State may lay claim to uncashed tickets

All pretext and protestations to the contrary, the facade has been stripped away and a fundamental philosophy of government laid bare: All money belongs to the state, except that tiny portion our benevolent masters in Carson City deign to allow us to keep.

How else could one describe Assemblyman William Horne's proposal to sweep into the state coffers all the value of unredeemed gaming tickets -- money that spills twixt lip and cup of private transactions between private casinos and private gamblers? It is a confiscatory taking without just compensation, not a tax.

Mr. Horne's Assembly Bill 219 would instruct the state to take from casinos the value of such things as those cashless receipts spit out by slot machines that people have lost or simply not bothered to redeem. It would not apply to sports wagers -- for no fathomable or stated reason.

Currently, uncashed ticket money is kept by the casino and is taxed by the state at the appropriate rate for gaming. Mr. Horne's bill effectively raises that tax rate to 100 percent.

When the bill was heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Mr. Horne chairs, he urged the panel to treat uncashed gaming tickets as unclaimed property, which currently is handed over to the state, where some effort is made to find the owners. But with gaming tickets there is virtually no way to determine who the rightful owner might be. The sums involved -- often only a couple of dollars -- make even attempting to do so a ludicrous and foolish venture.

The amount involved is not insignificant -- estimated at as much as $50 million a year.

Of course, the casinos' lobbyists argued against the bill. Nevada Resort Association lobbyist Pete Ernaut said the bill "penalizes the gaming industry for innovation" and that coinless slot machines are a convenience for customers.

Mr. Horne dismissed that argument, saying, "It was a business decision," and the casinos saved money on labor costs by eliminating "change girls" and other money handling staff.

Taxes are wholesome? Profits are dirty?

The precedent for the state snatching money from private transactions already has been established. In 2007, the Legislature passed a law requiring stores and credit card companies to forward funds from unclaimed gift cards to the state treasurer as unclaimed property.

No vote was taken on Mr. Horne's bill in committee, but several committee members voiced support for the concept. Anything to grab more money for the state.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has vowed to veto any tax or fee hike, was noncommittal, saying he would have to see what lands on his desk. This bill is most definitely a tax hike, and one that would affect the profits of slot operators and, in turn, the odds of their customers actually winning.