Monday, February 27, 2012

Who's Afraid of Kermitt Waters?

He's brilliant. He's edgy. He's visionary. He's radical. And perhaps he's managed to bring folks together (while simultaneously driving away powerful players on the left and on the right) in a way that hardly anyone else has.

He's Kermitt Waters, and he wants to lower your taxes... Unless, that is, you're a multinational corporation looking for an "onshore tax shelter" here in Nevada. If that's the case, watch out.

But before Waters can even launch a campaign for his tax initiative, he has to sue in court to strike down the state statute that's been holding him back. And he's formed a strange alliance on this law suit, one that actually scares some local progressives. (I'll explain this later.)

On Saturday, I finally had a chance to meet Mr. Waters myself and ask him the questions that I sense many Nevadans have been wanting to ask. I started with what I thought was the most obvious: Why bring forth such a complicated and radical restructuring of Nevada's entire state budget that openly violates the single subject rule that only allows for an initiative to address one policy matter? Waters gave me a simple deadpan of an answer: "You want to give me $500,000?"

Waters complained about how expensive it is to push a ballot initiative. This led me to my next question: Why do this? Isn't this why we have a Legislature? Again, he gave a clear and concise answer: "Gaming and mining own The Legislature." He then went on to express his deep distrust of pretty much anyone and everyone in Carson City, and especially of what he considers the center of "booze, broads, and bribes". It seems that he's felt the same frustration with the way business is done in Carson City that most voters in Nevada (and especially Clark County) feel... But he's taking it to another level in threatening their power over perhaps the biggest decision made there, which is the one made every two years on the state budget.

Waters and I then went back to the matter of his law suit. He sounded especially frustrated over The Legislature intervening in the law suit, as well as Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) sending this law suit to federal court.

I then asked about the other big elephant in the room: Is Kermitt Waters about to open a "Pandora's Box" of "tea party" crazy by making it easier for the likes of Chuck Muth and Richard Ziser to unleash the full radical right wish list, from TABOR to zygote personhood to domestic partnership repeal and more, on our ballots? After all, it's impossible that Chuck Muth is backing Waters' law suit because he likes Waters' tax plan. (Remember that if Waters wins this law suit, a precedent is set that will allow virtually everyone else to start collecting signatures to put whatever one wants on the ballot.) So what was Waters' answer? Simple: "If you don't like it, beat it at the damned polls. Don't kill the goose. Just beat them at the polls."

It's interesting. Kermitt Waters may be very cynical and pessimistic when it comes to the death of good policy caused by the people running Nevada's government, but he sounds hopeful and downright optimistic about the triumph of good policy among the people voting in Nevada elections. It sounded like he genuinely believes Nevada will be better off with more of the California/Arizona style direct democracy regularly practiced there than with what we have now.

OK, so Kermitt Waters likes direct democracy. But again, why pursue this long, complicated initiative when there are simpler initiatives floating around that are not being challenged in court? When I asked about the AFL-CIO's proposed business margin tax, Waters flatly dismissed it. "It's a waste of time. In three years, they'll take it off." And since the AFL-CIO proposal is just a statute instead of a constitutional amendment, he thinks it may face the same fate in the hands of The Legislature that the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act has experienced. Waters pretty much said the same thing about Monte Miller's proposed gaming and mining tax initiatives when I asked about those.

At this point, Kermitt Waters then dropped a bomb on me. He told me that other progressive organizations did not want to work with him on his initiative, and that they didn't want to touch this because of his association with Chuck Muth, and because they fear Waters' victory in court would lead to the likes of Muth and Ziser throwing the entire "tea party" wish list on Nevada ballots in a matter of no time.

When I asked him if the concerns of other progressives should be noted, Waters stood behind his plan. "We're trying to accomplish something. We'll get nothing done if we don't [change the rules on initiatives]. We'll all starve to death if we don't let someone get two hamburgers. This is just insane."

Now before I wrap this up, I want to give a reminder of what's at stake with Waters' initiative. If Kermitt Waters succeeds, his initiative will:

- Eliminate the property tax for single family homes

- Establish a 20% levy on mining companies

- Set up a gross receipts tax on businesses earning over $1 million a month


- Use the new revenues to set up a fund separate from the state's general fund (so legislators and the Governor can't use any of this new money to cover everything else in the general fund and/or pay for new tax cuts somewhere else) to pay for a new system of Nevada appeals courts, increased investment in public education, more renewable energy investment, expanded health care coverage, and more.

Honestly, this is why I've personally been at conflict with myself on this. And this is why I was willing to meet with Kermitt Waters himself last weekend to hear his side of the story.

I personally believe Kermitt Waters is genuine in his desire to remake Nevada Government, and especially Nevada's broken budget process, for the better. And when glancing at everything in Waters' initiative, from renewable energy investment to public education investment to generating the new revenue our state so desperately needs, it really does read like a progressive's wish list come true.

However, I can also see that Waters' route isn't the only route that progressives have to use to enact needed reforms to our budget and our tax system. That's why later this week, we'll be looking at the other progressive tax proposal making waves: the AFL-CIO's. We'll probably also do more analysis, along with some needed comparison & contrast, on both initiatives later this week.

In talking with Kermitt Waters, I can see why he's become feared in recent years. He may be dismissed at times as a "gadfly", but he truly does have the determination to follow through on his fights. We'll have to see how far he wants to go on this one.

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