If Nevada wanted education funded education would be funded

go raiders
Las Vegas News Bureau photo

Nevada’s official economic forecasters met Tuesday and found the same thing they always find: A state that leans so heavily on sales taxes for revenue can’t afford to fund education adequately.

Now state legislators, and a bunch of other people too, are going to spend the next few weeks obsessed with the state’s inadequate education budget, occasionally pretending that big improvement is at stake.

Big improvement is not remotely at stake.

Any chance for big improvement was brushed aside before the legislative session began, when Gov. Steve Sisolak, gushing “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” said no new taxes. Now lawmakers and Sisolak will be struggling to provide teachers a little bit of a raise without forcing districts to jam even more students into overcrowded trailers in school parking lots.

Everyone is “for” education. Sisolak ran for office telling anyone who would listen how passionate he was about supporting public schools and public school teachers. In terms of importance to Sisolak’s campaign, education was second only to the most decisive issue of the election, the fact that Steve Sisolak is not Adam Laxalt.

And yet, well, here we are.

How Nevada baked failure into the cake

While it is surprisingly easy to document the cowardice of Nevada elected officials and mock their crocodile tears about education funding, the current, which is to say usual, education funding predicament is far from entirely their fault.

Past lawmakers bear an awful lot of the blame.

So do Nevada voters.

Nevada has no state income tax. That has been in the state constitution since voters, hammered by an economic collapse in the 1860s, determined that the only thing that would save them was to hand the state over to California mining companies and California banks.

Having no state income tax is bad policy, and one that forces reliance on the sales tax, which means low-income people pay a larger portion of their total income in state taxes than households with higher incomes. Only two other states and the District of Columbia collect more money per person from sales taxes than Nevada does.

And Nevada loves it. The state’s official motto may be “Battle Born” but it could just as easily be “We don’t have an income tax.”

It’s not that Nevada’s economy can’t support a modern, adequately funded education system. It can. Nevada spent the equivalent of 2.8 percent of gross state product on education in 2016. Only four states spend less on schools in proportion to the size of their economies.

Absence of an income tax explains a lot of that. But so does the Jim Gibbons Let’s Doom Education, And By Extension, Nevada, Forever state constitutional amendment of 1996.

Gibbons, you may remember (whether you want to or not), was a horrible albeit tremendously entertaining governor. But before he was a gubernatorial floor show, he a was rather good political opportunist, and one of the ways he built his political brand on his way up was spearheading an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the Legislature from raising taxes without a two-thirds majority.

The amendment passed easily in 1996, winning the support of 64 percent of Nevada voters (which is a tad shy of two-thirds but that didn’t matter and no one cares).

To this day, in an affront to popular will and democracy itself, a mere one-third of legislators in only one chamber of the Legislature can override everyone else in Nevada, and kill any and all tax increases.

Currently there are more than enough Democrats in the Assembly to pass taxes. But one Republican would need to be picked off to make up a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Only then could Nevada take some obvious first steps to direct more of Nevada’s wealth, now sitting on the education sidelines, to schools.

Those obvious first steps, by the way, are:

Raise the gambling, er, gaming tax. Nevada’s 6.75 percent rate is the lowest in the nation, because of course it is. It’s also a large source of state revenue, second only to sales taxes (sales account for about 30 percent of state general fund revenue, gaming a little less than 20 percent). A handful of other states have gambling tax rates in the neighborhood of 10 percent. But some 20 states levy rates of more (sometimes substantially more) than 20 percent. As I’ve written before, I suspect everyone has stopped talking about higher gaming taxes because everyone has given up. But since Nevada’s unofficial motto is “we don’t have an income tax,” casinos are still where the money is. You want to make a big difference in education funding, not at some vague time in the future, but now? Make the Strip do it.

Raise the mining tax. The quick way to do this is removing mining tax deductions currently in statutes and regulations. The industry’s tax rate is in the state constitution; the deductions aren’t. Mining has milked the deductions magnificently. The world’s premier gold mining operations are those operated by Barrick and Newmont here in Nevada. Yet the revenue projections economic forecasters approved this week, and lawmakers are now bound by law to follow, differentiate between “major” and “minor” revenue streams, and the “net proceeds” tax that mining pays is a minor stream. Sources of Nevada general fund revenue that are bigger than the mining tax include but are not limited to: cigarette taxes, business license fees, insurance taxes, and the rental car tax.

If we want it funded we will fund it

Legislators and the governor can point (all too conveniently, perhaps) to one too many Republicans in the state Senate, blame the Jim Gibbons Anti-Democracy constitutional amendment, and say “aw shucks, we’d really love to find more money for education, but it just isn’t politically possible.”

