Surprise! Gamers try to block tax proposal

Three centuries ago, warfare had a certain formality. The defenders would withdraw within their walled city. The attacking army would surround the fortress and begin digging diagonal trenches, providing shelter from the defenders as they edged their own siege guns close enough to hammer down the walls.

After the shedding of enough blood to satisfy the requirements of honor, a general massacre could often be avoided through the negotiation of acceptable terms of surrender.

Raids would occasionally be launched from inside the walls, in attempts to delay the proceedings. On occasion, defenders could actually earn a higher bounty by hauling back the attackers' shovels than for killing the enemy. But unless one side ran out of supplies and starved, or a relieving force marched to the rescue, you could pretty much check your calendar and set the date.

Today's campaigns may not be as deadly, but a similar, predictable formality also marks the current battle over raising Nevada's gaming tax.

The teachers union wants more money. Ergo, the teachers want taxes raised on the fattest cow in sight -- Nevada's big casinos. They've filed an initiative petition that would hike the gambling tax on casinos grossing more than $1 million per month by 3 percentage points -- enough to raise at least $250 million per year. At which point, the resulting additional loot would go to ... them.

The teachers will begin passing their petition in the spring. Voters would have to approve the tax hike in 2008 and again in 2010. Because the teachers union membership alone is adequate to supply about half the 58,000 needed signatures, and because polls show voters would handily approve the tax hike, the announcement of the campaign had the same impact as the first siege gun slamming its first heavy ball against the defenders' walls.

Would the casino barons just button up and listen to the shelling till November, at which point their calendars tell them their walls will collapse?

Hardly. The first counterattack was launched Monday, as the Nevada Resort Association filed a lawsuit in Carson City District Court, arguing the teachers union's description of its initiative is "misleading, false, and fails to inform voters of all its material consequences."

The complaint argues that the teachers' plan goes beyond the tax increase when it also proposes a minimum state spending commitment for public schooling. Because that's a separate proposal, it's required by law to form a separate ballot question, the gamers argue.

The two sides are now maneuvering into a formal contest where logic -- and even the letter of the law -- may end up having less importance than who can exert more influence over Nevada's woefully politicized Supreme Court.

Because the casinos know they're likely to lose at the polls, their goal is to keep this thing off the ballot at any cost. And should they fail in that effort, don't be surprised if the casinos file a competing initiative petition of their own, in hopes of splitting the opposition.

(Weirdly enough, at that point, a competing initiative proposed by local attorney Kermitt Waters -- which would raise the gaming tax to a whopping 20.2 percent -- could even help the gamers by further splintering the vote.)

They've even telegraphed the likely outlines of such a competing proposal. Indicating a willingness to compromise, leading industry figures repeatedly agree the public schools need more money -- they merely demur that they don't see why gamers should be "singled out."

Translation: "We'll pay a little more tax, as long as you whack the banks and the miners even more."

The better argument is that we don't need to raise taxes every other year; that this state has long prospered based on its low-tax, laissez-faire approach.

But that argument no longer seems to find any place, in the formal minuet on which these two powerful forces now find themselves embarked.