On the November ballot, education activists are asking voters in Clark and Washoe counties nicely — please approve a 3 percentage point increase of the room tax to better fund public schools.
The tone they’re taking with legislators and the governor isn’t so polite.
On Monday, supporters of the room tax increase delivered a demand to state government in the form of a petition that was more than 100,000 signatures strong. It seeks to compel the Legislature to raise the room tax to the maximum rate of 13 percent as "part of a two-prong attack" that includes the ballot question. The effort is aimed at increasing state support for Nevada’s struggling public schools.
"We want to see needed resources and revenue get to the classroom as soon as possible," said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association.
Behind the push is a coalition of teacher unions and casino employees called the Committee for the Advancement of Education in Nevada, or CAEN. The cooperative effort was launched as part of a deal that resulted in teachers dropping their earlier initiative to get money for education through a 44 percent increase in casino taxes. The coalition, which includes Wynn Resorts, Harrah’s Entertainment and Station Casinos, estimates the new tax would generate about $125 million a year for schools.
More than 130,000 signatures were gathered statewide, a total that activists said is more than twice the number of signatures needed for the statutory initiative. The bulk of the petitions were gathered in Clark County and delivered to the Clark County Election Center on Monday.
Jan Jones, senior vice president for Harrah’s Entertainment and former mayor of Las Vegas, said the petitions show the people have "an appetite for supporting education."
Those behind the effort hope that a positive showing on November’s ballot advisory question will spur lawmakers to act sooner rather than later. If the signatures are verified by election officials, the petition would be sent to the 2009 Legislature. If lawmakers don’t approve it within 40 days, the plan will go to a public vote in 2010. If legislators decide to approve the plan, it could take effect by July 1. It would take a two-thirds affirmative vote of the Legislature to implement the increase.
Ben Kieckhefer, the press secretary for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said the governor does not think the room tax is a "very good idea," but said he would be responsive to the voters.
"If the people of Nevada decide to vote something, he wouldn’t stand in their way, whether he agrees with it or not," Kieckhefer said.
State Sen. Bill Raggio, the Senate majority leader, also said he would support the tax if the "voters approved it."
According to a poll of Nevada voters sponsored by the Review-Journal in August, six in 10 voters said they support the proposal.
Revenues from the new tax initially would mitigate revenue shortfalls and avoid larger education cuts in the 2009-11 state budget, supporters said. In the 2011-13 budget, the money would be earmarked for K-12 education. Its uses would include boosting teachers’ salaries and signing bonuses.
Nevada — a state usually ranked near the bottom of U.S. states for what it spends per pupil — is expected to see education funding reductions of as much as 14 percent in the next two years because of shortfalls in state revenues.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-799-2922.