Saturday, July 26, 2003

Court to First Amendment: Drop dead

The saga of the Nevada Supreme Court and the budget debacle gets more fascinating all the time. My buddy and colleague Vin Suprynowicz and my employer, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, may soon be sued by Supreme Court Justices Miriam Shearing, Bob Rose and Deborah Agosti for defamation because of a column Vin wrote about the high court's ruling that set aside a portion of the state constitution. (Read the column here.)

From the news story:

According to Suprynowicz's column, he had lunch on July 1 with a retired Nevada judge who told him: "The fix is in. Guinn went to Rose and Shearing on the Supreme Court some time ago and got their agreement that they'll impose the tax hikes. Agosti is wavering, but it'll probably be 6-to-1."This seemed a tad paranoid to me then," Suprynowicz wrote. "Now we know. The judge called it right."
Later in the column, Suprynowicz wrote, "And so the thin veneer that had still duped many of us into believing we had a government of law, and that our political leaders were not bought-and-paid-for shills of the gaming industry and the big government unions, has now been stripped aside ..."
According to [attorney Dominic] Gentile's letter, the column libeled his clients.
"That such a statement is an accusation and allegation of bribery and corruption in its common meaning in the present day is irrefutable," the attorney wrote.

The letter demands a retraction, which the justices won't get. But here's where it gets real interesting. In a telephone interview with reporter Carri Thevenot, Rose

said the Review-Journal "should certainly be willing to identify the retired judge" who claims Guinn met with justices before they ruled on the tax issue.

But the letter doesn't ask Vin or the RJ to reveal the source, which led the paper's attorney, Mark Hinueber, to describe

Gentile's demand letter as "an outrageous attempt to chill the Review-Journal's aggressive, thorough and fair reporting on the Nevada Supreme Court and to discover confidential sources of the newspaper."

Bingo. The idea is to find out who made this comment and punish this person, so that other confidential souces will know what's good for them when they think about volunteering information to the paper or answering a reporter's question. This little show of muscle is every bit as outrageous as any "fix" that might have occurred, if Vin's source is correct. And it simply reinforces Vin's larger point. Nevada is corrupt from stem to stern.

Speaking of defamation ...

The Las Vegas Sun's smear campaign against GOP Assemblyman Bob Beers, the ringleader of tax resistance in the Legislature, was renewed on Friday with a front page, above-the-fold story headlined, "Beers blasted for 'racist' remark." So what was the lawmaker's sin? Read the lede:

Assemblyman Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, who has previously made inflammatory comments about Episcopalians and casino workers, took a shot Thursday at an AIDS awareness program aimed at the black community.
Commenting on the fact that the Las Vegas organization Fighting AIDS in our Community Today (FACT) is to receive $250,000 in state money, Beers dismissed it as a program that does little more than give condoms to gay black men.
"From what I understand in the newspapers this FACT program is dedicated to putting condoms on gay men in the black community," Beers said in an interview with the Sun.
In a follow-up e-mail to the Sun, Beers said he was referring to a news report that said the program was targeted at gay black men because, as an ethnic group, they are highly at risk for AIDS.

This, racist? And worthy of top billing on the front page? Only because the "story" was invented from whole cloth. Sun reporter Jennifer Knight then sought out several left-wing black Democratic lawmakers (and the Legislature's only openly gay member) who have been fighting tooth and nail to jack up state spending by 30 percent ... and didn't get their way. They can't stand Beers and his poltical philosophy and will gladly pile on.

BTW, interested in the "inflammatory" comments Beers made about "Episcopalians and casino workers"? Return to the story:

He first drew fire in February when, in an e-mail to a constituent, he described casino workers as "prone to dropping out of school, reproducing illegitimate children, often while little more than children themselves, abusing drugs and alcohol more frequently, and even killing themselves more often than people who do value education."
Beers was criticized again in March for his response to an Episcopalian bishop who urged lawmakers to address a $704 million shortfall in the state budget.
Beers responded by saying: "There's gotta be more Episcopalian bishops besides you. ... Your opinion is pretty far out there and strikes me as an opinion of a woman with no taxpaying parishioners."

Impolitic? To be sure? Inflammatory? Perhaps, to the people with whom he was corresponding. But they were private communications. And it turns out that the correspondents were themselves political activists trying to bait Beers. After all, the e-mailers were not exactly inviting Beers to dinner. They were asking him to impose the largest tax increase in state history. And they weren't even his constitutents.

Among the lawmakers who expressed any resistance to the size of the tax hike, Beers possessed all the intellectual candlepower. Without him there would have been no check on the gamers or the public employees. So that's why the Sun wants to take him out.

