7 November 2023
A Carson City judge has rejected the language of a proposed ballot referendum petition that would have repealed public funding for a new Major League Baseball (MLB) stadium in Las Vegas, saying the language was “legally deficient” and at points “confusing.”
The nearly hour-and-a-half hearing Monday in the 1st District Court in Carson City — where all legal challenges to statewide ballot questions are filed — was the first hearing in a lawsuit that challenged the ballot initiative filed by the teacher union-led political action committee (PAC) “Schools Over Stadiums.” The PAC is seeking to qualify a ballot question asking voters to approve or reject $380 million in public financing for a proposed $1.5 billion, 33,000-seat stadium on the Strip that would become home to the relocated Oakland A’s.
In his ruling from the bench Monday, Judge James Russell said the issue is not about the content of the ballot question (he noted he is “probably more passionate towards building schools than I am stadiums”), but whether the petition follows state law governing the referendum process.
Russell said the state’s referendum law requires the full text of the measure to be included on any forms used by organizers to collect signatures to qualify the measure. He added that the petition’s description of effect — a 200-word summary of the measure that appears on signature collection forms — is “confusing” and did not fully state the effect of the measure or the financial issues it may present.
“The order of the court is that the referendum petition is legally deficient because it does not provide the full text of the measure … when gathering the necessary signatures as mandated by the Nevada Constitution,” Russell said.
The “Schools over Stadiums” PAC can either resubmit a new referendum petition or appeal the court’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. The ruling means that the PAC would need to refile petition language with the secretary of state’s office and that any signatures gathered would be invalidated, though a spokesman for the PAC said it has not yet collected any signatures.
Under state law, the PAC needs to collect at least 102,586 signatures (including 25,647 from each of the state’s four congressional districts) by a deadline of July 8, 2024, to qualify the referendum for the ballot.
Russell acknowledged the potential for appeal when he said he was “very aware that we [the 1st District Court in Carson City] are a stop on the way to the Supreme Court.”
Schools over Stadiums spokesman Alexander Marks wrote in a text message to The Nevada Independent that “the plan is to appeal this decision to the [Nevada] Supreme Court and/or refile the referendum petition.”
In a June special session, the Legislature approved $380 million in public financing for the stadium, which was signed into law by the governor. The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) launched the PAC behind the ballot measure in June, and filed the referendum petition in September.
Attorney Bradley Schrager, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of two lobbyists affiliated with labor unions that support the project, argued that the referendum violated the law by not including the exact language of the proposal in their petition, adding that the petition’s description of effect was “inaccurate, misleading and argumentative.”
Schrager said in a previous interview that he represents “a broad and emerging coalition of business and labor interests,” including the Oakland A’s. Aside from NSEA, a statewide teachers union, organized labor has been a significant supporter of the proposed stadium.
Representing Schools Over Stadiums, attorney Frank Flaherty said the state does not provide a specific form for a referendum petition. He added that the petition was “sufficiently clear,” and that including all 66 pages of the bill without any discussion or context might overwhelm voters. He noted that petitioners had introduced key passages that were relevant to the issue in an order that would help them understand it.
“There’s nothing in the Nevada Constitution or NRS [Nevada Revised Statutes] that says ‘oh no, no, you have to go in a numbered order,’” Flaherty said. “No matter how difficult it is for the voters, no matter how much it doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to start with section one and finish with section 46. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the constitution.”
He disputed the contention that the petition’s description of effect misleads voters because it explains the ins and outs of the bill and funding mechanism. He added that the 200-word cap was severely limiting.
Major League Baseball owners are expected to consider the A’s relocation request next week during the group’s winter meetings in Arlington, Texas. The vote requires 75 percent approval from the owners for the relocation following a recommendation by a committee of three owners.
The A’s have an agreement to construct the stadium on 9 acres of a 35-acre site on the Strip that currently houses the Tropicana Las Vegas. Gaming and Leisure Properties, which owns the site, agreed to commit $175 million toward the project.
A timeline unveiled at the Oct. 26 Las Vegas Stadium Authority meeting calls for the Tropicana to be closed and demolished by the end of next year, with the ballpark’s construction to begin in April 2025.
Officials from Bally’s Corp., which operates the Tropicana, said the company is awaiting approval from MLB before moving ahead with the Tropicana’s demolition.
“Although we have some short-term pain, this is an extremely valuable asset,” Bally’s CEO Robeson Reeves said last week. “The strategic opportunities this development presents for our company are highly compelling.”