Clark County Commissioner Susan Brager’s compromise police sales tax proposal is probably the best deal Metro will get.
Yes, a voter-approved 2004 advisory question called for raising the sales tax by a half-cent to hire more police officers. But the 2005 Legislature authorized only a quarter-cent. Because of the recession, Metro police officials didn’t return for the other quarter-cent until this year, but once again, the Legislature halved the request, authorizing the County Commission to raise the tax by only .15 percentage points instead.
Now Brager has proposed yet another subdivision: The sales tax would rise by 0.075 percentage points, or half what the Legislature authorized.
In addition, Sheriff Doug Gillespie will have to agree to take $15 million out of the reserve fund generated by the first quarter-cent tax increase to erase half a projected $30 million deficit in Metro’s budget in the coming year. (Clark County and the city of Las Vegas would be responsible for finding the other $15 million.) Those actions would save existing police jobs that otherwise would be subject to layoffs.
Then, come January, when the new sales tax money comes rolling in, Gillespie will be able to hire new officers.
It’s certainly a far cry from what the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department originally wanted: Gillespie lobbied the Legislature to authorize the full quarter-cent increase left over from 2005, and he wanted the city and county to cover his full $30 million deficit. He and the department’s dedicated lobbyists fought long and hard for what they got, and they no doubt will see the Brager compromise as yet another setback.
But here’s the thing: She’s the swing vote. And she’s absolutely clear on this: If the sheriff insists on getting the full .15 percentage-point increase, she’ll vote no. Because the Legislature required a two-thirds supermajority for this tax (five out of the seven commissioners), and because two other commissioners are firm “no” votes already, Brager holds all the cards.
“I think my offer is equitable,” Brager said Thursday during a meeting with the Review-Journal’s editorial board meeting. “I do believe that this [sales tax increase] is essential, but only this way.”
At 0.075 percentage points, county taxpayers will save an estimated $24 million annually over the .15 percentage-point-plan, according to county figures. “This is half the impact,” Brager said. “And I could not go for the full impact.” The question now is, can Metro and the other local police agencies that will benefit from the additional tax money agree to accept less than they were seeking? (Metro officials didn’t return a call seeking comment Thursday.)
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Of all possible ways to fund public safety, this is potentially the worst. The sales tax — already at 8.1 percent in Clark County — is the most regressive tax there is, even if a portion of the cost is borne by tourists. It’s not predicable — when sales drop in tight economic times, so do revenues from the tax. In an ideal world, we’d pay for police entirely through property taxes, and we’d pay enough to ensure a reasonable level of public safety in town.
But the fact is, city and county leaders who jointly decide on Metro’s budget didn’t approve enough in 2004 for then-Sheriff Bill Young’s taste. He looked for another solution, and this is the one he arrived at. Voters narrowly agreed (52 percent to 48 percent), and the rest is history.
Brager will introduce her compromise plan Sept. 17. This barely makes the deadline Gillespie requested in early August, when the original .15 percentage-point plan was delayed, primarily because of Brager’s reservations.
Now Gillespie is faced with something of a Hobson’s choice: Accept half of half of half a loaf, and dip into a reserve he wanted to keep sacrosanct, or insist on a vote he’s sure to lose. It’s an unsatisfying end to a long fight, but it may be the only end that’s possible now.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.