If proponents of the taxes approved by the 2015 Legislature look worried these days, they have good reason.
Several good reasons, in fact.
At least three conservative groups are mobilizing to repeal at least one of the taxes approved by lawmakers. Some of the repealers are targeting only the new commerce tax. Others want to target all the taxes as part of a long-term scheme to attack the infamous single-subject rule.
And while success is certainly far from guaranteed, the odds favor the repealers. Here’s why:
1. The numbers and the calendar. The Nevada Constitution says referendums need the signatures of 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the preceding general election. Because turnout in the November 2014 election was so low (45.5 percent), just 55,233 valid signatures are required. And petitioners have 11 months (until June 2016) to collect them.
2. The ease of the message. It’s always easier to campaign against taxes than for them. That’s especially true in Nevada, where the Legislature is required to muster a two-thirds supermajority in order to raise taxes. Asking a voter walking out of a three-hour wait at the DMV if she wants to sign an anti-tax petition that will stick it to The Man is like asking PETA if it wants to release unarmed lion-hunting dentists onto the savannah.
There are arguments for taxes: They were raised to support important education programs. Those programs should be given a chance to work. And repealing taxes would mean cuts to schools. But those arguments are always harder to make.
3. The turnout factor. Republicans have more than passing interest in getting this repeal on the ballot: It will attract GOP voters to the polls. Democrats have their own ballot candy: initiatives that seek to legalize recreational marijuana and impose background checks on all gun purchases. A tax repeal initiative could serve the same purpose for the GOP.
4. The repealers win even if they lose. Thanks to a quirk of the Nevada Constitution, the repealers win by simply qualifying a measure for the ballot.
If voters agree on Election Day, taxes are repealed. But if voters decide to keep the tax, it’s frozen into the law for good, unless there’s another vote of the people.
That means the taxes in question can’t be raised in the future without another statewide vote. But it also means those taxes — especially the new commerce tax — can’t be adjusted to compensate for the inevitable problems that will surface. That’s an unintended consequence that could hurt many businesses that might otherwise support repeal.
5. If recent history is any guide … The repealers often say the commerce tax is a redesigned version of the Education Initiative, the 2 percent margins tax that was rejected by nearly 80 percent of the voters in 2014. That’s not true; the commerce tax is different in several important ways.
But the Education Initiative vote showed the power of a well-funded anti-tax campaign, albeit one that took serious liberties with the truth. If the same kind of campaign is run in favor of repeal, even without the big checks, the chances of success go up.
Tax supporters have a few things going for them. Many of the people involved in the repeal effort are only passingly acquainted with success. Infighting between the groups over differing approaches will work against the repeal effort. Popular Gov. Brian Sandoval should come to the defense of the package he fought so hard to pass. And voters may want to see how the whole thing is working before they make a decision.
But if the repealers can get past their differences and actually qualify the referendum, the pro-tax side will have some good reasons to worry.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.