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Nevadans prefer cuts in state spending over raising taxes

CARSON CITY — If legislators need to go into a special session to deal with declining tax revenue, then citizens would prefer they cut state spending rather than increase taxes to handle the shortfall, a new poll commissioned by the Review-Journal shows.

The statewide poll of 400 registered voters found 51 percent would favor spending cuts compared with 35 percent who would back tax increases. Eleven percent said there should be a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

There is a wide difference between how Democrats and Republicans view the issue.

Only 25 percent of Democrats favor spending cuts, while 58 percent back tax increases. But among Republicans, 77 percent favor cuts and just 9 percent support tax increases.

Independent voters tend to side with Republicans as 61 percent back spending cuts and 30 percent favor tax increases.

“I am not surprised,” Gov. Jim Gibbons said of the results. “Raising taxes should not be a Republican or Democrat issue. John F. Kennedy opposed raising taxes during a recession. Ronald Reagan opposed raising taxes during a recession. If two of our greatest leaders don’t think we should raise taxes, why shouldn’t we follow their advice?”

In a related poll, citizens said their top spending priority remains funding K-12 education.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said school funding should be top priority, far outdistancing economic development, which at 15 percent was the second most favored priority.

Gibbons vetoed $780 million of the $1 billion in tax increases approved by the 2009 Legislature, stating it was wrong to increase taxes at a time when businesses and individuals were suffering economically. Legislators overrode his vetoes, but the tax increases expire on June 30, 2011.

Shortly after the session, Gibbons predicted he would have to call a special session sometime before the next regular session in 2011 because it was likely that the state would not get out of the recession and revenues would drop even further.

Gaming and sales tax revenues have continued to decline since the Legislature.

But Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers would not be able to raise taxes, even if they wanted to, during a special session. Governors set the agenda for special sessions.

“If we are out of money, and the agenda is to make cuts, we have to do it,” said Schneider, chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Infrastructure and Transportation Committee.

Instead of raising taxes in the future, Schneider said legislators need to consider “user fees,” particularly to fund highway construction.

What with the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet’s new Volt coming online, Schneider said a per-gallon tax on fuel never will provide enough revenue. Instead, people should pay fees based on their use of highways, or for other state services.

Schneider serves on a legislative subcommittee looking at revenues that support state services.

“Our taxes have to change,” Schneider said. “People who use services need to pay for them.”

Like Gibbons, Brad Coker, managing director of Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., said the results were not surprising.

“Given this economy, people don’t want higher taxes,” said Coker, whose company conducted the poll for the Review-Journal.

Nevadans over the years have opposed tax increases, he said, unless it was one they could avoid paying.

“They want gambling, cigarette and liquor taxes,” he said.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; the firm took steps to ensure the number of Republicans, Democrats and independents reflect their percentage of the state’s voter rolls.

In regard to spending priorities, Coker noted that past polls also show education ranks as the top issue for Nevadans. More people than in the past consider economic development a top priority because of the recession, he said.

In a May poll, 41 percent of respondents said funding public education was their top priority, while 13 percent favored economic development.

All other priorities — including water, public safety, higher education, public health and the environment — received single-digit support.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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