Predictably, the Sun published its yellow "news" story on Friday, when no one will read it (weekday circulation is about 30,000). But I'm willing to bet a substantial amount of money that on Sunday, when (thanks to our lovely JOA) the Sun is delivered with 220,000 Review-Journals, there will be an editorial and at least two columns which will have scant reference to the facts but will still call for Beers to be run out of town on a rail.

Bob Beers can take care of himself. But the degree of unhinged-ness that runs rampant at the Sun is beyond comprehension.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Boo-frickin'-hoo

Terry Lanni, CEO of MGM Mirage, explaining why his gaming group is pulling out of both the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Resort Association after the trade associations failed to convince the Legislature to enact the gaming industry's agenda during the recently concluded session:

"We're tired of being rejected out-of-hand, of having heavy feet stomp on our hands and heads."

Yes, let's shed a tear for the helpless, politically impotent gaming industry in Nevada, incapable of finding anyone in the establishment to listen to its tales of woe and destitution. We must all remember that Las Vegas was built by such hardscrabble entrepreneurs as Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Sam Giancana, who barely had two nickels to rub together when they decided to create a paradise in the desert. As Dr. Evil might say, "This is ri-god-dam-diculous."

Addendum

A bit of context may be helpful. The gaming industry has never been, shall we say, subtle, when it has lobbied lawmakers in previous sessions. This year, from all reports (including this one), the gamers were completely over the top in the way they bullied, browbeat and otherwise intimidated lawmakers who wouldn't toe the line. The methods backfired, and no one feels a bit sorry for them.

Addendum II

The role of the Culinary union in the legislative session is a fascinating study of how organized labor is so intertwined with the political left that union leaders often end up working against the interests of their members. The Culinary -- which represents primarily housekeepers, custodians and restaurant workers in hotel/casinos -- worked nonstop to pass the highest tax increase imaginable. What's wrong with this picture is that the lion's share of the new revenues will go to public employees. So we have a labor organization representing people earning $10 an hour going to the wall for people who earn at least twice that much (and often a lot more). For what? Maids and busboys will pay a lot more for a six-pack of beer and a carton of smokes. The schools aren't going to get any better. Public services will continue to stink. But so long as the Legislature can "get" Wal-Mart, and local Culinary bosses can move up the hierarchy of the AFL-CIO, it's all worth it.

Lawmakers in fantasyland

This Review-Journal editorial points out some of the unintended consequences of the new Nevada tax plan. We also have a little fun:

(T)he state's political establishment continues to live in fantasyland. "The taxes we passed will not go to the individual," argues Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.
Say what? Who, then, will pay higher taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and car rentals, fees on real estate sales and filings with the government? Is the money buried in the desert, does it grow on trees? Do businesses (in the words of humor columnist Dave Barry) bake it into pies? You can't suck $836 million out of the private sector and hand it to the bureaucracy -- no matter what the method -- and not expect some ramifications for individual taxpayers.

Any day you can poke fun at the politicos by citing Dave Barry is a great day to be alive.

Recalling recalls

Excellent cautionary points by my former colleague at Reason Nick Gillespie and my buddy Steve Hayward (guest-blogging at The Corner) on some of the unforeseen consequences of the Gray Davis recall campaign. Nick notes that the good government types are likely to use campaign "reform" laws to harass political activists; Steve suggests if the recall succeeds, it

is likely to lead to the de facto transformation of California into something like a parliamentary democracy. In the future, whenever a governor's popularity swoons (Pete Wilson's polls were very bad in 1992 and 1993), the liberal special interest groups are likely to try the recall route themselves; they have more money and organization than the right in California.

Meantime, in Nevada, my humble prediction is that attempts to recall public officials here will fail. Organizers of the recalls have targeted all six justices who voted to kinda, sorta suspend the state constitution. Had they selected only one -- say, Chief Justice Deborah Agosti, who authored the majority opinion, and is up for re-election next year -- organizers might succeed; at least, gathering the requisite number of signatures to put a recall on the ballot would send a message to the justices and to the lawmakers who contemplated increasing taxes by an unconstitutional simple majority. A quick, laser-like effort is needed here, rather than an unfocused, populist temper tantrum. Any ham-handed attempt to toss out the entire court, as it were, will likely go nowhere.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Sometimes you gotta take it like a man

Gov. Kenny Guinn responds to The Wall Street Journal's July 2 (not July 15, as the press release states) editorial -- "The Republican Gray Davis," reprinted here -- with this whiny, interminable retort. To wit:

As Governor of Nevada, I had a duty to uphold the laws of my state and brought a lawsuit as quickly as I could in hopes of forcing our legislative body to meet its constitutional responsibility to provide for a meaningful educational system in this state. For me, protecting my constituents and upholding the laws of this state did not warrant the sophomoric sarcasm that you attached to it. ... In closing, I am disappointed with your newspaper's ability to print accurate editorials. Perhaps, before writing about Nevada again, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board should exercise its professional ethics and investigate the facts.

