Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Court to Constitution: Drop dead (and we really mean it this time)

In a decision that would make the 9th Circuit proud, the Nevada Supreme Court refuses to reconsider its July 10 decision setting aside the state's supermajority requirement for tax increases. In an interminable 30+ page ruling that reads less like a reasoned legal argument than a bad undergraduate poli sci paper, the majority argued that a) tax increases were necessary to fund education and b) the 2/3 supermajority amendment was probably invalid because voters didn't understand that the mandate would make it difficult to operate the government effectively during tough times. (This, notwithstanding the fact that more than 70 percent of the voters supported the initiative in separate elections and both sides got plenty of air time and column inches to make their case.) The court did not, however, take the logical next step and strike down the supermajority requirement. As far as I can tell, logic played absolutely no part in these proceedings. (Read the decision here. Remove all sharp objects from the room first.) At least Justice Miriam Shearing had the judiciousness, as it were, to offer a brief, separate concurrence providing some legal justification for the decision and then saying that the court had no business defending itself against attacks from the media and other sources -- which is what the other five justices did, ad nauseam.

Justice Bill Maupin again was the lone dissenter. His two-page filing argued that the ruling should have been overturned because a) the phony "constitutional crisis" the majority invented miraculously vanished within days of the original decision when the Legislature passed a balanced budget with a tax increase by a two-thirds majority; and b) the decision remains on the books, setting a troubling precedent. (I have it on good authority that at least two of the state's top Democratic lawmakers think this steamy pile is a wonderful bit of jurisprudence. God help us all.) He also chastised his colleagues for their feeble attempt at mentalism, noting that the court has no business imagining what voters were and were not thinking when they went to the polls. And in a wonderful rhetorical bitch-slap, Maupin cited the Declaration of Independence, noting that the government is legitimate only when it is conducted with the consent of the governed, and that if voters decide to use a legitimate political process to make it harder for lawmakers to take more of our money, that's OK.

If Nevada's conservative and libertarian political activists had two brain cells between them, they'd abandon their idiotic (and ultimately futile) attempt to recall Kenny Guinn and focus their efforts on getting rid of at least one Supreme Court justice. I'd start with Chief Justice Deborah Agosti, who authored both opinions. That would be the only way to let the imperial judiciary know that they do not exercise absolute power. I won't hold my breath waiting for the political types to experience an epiphany.

The Las Vegas Expos? Don't be daft

My colleague Norm! Clarke, the Review-Journal's gossip columnist, broke the story (here -- check "Sightings" -- and here) that Major League Baseball has opened high-level negotiations with parties who hope to make Las Vegas a possible destination for the Montreal Expos. Mayor Oscar Goodman, casting about as always to find something, anything that might revitalize his bedraggled downtown, is all aflutter. But back to reality. As much as I would love to have a big league ballclub playing a half-hour or so from my home, I'm convinced this is a ploy by MLB, using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip to extort a higher franchise fee out of the eventual owners in Washington or Portland (or Montreal, for that matter).

In no particular order of significance, here are several reasons we won't get a major league franchise:

Gambling. Every time talks of bringing big league sports to Las Vegas are initiated, they go nowhere, because so long as Nevada sports book continue to accept wagers on teams in the sport in question, the leagues back away. The casinos offer a self-serving (though plausible) defense for refusing to close the books: So long as bets are being placed in public, above board, under the scrutiny of financial and government regulators, the chances of successfully running some sort of fixing scheme go down dramatically. Once wagering slinks underground, though, as the phrase goes, all bets are off. Even so, the leagues feel the need to act all high and mighty and resist placing their teams in cities that allow gambling.

Fan base. The Las Vegas metropolitan area has about 1.6 million residents. That would give it the smallest population of any major league city. (It's slightly smaller than Milwaukee and Kansas City, roughly 20 percent smaller than Cincinnati, and a whopping 45 percent smaller than Portland, which is also bidding for the team.)

What's more, there are no nearby "feeder" cities which could provide additional fans if the Vegas nine were to attempt to market itself as a "regional" team in the way the Braves, the Reds and the Cardinals have done so successfully over the years. When I lived in North Carolina, for several years my family made a point of scheduling a trip to Atlanta to see the Braves, even though it was a seven or eight hour drive. Thousands of other families who live closer than we did make a trip to Turner Field a somewhat regular weekend getaway.

