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Taxes for stadiums, but not for cops, kids or the sick?

The good news is, an elected official in Southern Nevada finally found the courage to call for a tax increase to pay for a public need.

The bad news is, that need is not hiring more police officers, improving K-12 education or fixing the state’s broken mental health care system.

No, Regent James Dean Leavitt says Clark County needs to raise its sales tax (currently at 8.1 percent) and its room tax to pay for a new stadium. Fellow Regents Mike Wixom and Cedric Crear agree with the sales tax increase, but oppose a room tax increase. Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani opposes both, saying sales taxes are regressive and room taxes need to be devoted to the county’s No. 1 tourism priority, the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion.

Meanwhile, the elected officials in Nevada who have come out in support of The Education Initiative — the 2 percent margins tax that will appear on the November ballot as Question 3 — could comfortably fit in a booth at Denny’s. A proposal to raise the county sales tax rate by .15 percentage points to pay for more police officers has been voted down several times by the Clark County Commission, including Giunchigliani. And the state’s mental health system, while benefiting from some emergency funding, is still woefully inadequate to the task.

But UNLV football? Big concerts? Well, that’s something we can raise taxes for!

That’s not to suggest the community doesn’t need a new stadium or that the market wouldn’t support it. In fact, MGM Resorts International is proving that by building its own, admittedly much smaller arena. That makes a powerful case that such venues are needed.

Then again, MGM Resorts is in the hospitality business. The Board of Regents is in the education business. The Clark County Commission is in the public safety business. And the state of Nevada has a legal, as well as moral, responsibility to take care of those who manifestly cannot care for themselves and occasionally pose a danger to public order.

And that begs the question: If you’re going to ask the taxpayers of the state’s most populous county to pay more every time they buy something, can you honestly tell them the intended use of that money is the most critical, highest priority for the health, safety and welfare of the community?

If not, the answer must be no. Because Giunchigliani is right: The sales tax is the most regressive tax we have, and if we’re to ask people to pay (poor and rich alike) we damn well need to be able to tell them this is something that they absolutely must have.

Of course, the consultants hired to study such things will regale us about increased visitation, businesses that will spring up around a new stadium and overall economic impact. Why, some of what they say might even be true! But the questions they can’t answer positively — Would this stadium improve student performance? Would our community be safer as a result of raising this tax? Would mentally ill people get the care they so desperately need? — are the important ones.

Not long ago, I wrote critically of a proposed baseball stadium in Summerlin, which ostensibly would seek public funding from local governments and the convention authority to build a new home for the Las Vegas 51s. I listed a number of things the county, especially, should be doing with tax dollars before subsidizing a private stadium, including hiring more police officers, improving the foster care system and helping University Medical Center. But the basic argument holds even if the stadium in question is public: Is this the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars, the one that will have the biggest impact in solving the county’s most pressing problems?

If you can’t honestly say yes to that — and you can’t — then the answer to the tax question has got to be no.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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