Monday, May 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Russ Stevens walks out of the North Las Vegas DMV office and is approached by a woman asking him to sign a petition in favor of raising casino taxes to benefit teachers and schools.
Suddenly, a young man descends on them, yelling.
Say no to the tax grab!
Think before you ink!
Just say no!
Confused, Stevens trudges off, leaving Andrea Grefrath without a signature.
Nevadans may think the election is still six months away, but for the various interest groups gathering signatures to get their initiatives on the November ballot, the zero hour is May 20.
That means the teachers union, with the help of California signature gathering consultant Alice Skelton, has just 16 days to obtain the needed 58,000 signatures — and more to offset any invalid signatures — to qualify the initiative for the ballot.
Polls show at least 65 percent of Nevadans would support the measure if it makes it to the November election. But that doesn’t mean a thing unless the union can collect the requisite signatures and then survive a legal challenge to be heard by the Supreme Court on July 1.
Thus the urgent campaign by volunteers with the teachers union and Skelton operatives such as Grefrath to collect signatures at DMV offices, grocery stores and malls.
Not far behind come the blockers.
“Blocking” is the term for disrupting the signature gathering process. Outside the DMV, Russ Stevens encountered a blocker — the disruptive young man who caused commotion by yelling and handing out fliers that said the initiative, which would have to pass twice to become law, is “the biggest tax grab in Nevada.”
(The wording on the flier is ambiguous and so perhaps not literally untrue, but the biggest tax increase in Nevada history was in 2003 and this initiative would be well shy of that.)
The initiative would increase the gaming tax from 6.75 percent to 9.75 percent, a 44 percent increase. The gaming industry says it would depress profits, and with it, investment in future projects that create high-paying jobs.
Such arguments are unimportant to the blocker. He’s here as a nuisance, to create havoc, confusion and all around discomfort so that anyone who might have considered signing the petition will just walk away instead.
A young Republican registering voters said the blockers’ appearance is like clockwork: They arrive soon after the teachers start gathering signatures. In other words, someone is getting paid to spy and report their presence.
The tactics work. After being targeted by the warring parties, Stevens, who said he favors more education spending, grows uncomfortable. He’s befuddled by the whole scene and leaves without signing.
This is politics at its most cynical, but it’s also effective and adds a significant dose of entertainment to the Friday DMV scene.
“She don’t want you to know the truth!” the blocker yells.
Grefrath calls him a tool of the casino companies.
“I don’t work for the casinos!” the blocker says.
He won’t say who he is, or whom he works for, or how much money he makes. More than likely, a political firm hired by a group associated with the gaming industry hired him for this work, at which he is quite adept.
Dan Hart, a political consultant for the teachers, acknowledged the tactic, which he called “desperate,” is having a deterrent effect, but expressed confidence. The teachers have bought radio and newspaper ads in rural counties; a state law requires signatures to be obtained in all 17 Nevada counties.
Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, called the blocking “thug tactics” that wouldn’t thwart the teachers’ effort. “Folks are anxious to see our schools get the adequate funding they’ve needed for years,” she said.
The Nevada Resort Association didn’t return a phone call for this story, but last month a source close to the casino organization coyly told the Sun, “I imagine we’ll use various methods to disrupt the signature gathering process.”
In a round of interviews last week, a gaming company spokesman roundly condemned the proposed tax hike. “It’s naive to think you could raise the taxes of the state’s most dominant industry so dramatically, without any consequences,” Boyd Gaming’s Rob Stillwell said.
The blocker wasn’t so articulate, but he may in the end be more important to a gaming victory.