Special session will bring pain and parody, not the higher taxes we need


The headline above a Las Vegas Sun editorial about the upcoming special session of the Nevada Legislature struck me as hilarious: "Special session presents chance to fix a broken state tax system."

Now, at times, I realize I write things here that appear hopelessly idealistic, but this sets a new standard. If anyone truly thinks the Legislature is going to "fix" anything when they assemble Friday in Carson City, he needs his head examined. In fact, we should consider ourselves lucky if the Legislature and Gov. Jim Gibbons don't break more things before they are done.

The most we can expect, really, is that a three-ring circus breaks out to entertain us while the state slowly runs into financial ruin. I have little faith in the Legislature's ability to seriously confront what the Sun correctly calls the state's "broken tax system." The legislative track record is littered with Band-Aids and acts of cowardice.

To be fair, it's not realistic to expect our political leaders to completely reshape the state's tax system in three days. Besides the time factor, even if lawmakers were to cobble together a bold solution, the governor undoubtedly would veto it. Partly because of a campaign promise that has handcuffed him throughout his tenure, Gibbons is incapable of employing pragmatic judgment on the ever-growing budget crisis.

Yep, this special session is likely to remind you of a Mel Brooks movie. It'll be hard to laugh, though, when we realize the long-term damage that is occurring.

More than a few people involved in Nevada politics understand that gouging a billion dollars out of the state's two-year budget is absurd when Nevada already is near or at the bottom in almost every ranking of state spending on education and public services. These people, unfortunately, do not seem to have enough clout to overcome the stupefying fear of the next re-election campaign.

Still, they are trying, fighting the good fight and all that. One of them is university system Chancellor Jim Rogers.

Rogers has three advantages that allow him to ignore the political detritus that stands in the way of progress. First, he's independently wealthy. Second, he doesn't need the job. And third, he doesn't have to worry about facing the voters in the next election.

As a result, Rogers looks at Nevada with clear eyes and sees that its political leaders and its people generally have not taken education seriously. In a wide-ranging interview with Las Vegas CityLife Editor Steve Sebelius, published last week, Rogers was downright eloquent in stating his case.

"Education ... is not just a question about getting degrees so you can get a job," he said. "Education is designed to build a culture, and frankly I'm very distressed about the culture that we have in Nevada. I think that we started out not thinking that culture is very important, not thinking that reading was very important. I don't think we thought that math was very important, science was very important. I think what we thought was important was how do you get enough training in order to get a job in order to be able to pay your car payment, house payment, etc."

This mind-set, Rogers said, is why Gibbons was elected in 2006 on a no-new-taxes pledge, and why, despite his many pratfalls, he just might be re-elected in 2010.

"I think that a majority ... of people out there [are] saying, 'We don't care about anything but our own immediate problems. We want to know how we go from this Friday to the next Friday. We want to know where we're going to go on our vacation, we want to know what kind of car we can buy. ... But you ask me what I want two years from now, I've never thought about what I want two years from now. And I couldn't care less about you.' We are not a caring society. We don't care about each other, we care about ourselves and our own pocketbooks."

On education, Rogers lamented Nevada's apparent satisfaction with mediocrity.

"We wallow in it," he told Sebelius. "The one thing [state Sen.] Bill Raggio said in his letter to me was that he disagreed with my assessment that the [university] system is mediocre. And I disagree with him. I think the system is mediocre. I think that UNLV is ranked in the bottom quarter of colleges; I think that's mediocre. In fact, that's less than mediocre. UNR is better, but I don't think it's exactly a threat to Stanford. And I think we need to improve all of this."

The lingering question, of course, is how we pay to "improve all of this." This question will not be answered during the coming special session. There's not enough time and not enough political will, and there's also the convenient excuse of the faltering economy.

The answer, though, the real answer, is that Nevada must institute more stable taxes. Relying primarily on sales and gaming taxes leaves the state extremely vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy -- state, national and international. What happens in the Middle East, or New York City, or Southern California -- our financial fate depends too heavily on forces beyond our control.

As I see it, there are two primary solutions: a broad-based business tax and a state income tax.

Oops. Did I say the forbidden words? I feel like Harry Potter when he utters the name of the dark lord, Voldemort, and everybody around him cringes in horror.

Yes, going against all Nevada conventional wisdom, I think we need a state income tax.

It's a long shot. The state constitution prohibits a state income tax, and, as Rogers explains, Nevadans are not inclined to pay more for anything.

If I recall correctly, I was among those who voted for the constitutional amendment in 1990. But it turns out I was wrong. Times change and perspectives widen. Just think of how much has changed throughout Nevada since 1990, and not all for the better.

Neither a general business tax nor a state income tax is likely to see the light of day when lawmakers meet in special session this week. They'll scratch and claw, argue and threaten, and the end product will be something barely adequate to help us limp through the next six or eight months.

I'm afraid that's the most we can expect. Just maybe, though, the depth and pain of this budget crisis will yield some bold initiatives and political determination when the Legislature convenes in regular session next year.

 

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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