Such a plan would be tougher to pull off in Vegas, because the closest real cities are Phoenix (240 miles away), L.A. (280) and San Diego (336) -- and those cities have their own teams. There ain't much else here to draw from.

Facilities. Cashman Field, where the Dodgers' Triple-A franchise (the 51s) plays, holds 9.000 fans. I suppose additional temporary seating could be installed until a permanent home were built, but that final resting place would be an extremely expensive proposition. Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, cost upwards of $400 million to construct, and I'm guessing we'd need a similar structure (with a retractable roof) here. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the daytime highs rarely drop below 100 degrees, and temperatures between 110 and 115 are common in July and August. The mercury will often not descend into the double digits until midnight or later, so an air-conditioned facility for the players and the fans would be a must.

Who would pay for that? The money could come from tourist taxes collected by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, but the LVCVA guards its booty zealously. Taxes on tourism would have to go up. And once the stadium is built, annual operating costs can run in the tens of millions of dollars, which for damn sure won't come out of the owners' pockets.

Competition for the entertainment dollar. Hey, it's Sin City. You think people will travel here to watch baseball? OK, initially, supply may create its own demand. Sheer novelty will attract tourists and locals alike. Tourists attending a convention or on a gambling trip might set aside a few hours and a few bucks to take in a ballgame. But long term, I can't imagine a substantial number of out-of-towners supporting the team, especially since most of the games would be played in the heat of the summer, when tourism drops off.

As for the locals? Well, they've supported NASCAR and Rebel basketball, but those are the only sporting events they've regularly attended, and they take up, what ... 20 days a year? The Expos would play 81 home games each season. That's a lot of Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Ultimately, Las Vegas is being used by MLB. We won't get a team. But that's OK, because the cost to taxpayers -- locals and tourists alike -- of obtaining and maintaining a franchise and a stadium would be staggering. If Oscar wants to rejuvenate downtown, he should implode the ratty casinos there and encourage Steve Wynn, George Maloof or the Fertittas to clear away the wreckage and build an eye-popping megaresort on the site. That'll bring the folks back.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Dodging the raindrops

Back from nine days in North Carolina, eight of them on the coast, where we experienced perhaps 4 hours of sun ... until it was time to head for the airport yesterday, of course. But as my friend Roger Waldon said, there's no such thing as a crappy day on the beach. I saw the Carolina Tar Heels lose a 49-47 triple-overtime football game to Syracuse; played cards with my Chapel Hill poker buds (and my second college roommate); frolicked in the surf for 90 minutes; ate shrimp burgers and oyster burgers; and enjoyed the absence of Internet access and 24-hour cable news. More sunshine would have improved the trip. It was nice to return to the desert.

BTW, the link to my column on The Substance of Style, published while we were on the East Coast, is here.

While you were out

Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash and John Ritter died. John Edwards may have guaranteed an additional Senate seat for the GOP, though the jobless recovery has taken a psychological toll on my home state. The collapse of manufacturing jobs is being felt in more than the old-line industries such as textiles and furniture; it also appears to be hurting the high-tech industry there, which hasn't bounced back from the dot-com crash (and is no doubt hurting from the failure of the administration to further liberalize trade). If Richard Burr does not win that Senate seat, George Bush is in trouble, and you can blame that on Bush's economic, fiscal and trade policies, which have not restored economic growth to North Carolina and other states in the New South.

Making the Nevada Supremes proud

That was my initial reaction to the news that a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit delayed the California recall. Much like their colleagues in Carson City, the 9th Circuit judges set aside a provision of the state constitution for trivial reasons, ruling that the terms of a consent decree overrules the clear language and intent of the constitution. Lots of other folks have weighed in here, including Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh, among others.

What makes this decision so perplexing is the blithe confidence its proponents have expressed that the initial shift from punchcard to touch-screen devices will reduce voting error. It's a ludicrous assumption. Despite the demurrals offered by the 9th, if the decision stands, the upshot of this ruling is that any election in which voters do not have access to the most recent, most expensive state-of-the-art voting technology will be easy prey for litigators. I find the ACLU's sense of triumph here mind-boggling.