Voters and tax hikes

Back in August 2012, four former Nevada first ladies appeared before the Clark County School Board to champion a $5.3 billion construction bond, vowing to raise the money necessary to win voter approval of the property tax increase needed to pay for it. They cited their own poll, which found that 55 percent of voters supported the bond.

Most people support their public schools. Most people want children to attend school in safe buildings that provide adequate classroom space. Most people admire teachers and the work they do. The bond proposal sure seemed like a winner.

But generally supportive people started asking hard questions about what the school district would do with all that money. The School Board dialed back the proposal, ditching the bond in favor of a more modest, nearly $700 million pay-as-you-go capital campaign. And four months ago, voters crushed it at the polls, with two-thirds against.

The lesson, which had been provided plenty of times previously: good intentions don’t count for much with voters — especially when the economy is weak.

The Nevada State Education Association, the state teachers union, will test that truth next year, when its 2 percent business margins tax is expected to go before voters. The union says it has the public’s support. And a new Retail Association of Nevada poll found 58 percent of voters favor the tax plan.

But when that same poll asked voters about the tax’s potential effect on prices and job creation, that support plunged to 44 percent.

“Are they concerned about education? Absolutely,” Retail Association consultant Jim Denton said of voters. “Are they concerned about class sizes? You bet they are. But they are really concerned about anything that could potentially cause job losses.”

Once Nevada’s business community launches a campaign against the tax — not against schools, but against a tax that hammers even companies that lose money — those numbers will move even more. Although a majority of voters support public education, they won’t support improved funding if there’s a chance it will put them out of work.

The 2013 Legislature needs to find a better way.

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