Stances on taxes prove delicate

Think understanding tax code is tough? Try talking taxes with a candidate for governor in Nevada.

Just because the next governor will rely on taxes to fund schools, fix roads, fight fires and provide just about every government service citizens want, don't expect it to be easy to square what candidates say about taxes with what they mean.

On their respective filing days, the top candidates -- Democrat and Republican -- used the occasion to stake out positions on taxes.

But the statements by candidates Rory Reid, Brian Sandoval and Jim Gibbons might bend conversations about a basic policy issue into a rainbow of slogans and semantics for voters to decipher. And analysts say those distinctions are sometimes lost on the electorate.

"There is just this absolute phobia on the part of anybody who is ever going to have their name on a ballot of being associated with anything that enhanced revenues for any reason," said state Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City. "Politically speaking, maybe some people think it is to their advantage not to have those facts buckled down."

The filing day wordplay among gubernatorial candidates kicked off March 1 with Republican candidate Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge.

Sandoval, who is leading all candidates in statewide polling, spoke extensively with reporters in the capitol building in Carson City where he submitted his filing paperwork.

Sandoval used the occasion to ding Gibbons, the incumbent, over the budget fix Gibbons and legislators had recently patched together in a special session convened to fill a shortfall estimated at more than $800 million.

Specifically, Sandoval characterized new fees on mining claims that represented more than $25 million in new revenue as a tax, something he wouldn't support.

"I would not have been supportive of increasing mining taxes," Sandoval said. "I don't think it is a good idea to be increasing taxes in the face of a very, very severe recession."

When asked whether it made any difference that the mining industry supported the solution Sandoval responded: "Certainly you have conversations with them, but that is not a litmus test for whether a tax is a tax or a fee is a fee."

Minutes later, however, someone asked Sandoval whether he would support a new tax on Nevada's legal brothels because the industry has welcomed such a plan and the cash-strapped state isn't in a position to turn down money.

"At this time I would consider it. I would look at it," he said.

Sandoval changed his position in a subsequent interview when asked to square his statement about taxing brothels with his overall position against new taxes, industry supported or not.

"The question was rather bizarre, and I probably didn't answer the way I intended," Sandoval said of his response on filing day. "The bottom line is I don't support taxing brothels."

When asked whether it is because taxing brothels would further legitimize them, something the brothels count on in offering to pay, or because he is against new taxes Sandoval said: "I don't support new taxes."

Reid, the Democratic chairman of the Clark County Commission, filed his gubernatorial campaign papers March 9 and told reporters he balanced the county budget seven consecutive years "without raising anyone's taxes."

However, Reid and his fellow commissioners voted twice to raise taxes, once in 2003 and again in 2005. Each vote followed advisory votes by the people and each increase went to special funds. The increase in sales and development taxes approved by the commission in 2003 went to transportation projects. The 2005 sales tax increase paid for more police officers.

"I was responding to what the people of Southern Nevada said they wanted," Reid said when asked about the votes in a subsequent interview.

He also noted that while the commission did vote to impose those tax increases, the money didn't go to the general fund.

Reid was also quick to say the commission only had authority to make the vote because the voters and Legislature had signed off. In Nevada county governments don't have authority by themselves to raise sales taxes.

Reid said the caveats of votes by the people and the fact the money didn't go to the general fund mean his statement that he balanced the budget without raising taxes was truthful.

Geoffrey Lawrence, an analyst with the anti-tax Nevada Policy Research Institute, says such distinctions mean little to people who aren't happy about paying an increased sales tax.

"It doesn't change the fact it is an increase in the tax burden," Lawrence said. "If you vote for it your name is still on it."

Lawrence wasn't the only one to portray the 2005 vote as a decision to raise taxes. Just before the vote then-Sheriff Bill Young, who supported the initiative, told the commissioners: "I know you have a very difficult decision because you are the ones who actually have to vote to raise this tax."

Gibbons was the last of the top three candidates to file, submitting his paper work March 11 in Carson City.

He didn't let that stop him from being left out of making his own questionable claim about taxes.

In Gibbons' case, he was quoted saying Nevada's high unemployment rate was "all due to the tax increases" legislators approved in 2009.

Nevada's unemployment rate was already on the rise in 2009, after the real estate bubble popped, the banking crisis and a steep decline in Las Vegas visitation.

David Fott, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said as long as politicians are afraid of confronting issues, voters can expect confusing conversation about taxes.

An example, Fott said, is the heated debate before and during the legislative special session in February over how to define a tax or a fee, and why it is fine to increase the latter but not the former.

"They see the attack ads coming. They see how their words are going to be used immediately for fodder for campaign commercials," Fott said. "It leads to more hair splitting or truth bending."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ or 702-477-3861.