Dialogue about tax increases shouldn’t start with groceries

Nevada’s rural legislators often speak their minds honestly without considering how their words might play in the news media.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea learned last week the dangers of speaking his mind. He has been pilloried for throwing out an idea to see if it might gain momentum. Oh, don’t think I’m defending the idea. It’s a bad idea, and it doesn’t have a prayer, either now or in the future. Taxing groceries is a non-starter.

But Goicoechea tossed it out during a television interview, and you would have thought he was plotting to snatch food from the mouths of babies and let their mothers starve, just like a Charles Dickens novel.

Goicoechea is a cattle rancher from Eureka, a Eureka county commissioner for 16 years and a legislator elected in 2002. He’s not dumb. He served on Assembly Ways and Means. He was part of the core group of lawmakers who negotiated a budget agreement in February’s special session. He has more experience with Nevada’s budget than anyone running for governor of Nevada.

“I was only posing the question,” he said Monday. “I didn’t propose a tax increase.”

Unfortunately, it sounded like he did.

In May, the Nevada Policy Research Institute proposed expanding the sales tax on food and all services and then lower the modified business tax. As a revenue-neutral idea, it would do nothing to cure the $3 billion budget shortfall anticipated when the next two-year budget kicks in July 1, 2011.

When the Republican leader in the Assembly said he wished a tax on food would be before voters this November, the reaction ranged from “what was he thinking” to “dead on arrival.”

However, there was this upbeat response from John Oceguera, soon to be Assembly speaker. “It’s not a solution for right now, but I hope it signals that people are looking for solutions, so that’s a good thing.”

Now, Democrats aren’t going to agree to taxing groceries because policy experts have said for decades it’s regressive, hurting the poor and middle class disproportionately more than the wealthy.

Plus, it’s too late to do it now anyway, so it would be useless during the 2011 session, making the entire question moot.

Libertarian Chuck Muth has gone ballistic over the never-gonna-happen idea and launched robocalls telling people to call Goicoechea “if you don’t want your groceries taxed.”

Goicoechea doesn’t mind the calls but asks you to call him on his cell phone at (775) 778-1620 rather than his home phone, where his wife has to field the calls. About 20 people called the first day, but only three or four left their names and numbers.

“I think it’s fair to expect there will be a lot of ideas dropped like this. They start a dialogue,” said Carole Vilardo, president of Nevada Taxpayers Association.

“This one hit a nerve. It hits people’s pocketbooks with an essential item they can’t do without. Lots of stuff will be thrown against the wall, and what sticks is going to be the idea that has the least amount of objections to it. But I don’t know what that’s going to be in this economy.”

I’m guessing my hairdresser is going to throw me against the wall for my suggestion, but he’ll have to take a number behind my editor and my father.

Expand the sales tax all right, but expand it to services, not food. Let customers pay a tax for haircuts, manicures, massages, dry cleaning, accounting, legal fees and other services that are mainly discretionary, not essential.

That’s an idea that should be discussed seriously, not taxing groceries.

Meanwhile, Goicoechea’s first flurry of news coverage since becoming the new Assembly minority leader has made him look foolish, when he really isn’t.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at


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