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Gibbons’ highway plan is dead on arrival

Here’s a question Gov. Jim Gibbons doesn’t want to hear: “Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?”

That’s mean and unnecessary, I know. But as Simon Cowell would say, I’m just being honest.

Gibbons makes me angry and frustrated. I’m not so partisan that I want him to fail. On the contrary, I’d prefer that he surprise everybody and do something positive for this state.

Sadly, it isn’t likely to happen.

The governor’s latest blunder is his phony highway funding proposal. Suddenly, with fewer than 30 days remaining in the legislative session, Gibbons wants to redirect new room, live entertainment and vehicle sales tax revenues to build highways. It’s apparently his last-ditch move to address the $5 billion highway funding deficit without raising taxes.

Naturally, his plan ignores all the expert advice that’s been brought to bear on this pressing issue. Two different bipartisan task forces, one assembled by Gibbons himself, have concluded that higher taxes are needed to improve the highways.

And not surprisingly, Gibbons’ proposal met with immediate opposition from the Las Vegas tourism industry, which believes it’s a better idea to use those tax revenues to keep the state’s No. 1 industry — the golden goose, the reason we’re all here — healthy and prosperous.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which markets Las Vegas to the world and operates a giant convention center, is particularly worried about Gibbons’ plan. “The vision of the LVCVA is to grow visitation to Las Vegas to 43 million by 2009,” authority President Rossi Ralenkotter wrote to the governor. “That goal requires an ongoing investment in both marketing and facility enhancements. … We cannot become complacent. … Competition is fiercer today than ever before.”

Just in case Ralenkotter’s letter didn’t carry enough weight, the LVCVA compiled statements from a few other gaming industry big shots to bolster the case.

“The continued effective use of the room tax for marketing the destination is crucial to ensuring that Las Vegas remains the entertainment capital of the world,” said Glenn Christensen, chief financial officer of Station Casinos. “To modify the model by redistributing the room tax elsewhere, or to discourage visitation by increasing the room tax, creates substantial risk to tourism unnecessarily.”

Keith Smith, president of Boyd Gaming, reinforced the point: “Now is not the time to be monkeying with a model that has worked so well for us in the past.”

The LVCVA would be opposed in any case, but it’s particularly concerned because the agency just announced plans for an $890 million convention center expansion. Conventions and trade shows are a fast-growing segment of the Las Vegas economy. Maybe Gibbons — who’s more familiar with sleepy Northern Nevada — doesn’t realize that, every day, thousands of people wearing name badges listen to speakers, traverse trade shows, eat in restaurants and visit strip clubs in Las Vegas. It’s a big business, and Las Vegas is pretty good at it.

Perhaps the only major resort industry operator who champions the Gibbons plan is Sheldon Adelson, owner of The Venetian. Why? Because Adelson despises the LVCVA, which he has long thought should be dissolved so it no longer competes with his convention center. Adelson has been trotting out this cranky crusade for years, but he hasn’t recruited many followers.

(“What happens here, stays here,” the LVCVA’s wildly successful marketing campaign, apparently hasn’t done squat for The Venetian. Yeah, right.)

Gibbons’ plan may attract a few supporters in the Legislature. After all, nobody mulching legislation in Carson City is eager to vote for a tax increase, even if it would improve the state’s congested highways.

In addition, Gibbons will draw some support among voters. A Review-Journal poll last week confirmed the obvious: A large majority of Nevadans oppose raising the gas tax but support diverting some room tax revenue to highways.

In other words, soak the tourists!

This is consistent with a long-standing tradition in Nevada: We want more and better public services but darn it, we don’t see why we should have to pay for them.

Taxing the tourists doesn’t bother me all that much, to be honest. Pound for pound, I’m not sure they’re paying their fair share to finance the growth and operation of this community.

But it’s a cop-out to expect them to pay the whole bill. After all, the overwhelming majority of vehicles on the highways are occupied by people living here. We’re the ones clogging the Spaghetti Bowl and the Rainbow Curve and the 215. We’re the ones who should pay the lion’s share.

Raising the gas tax is the logical answer. Those who use the highways should pay for them. And the more you use them, the more you pay.

Sure, hiking the fuel levy is a hard call when gasoline is $3.15 per gallon. But tough. Nevada has eagerly invited the explosive growth of the past few decades. We thrive on it. We depend on it.

We also need to take responsibility for it. And sometimes that means paying higher taxes to fund the community’s baseline needs. Admirably, we’ve done this several times before to build highways, schools, fire stations, libraries, ballfields and other public services. Painful as it is, we must do it again.

When it comes to community building, we have the quantity part figured out. Have for a long time. Now we need to master the quality part.

It’d be nice if we had a leader to show the way on this. Instead, we have Jim Gibbons. He may not win any elementary school quiz contests, but at least he doesn’t have a Southern accent, right?

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming in October, “Politics, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue: The Las Vegas Years of Howard Hughes.” His column appears Sunday.

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