Sure, anybody can be thin-skinned, but geez, gov. You think a Republican governor who won re-election touting his fiscal conservatism and then turned around and demanded for a 30 percent increase in state spending during an economic downturn wouldn't get the Journal's attention? As one former Nevadan, Mr. Clemens, reportedly said, better to remain silent and be thought a fool ...

I can't believe it's a law school

Today, the Review-Journal published this op-ed by UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos, defending Nevada's Supreme Court justices for their decision that may launch an outright political free-for-all in the Silver State. It's possible to imagine someone coming up with a reasoned defense of what the court did, I suppose, but this article doesn't do it.

Money quote:

During the civil rights era, initiatives amended state constitutions to delay or resist the implementation of bussing to integrate once segregated schools. These initiatives were struck down by federal and state courts. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state constitutional amendments that would place term limits on congressional representatives and nullified attempts to place notations on ballots warning that a congressional representative had ignored the people's directive to serve a limited number of terms.

The problem with this, of course, is that the analogy comes nowhere close to fitting the current circumstances. Professor Lazos is citing examples in which (eventually) the U.S. Supreme Court used the U.S. Constitution to trump state law; it's called the Supremacy Clause, and it's pretty basic jurisprudence. The Nevada Supremes instead said the Legislature could ignore one provision of the state constitution in favor of another because abiding by both would be "inconvenient." The court did not declare the two-thirds supermajority requirement for taxes unconstitutional; it said it was less important than the mandate to fund public education ... and all these discussions were confined to a state issue, with the federal Constitutaion never coming into play.

Sigh. Your tax dollars at work.

A deal

... has been consummated. $836 million in new taxes. No gross receipts tax or other "broad-based" business tax. A two-thirds majority (barely) approved the package. The tax increase more than doubles the previous record for a single tax hike. Still, gamers, Kenny Guinn, and legislative Democrats have won at best a Pyrrhic victory. The voters should have long memories, and mark my words, if the 2005 or 2007 Legislature asks for an additional tax increase, a substantial boost in the gross gaming tax will likely top the list.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Results, results, results

Today's column by Review-Journal Editor Tom Mitchell does more than summarize the distinctions between the editorial policies of the city's two daily papers on the issue of the state budget impasse, among other things. He offers a microcosm of the world views of the two papers. For the framework, you have to understand the argument made by Thomas Sowell in his book A Conflict of Visions, recently reissued by Doubleday. In this brief volume, Sowell argues that most political debates are conducted by people talking past one another, because the people participating in the debates have different "visions" or assumptions about the way the world should work -- views on justice, equality, rights, all depend on your vision. The two visions -- the Constrained vs. the Unconstrained -- guide individuals' world views, whether they realize it or not.

While I can't do the book justice in a few sentences, here's a Sowell for Dummies summary: Those with the constrained vision define justice as a matter of process -- are policies and policy-makers guided by a set of well-established rules that apply evenly to everyone, or are some people "more equal" than others under the law? Those with the unconstrained vision are more concerned with results. As an example, those with the constrained vision abhor racial preferences, while those with the unconstrained vision view them as a necessary remedy for past discrimination. Boiling it down to cliches, a constrained statement might be, "play by the rules and let the chips fall where they may," as is the distaste for jurists who "legislate from the bench;" a person with the unconstrained vision might instead say, "the end justifies the means," or, "if you're going to make an omelet, you need to break a few eggs." Sowell travels centuries of political and philosophical thought to explain the two visions in an evenhanded fashion that's unfortunately absent in his later work, and the book provided an epiphany for me when I first read it about 15 years ago. Read it.

Anyway, back to Tom's column. For the most part, the RJ's vision is decidedly constrained; the Sun's unconstrained:


The editorial writers at the Las Vegas Sun embraced this thorny decision like a prodigal son. "For the good of the state, the court was asked to make a difficult decision and in doing so it has given the Legislature a chance to finally set this state on a path toward fair and sufficient taxation," the newspaper editorialized.
Two columnist/reporters at the Sun, Jeff German and Erin Neff, also opined that the procedural end justified the procedural means. Neff wrote: "Constitutions work because they aren't just sepia-colored documents withered from the light of decades. They work because they change and because they are interpreted." Might as well write the thing on an Etch-a-Sketch.

I'd also argue that the federal court decision handed down Friday was consistent with the constrained vision; the Nevada Supreme Court ruling that triggered the federal suit was unconstrained to the core.

Addendum

Tom's column alludes to the fact that Nevada's political system is most definitely unconstrained as well. Those who have money, clout and connections run roughshod over everyone else, to the extent they can get away with it. It's one reason the place is more of a haven for libertines than libertarians ... and why the inititiative process is used so frequently by voters to try to rein in the Juice Jobbers.