legislature.

Supporters of a lottery, such as David Farside of Sparks, have done a good job of making a case for a lottery and for its revenue-producing potential. Opponents have produced marketing research suggesting that Nevada’s small population would not provide a sufficient support base for a lottery to pay for its administrative costs.

In direct democracy, the public would vote and might well support a lottery initiative petition. If the lottery then proved not to be financially viable, the state would be forced to operate it anyway, at least for three years (measures enacted by initiative can’t be amended or repealed until three years after approval by the voters).

Under representative government, on the other hand, state legislators would listen to the arguments of both sides, examine their evidence, sort it all out, decide which side had the stronger case and act accordingly.

But that is not what has happened when the issue has gone to the Nevada Legislature. Lottery proposals have been dead on arrival there not because of the merits but because powerful casino lobbyists do not permit lawmakers to support lottery proposals. Bang goes another portion of public confidence in the political process.

Direct democracy as a panacea for this kind of conduct is appealing. Unfortunately, the techniques of initiative, referendum, and recall have come under the nearly exclusive control of those they were intended to curb. The Progressives saw direct democracy as a way to rein in predatory corporate power, politicians and special interests.

Like more traditional aspect of the political system, direct democracy techniques have been taken over by money and power and priced out of the reach of the grass roots. In Nevada’s case, this problem was exacerbated in 1958 and 1976 when signature requirements were increased, making it more difficult to qualify for the ballot without paid signature gatherers. Direct democracy techniques have become just another part of a tainted political system.

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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...