Punting on taxes?

The prospect of lawmakers punting proposed tax hikes to the ballot is not surprising. But it sure is sadly predictable.

The Nevada Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in each house to send any tax increases to the governor; that same margin can override Gov. Brian Sandoval's promised veto of such legislation. Democrats are two votes short of that margin in the Assembly, and three short in the Senate.

However, the voter-approved amendment that created the two-thirds threshold allows the Legislature to put proposed tax increases before voters with a simple majority vote. The earliest potential ballot would be November 2012, nearly three-quarters of the way through the biennial budget that lawmakers are working to pass right now.

Democrats might prefer to give the electorate a chance to reset the state's tax climate for two reasons: They lack the votes to pass tax increases on their own, and they don't want to go on record supporting tax increases for a second consecutive session. Going ahead with a legislative vote they can't win is a political loser, especially given that many Democrats campaigned as fiscal conservatives in 2008 and 2010.

Kicking the issue to the voters would be consistent with the fact that lawmakers have never had the guts to embrace open debate on tax policy. The most serious discussions about rate increases have long taken place behind closed doors, with decisions made by legislative leadership, elite lobbyists and entrenched insiders shielded from public scrutiny.

Handing off the issue to voters would be fraught with risks for supporters of higher taxes. Yes, Clark County residents have been willing to increase taxes on themselves over the past few decades to fund specific projects and programs they consider important. But Nevadans also rejected an initiative to raise education spending to the national average, a proposition that would have required significant tax hikes.

The danger here is that lawmakers will craft an incoherent ballot plan designed to attract support by targeting some unpopular constituency -- miners, bankers, big gamers, the "rich," whoever -- and appealing to the "don't tax me, tax the other guy" mentality. Political expedience generally doesn't result in good public policy.

If lawmakers can avoid that, fine, let the voters swing away. But we're not optimistic.