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STEVE SEBELIUS: John Vellardita can’t lose

No matter what, John Vellardita can’t lose.

Whether it’s by intelligent design, or random happenstance, Vellardita — the executive director of the Clark County Education Association — has become the magical leprechaun of organized labor in Nevada.

Agree or disagree with his tactics, you’ve got to admire the fact that he’s achieved his No. 1 goal: getting more money for education (read — salaries for teachers).

But even if he is lucky, you have to admit he’s also good: It took a lot of hard work.

It started in 2020, when Vellardita and his crew qualified two statewide initiatives, gathering more than 200,000 valid signatures during a pandemic when most of the state was shut down.

One initiative would raise a portion of the state’s sales tax by 1.5 percentage points, with the proceeds going directly to education. The other would create a new, higher tier of the state’s gaming levy, taxing gross casino revenue of more than $250,000 per month at 9.75 percent.

It’s obvious Vellardita intended both to be stalking horses. Under the law, the Legislature must first consider all statutory initiatives, which gave the teachers union boss some leverage in Carson City: Give teachers more money, or let voters decide these measures.

It worked. The state’s gaming industry helped get a higher tax on the mining industry. As part of the deal, Vellardita agreed to withdraw both of his petitions from consideration.

But that’s when the problems started. The state constitution makes no provision for the withdrawal of a petition once qualified, but rather says the secretary of state “shall” put initiatives on the ballot. And a 2017 law that allowed for petitions to be withdrawn seems to have contemplated petitions that had not yet qualified.

No problem: The Legislature added language to an elections reform bill that specifically allowed qualified petitions to be withdrawn as late as 90 days before the election. Problem solved.

Or was it? Although the attorney general’s office has opined that the law is constitutional, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske doesn’t think so. She informed the attorney general — and lawyers for the petitions’ authors — that she “shall” put them on the ballot, irrespective of the new law.

Ironies abound: Cegavske, who hates taxes and voted against them during her tenure in the Legislature, is arguing for the voters’ chance to decide to raise them. The authors of the petitions, who worked so hard to qualify them during a pandemic, may have to sue to kill them before they reach voters. The attorney general’s office was at pains to explain why “shall” actually could mean “may” in certain circumstances. And Attorney General Aaron Ford, a former state senator who holds an advanced education degree and once taught math, surely believes schools need more money, although his office endorsed the law that would keep voters from deciding whether to raise taxes.

There’s a lot at stake, too. While the sales tax petition — which could see the rate in Clark County jump to nearly 10 percent — is a hard sell, the gaming tax is another matter. This is, after all, the industry that now charges for formerly free parking, tacks on “resort fees” to guests’ bills and has recently been posting record revenues. It’s a good bet the gaming tax may pass.

That means the resorts will have to do what they can to kill it in court, although the campaign can’t be too loud or obvious. The more the casinos spend on the fight against increased taxes, the more the voters will think they’ve got the money to pay increased taxes.

No, everything now depends on the legal fight to keep these measures off the ballot.

Which brings us back to Vellardita, the Man Who Cannot Lose. In the worst-case scenario, he’s already got his mining tax revenue for teachers. If the initiatives never see the ballot, he still comes out ahead.

But if the court rules the petition-withdrawal law unconstitutional, then these taxes go to the ballot. And if they pass — even if only the gaming tax passes — there’s more money in the general fund for teachers to claim at the 2023 Legislature. Vellardita wins again, and his credibility remains intact because he did his best to live up to his legislative deal.

In fact, Vellardita should hop in his car today and head to Primm to buy some lottery tickets. He’s on a hot streak.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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