Yes! There are powerful political barriers to raising taxes. Raising taxes is hard, unless it is for a priority that is widely identified as necessary and urgent.

Like, for instance, a football field.

Here are current members of the state Senate who, in a rushed special session with virtually no deliberation, voted in 2016 to raise $750 million in taxes to pay for a football field:

  • Moises Denis, D
  • Scott Hammond, R
  • Joe Hardy, R
  • Ben Kieckhefer, R
  • James Ohrenschall, D (in the Assembly at the time)
  • David Parks, D
  • James Settelmeyer, R
  • Pat Spearman, D
  • Joyce Woodhouse, D

Here are current members of the state Assembly who voted for the Raiders giveaway:

  • Richard Carillo, D
  • Chris Edwards, R
  • John Ellison, R
  • Edgar Flores, D
  • John Hambrick, R
  • Ellen Speigel, D
  • Tyrone Thompson, D
  • Jim Wheeler, R

Such an inspirational demonstration of bipartisan cooperation, no?

And of course the football field had no more ardent champion than the former Clark County Commissioner who is now the state’s governor, Steve Sisolak.

All of these people, along with Brian Sandoval, Harry Reid, Steve Wynn, Jim Murren, Jan Jones, Sheldon Adelson and virtually every other VIG (Very Important Grownup) in Nevada knew there was enough money in Nevada’s economy — enough taxing capacity — to come up with $750 million.

Many of those same people also know there is enough money in Nevada’s economy — enough taxing capacity — right now, to find more money for education.

The difference is that the football field was a priority. Nevada wanted to fund that. So it got funded.

Education would get funded too if it was a priority. But it’s not.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Schwartz and Chris G against billionaire playpen, Sisolak and Laxalt for, look who won. Stanford Stadium while not domed tear down and rebuild cost $100 million.

  2. Nevada funds education with better than 2 billion dollars every budget and the schools produce not only dismal results but take pride in doing that. Time to clear out he deadwood in the education system. Too many administrators spending way too much money on personnel that are unneeded and a greedy unions that wants to suck up the entire education budget.

  3. Well done. However you missed the very obvious source for education, a minimum share of 30% of the revenue from the new marijuana tax. As reported in the news, the expected income from this new tax revenue source has far exceeded expectations. One of the most compelling reasons for supporting legalization of pot was that the income would be used to greatly increase education funding. This has not happened. It could if Governor Sisolak demanded a change before the conclusion of the current session. If adequately funding education was a priority, it would be done.

  4. Results? What do you mean? Do you have a specific goal that kids should achieve , like 90% proficiency, or is this some mental bar that you move around to make a point?
    We have tons of kids who can’t speak English, yet have to learn to read and write in English .
    That is very difficult. Did you know that people on drugs like heroin and meth have kids that are learning delayed and not only don’t learn well, but are behavior problems ?
    And, making it even tougher, NV has the highest class sizes in the country .
    On top of that, every study says we underfund education by around $2k.
    Next year, there will be $100 less per child.
    Please explain what results you expect .

  5. Thank you for saying in print what I said to law makers last summer! When a stadium was needed….the money was found to make it happen. Bring the Raiders to town?……money was found to make that happen. Properly fund our children’s education?…..sorry……no money can be found…..

  6. Hugh, I realize your being from Teapot Dome Wyoming and the only member of your family not jailed for your Progressive views, but my Auntie taught in the CCSD for 34 years and I thought she was kidding when I became an emigre to Las Vegastan full time and she told me how wonderfully backward and inside out everything is here. Your hero Tickles Segerbloom wants an increase in county sales tax for Clark schools, Washoe and Clark would love to levy an income tax limited to their counties and both will pass in term two of Sisolak if he’s not indicted before then. Crappy schools also helps slow the inflow of infidels from Cali with kids. We want them old and near to death if they come here, young with kids fuqs that matrix up!

  7. Start looking at it as how a better public school system in your city or state can benefit the average citizen financially…..the better the schools in your neighborhood are, the more your property is worth. People will pay more money for property in better school districts. I’d gladly pay an extra 50.00 a year in property taxes (12.50 a quarter) if it went directly towards education, paying to get and keep better teacher, and supporting better programs. It just pays me back a lot more on my property value.

  8. Nevada could also open Yucca Mountain instead of letting it sit there doing nothing. Charge all these nuclear facilities t store their waste. Funnel all that revenue to education and Nevada could easily fund schools in the state.

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