A sales tax increase to boost police funding across Southern Nevada is in limbo, not likely to resurface again this year, but not officially dead until July 1, 2016, the statutory deadline for the Clark County Commission to boost the rate by up to 0.15 percentage points.
In the meantime, both opponents and supporters of the More Cops measure stand on shaky ground to justify their positions.
Supporters point to the backing of Clark County voters, who narrowly approved a nonbinding advisory question that sought a half-cent increase in the sales tax rate to put more police on the streets. But that vote took place almost 10 years ago, in 2004, when the economy was booming and anyone who wanted a job could find one. Amid that economic climate, the question passed with 52 percent of the vote.
As a result of that vote, the first quarter-cent was enacted, with another quarter-cent to follow. Then the Great Recession hit, and lawmakers increased the sales tax rate by 0.35 percentage points — to fund the state’s general fund, not more police in Southern Nevada.
The 2013 Legislature finally decided to give the commission the authority to impose a second sales tax increase to fund the Henderson, North Las Vegas, Mesquite, Boulder City and Metropolitan police departments, but by 0.15 percentage points, not the full quarter cent. Opponents rightly cited the region’s new economic climate and high unemployment, pointing out that in 2012, Clark County voters overwhelmingly rejected a modest property tax increase to fund school improvements. It’s a solid argument, but not an air-tight one.
Over the past year, the all-Democrat commission has failed to come up with the five-vote supermajority necessary to pass a sales tax increase, for a variety of reasons. But those for and against a sales tax increase have a way to indisputably settle the issue and effectively take it out of their own hands.
They can put the issue before the public for a new vote.
The commission has the ability to place a countywide advisory question on the November ballot and re-poll voters 10 years after they started this political mess. And commissioners still have plenty of time to formulate the ballot question. County communications chief Erik Pappa reports that Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria would need the question settled and submitted to him by July 21. That gives the commission about two months.
A new vote of the public would provide political cover to every member of the commission. Opponents who are sure that taxpayers do not want to give government another penny have no reason to fear a new vote. If voters say no, their position is validated. If voters say yes, they can say they’re upholding the will of the electorate.
Supporters of the tax increase, however, have nothing to lose if a new election is held. More Cops isn’t going to pass as long as the makeup of the commission doesn’t change — and incumbents up for re-election this year are favorites. A new vote against the tax increase merely preserves the status quo. A vote in favor, however, would doubtless deliver the fifth vote necessary to authorize a sales tax hike.
Let’s have a new debate among voters on the sales tax question. Let’s have local governments justify their spending outside of police departments. Let’s have a rigorous discussion about budget priorities and police salaries and benefits. If public safety is indeed the top priority of the electorate, let’s see if they’re willing to pay more for it.
What say you, commissioners? What do you have to lose by staging a new vote on More Cops?
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.