CARSON CITY -- Six in 10 likely Nevada voters support a proposal to increase the hotel room tax, paid primarily by tourists, to generate more money for public education, a Review-Journal poll shows.
The idea of increasing the room tax from 10 percent to 13 percent to raise money for public education was supported by 60 percent of voters statewide, with 31 percent opposed and 9 percent undecided.
A poll two months ago showed 58 percent of voters in support.
Advisory questions to raise the room tax will be on the November ballot only in Washoe and Clark Counties. The room tax rate increase would affect lodging only in these two counties.
The poll by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. broke out numbers for Clark County only, showing the proposal has even stronger support in Southern Nevada.
Clark County residents support the advisory question by a margin of 64 percent to 29 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The rest of the state shows 52 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided.
"People will vote for tax increases that don't affect them," said Brad Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon. "I would be surprised if it did not pass given the numbers that are showing right now."
Clark County School District Superintendant Walt Rulffes reacted favorably to the strong support shown in the poll.
"It represents a widespread understanding that education is underfunded and needs additional revenue," he said in an interview.
The superintendant said he could not "pass judgment on the best tax policy" and recognized that high taxes can reach a "tipping point" and ultimately be detrimental to public investment.
But he also said, "I'm hearing a lot about the need for restructuring our tax system."
Rulffes would like more stability in education funding so schools are not so vulnerable to swings in the economy. Schools never recover from the funding reductions brought on by an economic downturn, he said.
Class sizes, for instance, were increased in 2003 because of a funding shortfall and still haven't been reduced, he said.
Lynn Warne, president of the teachers association, said she expects support to further strengthen for the funding plan as the group begins its voter education campaign later this year.
With strong support at the polls in November, Gov. Jim Gibbons and lawmakers should be convinced that supporting the room tax increase is the right thing to do, she said.
Geri Fitzgerald of Henderson was one of the Republican poll participants who favor the room tax increase proposal. Republicans statewide support the idea by a margin of 49 percent to 39 percent with 12 percent undecided.
An extra $3 on a $100 room isn't a big cost, she said. A better quality education isn't all about money, though, but about good teachers motivating students, Fitzgerald said.
"But if it will bring us better quality teachers, then I would be in favor of it," she said.
The room tax increase is projected to raise somewhere between $150 million to $185 million for the 2009-2011 budget. It would be used to offset the need for budget cuts for public education if approved by voters and then the Legislature next year.
The poll of 400 likely voters was conducted Aug. 13 to 15. The margin for error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Mirage, said the company has not changed its view that the room tax proposal alone is inadequate to address the state's funding woes.
"The room tax ought to be part of some package to deal with, long term, the state's needs," he said. "This particular proposal isn't really going to meet those needs."
The level of public support could change by November, Feldman said, by which time voters will know more about the inadequacy of the measure's revenue. The money is aimed at raising teacher salaries, not at purchasing textbooks or equipment, he said.
Given the recent decisions by some companies to hold off on planned projects and room expansion, and given the lower room rates being charged because of the economic slowdown, the revenue estimates for the tax hike might also be overly optimistic now, Feldman said.
Although a more comprehensive approach to the state's revenue problems is needed, "don't hold your breath," he said. The view held by many lawmakers that the state can cut its way out of its current fiscal problems is "probably going to win the day in terms of where policy goes next session," Feldman said.
The room tax proposal was announced in May as a compromise between the Nevada State Education Association and some members of the gaming industry.
In exchange for support from some in the gaming community, most notably Wynn Resorts, Harrah's Entertainment and Station Casinos, teachers abandoned an initiative petition to raise the gaming tax instead.
But gaming industry support is far from unanimous. In addition to the MGM Mirage, the Boyd Gaming Corp. has also expressed opposition to the idea.
Teachers are circulating petitions now to ensure the tax hike is considered by the Legislature in 2009.
Supporters must collect slightly more than 58,000 valid signatures on those petitions by Nov. 11 for the measure to go forward. If they meet that goal, then the Legislature must consider the proposal within the first 40 days of the session.
If lawmakers approve the plan, it could take effect by July 1, providing revenue to offset 14 percent budget cuts being sought by Gibbons due to lower state tax revenues.
It would take a two-thirds affirmative vote of the Legislature to implement the increase.
If legislators reject the proposal, then it would be placed on the election ballot in November 2010.
Gibbons has said repeatedly that he would veto any tax increase proposal that does not have widespread public support, making the votes in Clark and Washoe important for moving the proposal forward.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Review-Journal reporter James Haug contributed to this report.