Saturday, July 8, 2006 | 7:40 a.m.
Alleging that signatures to place it on the ballot were fraudulently collected, opponents of an initiative to limit spending by state and local governments are prepared to go to court to prevent the measure from going before voters in November.
It appears likely that state election officials will certify the Tax and Spending Control initiative for the ballot. It appears just as likely that the courts, not voters, will have the first say on the proposal.
Bob Adney, chairman of the Tax and Spending Control Committee, said Friday that Clark County alone has validated more than the 83,184 signatures the group needs statewide to qualify for the ballot.
The group gathered signatures from 156,254 people statewide, 123,614 of them from Clark County.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said he turned in his count Thursday to the secretary of state, but he declined to disclose the number of valid signatures of registered voters. The secretary of state's office also declined to provide any count until the review is completed. Counties must submit their totals by Monday.
The prospect of the measure going on the November ballot has the union-backed Nevadans for Nevada saying it will file a complaint with Secretary of State Dean Heller to review its allegations of fraud and toss out petitions with tens of thousands of signatures. If unsuccessful in that appeal, the group would carry its protests to the courts.
Nevadans for Nevada alleges that paid petition gatherers lied about their home addresses on petitions, had people sign the petition more than once, forged signatures and committed other violations.
"This is so obvious. It's not a little bit but significant fraud, and it goes to the top," said Danny Thompson, the group's chairman, who also heads the state AFL-CIO. "There is too much evidence. This is disgusting. They are trying to change the state's Constitution by fraud."
Thompson did not blame the petition's organizer - Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, a candidate for governor. Instead, he faulted California-based Arno Political Consultants and its subcontractors.
"It sounds like sour grapes," said Michael Arno, the firm's owner. "It is all political. They have done everything they can to try and stop us."
Thompson said suspicions were aroused when TASC backers said in early June that they had only 60,000-plus signatures, then gathered about 90,000 more two weeks.
"I don't think so. You can't do that unless you cheat," Thompson said.
Nevadans for Nevada already has complained to the secretary of state, alleging that ballot wording in some versions given to potential petition signers differed from the language given to the state.
The group's newest complaint focuses on another facet of the petition process. On Friday, group leaders showed examples of petition gatherers listing addresses that, when checked, turned out to be a grocery store and church, for example. Even if the signatures gathered by that collector are valid, Thompson said, they should be discarded because the rules weren't followed.
"This is blatant fraud," Thompson said. "They are interfering with the will of the people."
Adney countered that it would interfere with the will of the 156,000-plus people who signed the petitions if the measure is not allowed to go before voters. As in any petition drive, he said a small percentage of signatures probably was not gathered correctly. But the key, he stressed, is that the people who signed the petitions were registered voters.
"I think they are desperate to silence people's voice," Adney said. "They are grasping at straws. This is disgraceful. They are worried about not controlling the Legislature and money that goes into their pockets.
"The fact is that they make money off expanding government. Anything that holds down spending, they are against."
The proposed Tax and Spending Control measure would limit governmental spending increases to the rate of population growth plus inflation. If enacted, it would require voter approval for tax increases and refund surplus revenues to taxpayers.
Thompson said he fears the existing verification process at the county and state level does not go far enough .
Lomax said he is confident that his office's verification procedure is sufficient to detect any fraud.
"You would be surprised at how easy it is to tell if it's the right signature," Lomax said. "You always find fraud in the petition gathering system because they pay those people to collect signatures. They have incentive to commit fraud. It is not uncommon to see it and we throw them out."
But Lomax's office does not check whether petition gatherers list their correct addresses. Saying the issue is irrelevant to him, Lomax said he will leave it to a judge to decide its importance in the process.
Secretary of state spokesman John Trent said the various allegations will be reviewed once counties submit the number of valid signatures.
Deputy Secretary of State Ellick Hsu said verifying the address of petition gatherers is not addressed by state law.
"That will be a legal determination," Hsu said. "At this point, the court will probably have to make a determination."