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VICTOR JOECKS: CCEA’s tax initiatives put Sisolak, Democrats in electoral bind

Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s courage may make Nevada’s 2022 election a lot more interesting.

At issue are two tax initiatives sponsored by the Clark County Education Association. The first would increase the top gaming tax rate on gross revenue from 6.75 percent to 9.75 percent. The second would increase the sales tax by 1.5 percentage points. In Clark County, that would make the sales tax almost 10 percent. Combined, those tax hikes could generate around $1.4 billion annually. The union once claimed that sucking that much money out of the private sector was needed for education.

But now, union officials have asked Cegavske’s office to keep both initiatives off the ballot. Their excuse is that, in the past legislative session, politicians increased the mining tax, directing the money toward public schools.

That tax increase will raise around $160 million annually. That’s not nothing, especially when it’s targeted at one recipient.

At 12 cents on the dollar, however, that’s far from what CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita claimed last year was necessary to fund “the scale of the challenge.”

The union’s problem is that Nevada’s constitution says the “the secretary of state shall submit” initiatives to voters. There’s no “take back” clause.

In recent years, the Legislature tried to create one. Based on those statutes, Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office issued an opinion in July declaring that “shall” actually means “may.”

Standing up for the constitution can be lonely. But Cegavske did just that. In a recent letter to Ford, she wrote that the Legislature elsewhere “recognizes ‘shall’ as imposing a mandatory duty.” She anticipates “placing the initiative petition on the ballot during the 2022 general election.” It’s likely her actions will upset many business lobbyists who would like to see both initiatives defeated — and the sooner the better.

A lawsuit seems inevitable. The Nevada Supreme Court enforcing the clear wording of the constitution is a coin flip, so maybe the initiatives won’t make the ballot.

But if they do, it’ll be a major headache for Democrats. The sales tax increase is likely to be enormously unpopular. After the coronavirus pandemic, even the gaming tax is far from a sure thing.

If Gov. Steve Sisolak opposes those taxes, he’ll be opposing the CCEA, one of his major political backers. The mere presence of those initiatives on the ballot would serve as a rebuke to his administration. They send the message that his own ally didn’t think Sisolak fulfilled his promises about education. Sisolak’s office didn’t respond to request for comment.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo said that, though he opposed the taxes, he supported Cegavske’s decision. “That is one of the things about being a constitutionalist. You have to respect it even when you may not like the outcome of doing so,” he said in a statement. Dean Heller’s campaign said it wouldn’t be able to provide a comment by deadline.

Perhaps the union will publicly oppose both of its own initiatives. That would lower the pressure on Sisolak and Democrats, but it would force Vellardita to admit he was crying wolf about education funding. Either way, if those initiatives are on the ballot, it will be a political opportunity for Republicans and a threat to taxpayers.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter

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