Do Nevada Democrats secretly love this guy?

He always leant himself to good cheesy art
Former Nevada Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons

Your governor, you may remember, kicked off his first term with a stirring state of the state address in which he said … well, let’s quote him:

“Nevada’s economic growth happened under our current revenue structure — and as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s why this budget is presented without any new taxes. Let me say that again. This balanced budget does not contain any new taxes.”

So it may seem a little freaky-deaky that Republicans are suing Democrats over new taxes.

After all, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Democratic legislators who love him didn’t make anyone pay more taxes than they were already paying. What they did was tinker with existing statutes, effectively stopping a tax cut for business from going into effect.

Republicans can sue Democrats over taxes in the first place of course because the Nevada Constitution says it takes a two-thirds vote from both houses of the Legislature to … well, let’s quote it:

“…pass a bill or joint resolution which creates, generates, or increases any public revenue in any form, including but not limited to taxes, fees, assessments and rates, or changes in the computation bases for taxes, fees, assessments and rates.”

When Democrats earlier this year repealed statutory language that would have triggered a small payroll tax reduction, they did it with a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, but were one vote short of that in the Senate.

Whether the repeal is constitutional is now for a court to decide.

The estimated $98 million at stake is a little more than 1 percent of the $8.9 billion two-year general fund budget, neither inconsiderable nor an existential crisis. 

But that’s only one reason the legislation, and the GOP lawsuit for which it stands, isn’t the most salient element of this entire whack-job scenario. 

***

After Democrats won the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature in the Glorious Blue Wave(!!!) last year, there certainly was a lot of work to be done, what with Nevada’s schools, health services, justice system, affordable housing supply and countless public responsibilities neglected Nevada-style for far too long. And much of that work would cost money.

So Democrats hopped to it! Who can forget the aggressive push, accompanied by an energetic public information campaign, to build support for adequately funding education and other public goods and services by raising taxes on businesses and industries that can afford it while creating a more equitable, less regressive tax structure for everyone else?

No one can forget it. Because it never existed.

Instead, Democrats opted to tinker around the edges, their chief budgetary innovation being a dramatic proposal to … have business pay exactly the same taxes business was already paying.

Budgets, it is often said, are political documents. Sisolak’s budget, embraced by Democrats, documented what Sisolak asserted at the start of the year: It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.

But hold on, you say, it would have been pointless for Democrats to rally the public behind an agenda of taxing, say, mining and gambling, er, gaming, to address Nevada needs that have been neglected for so long. Democrats couldn’t even get a two-thirds vote to keep taxes the same as they are now.

Fair enough.

So here’s a question: Exactly what is the Nevada Democratic plan for adequately funding education, not to mention child care, elder care, public transit, refinancing student loan debt, incarceration reforms, mental health and public health services, higher education, and on and on and on?

And when will Democrats start leading, by building public support for said plan?

It wasn’t something that Democrats were outlining, let alone building support for, during the campaign season last year. Even as a two-thirds majority in the Senate looked like it might be in reach, Democrats were not reminding voters that if they got a two-thirds majority they would reform a Nevada tax structure that currently puts the burden on low-income households.

They certainly weren’t making that argument in Senate District 20, where a Democratic win would have provided a two-thirds majority, but where Republican Keith Pickard (with the endorsement of the Clark County teachers’ union?!?) won by 24 votes of more than 54,000 cast.

In fairness, Legislative campaigns are almost always vacuous, policy-free affairs. It’s not like Democratic state Senate candidates were running around saying “I’ve got a plan for that.”

But the fact is whenever the subject of taxes come up, Democrats almost invariably and all stimulus-response like make a beeline for the signature policy achievement of … Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons.

***

It was Gibbons who, while scrambling up the political ladder, glommed on to putting the two-thirds majority in the state constitution, partly out of standard-issue Republican anti-tax ideology, but also to build his brand and propel his career. Voters passed it in 1994, and 1996. The latter year voters in Nevada’s ruby red second congressional district sent Gibbons to Washington, and a decade later he was elected governor.

But his career as an elected official is a blip in Nevada history, consequence-wise, compared to his shepherding of Nevada’s pernicious two-thirds constitutional provision.

Gibbons is — who knows where and who cares? But his anti-democracy tax-hating constitutional amendment, which effectively allows a relative handful of rural voters to veto policy even if the majority of the state supports it, lives on. It allows only eight Nevadans to thwart progress, provided those eight Nevadans are in the state Senate.

So Republicans love it.

Democrats don’t seem very fond of it at the moment. “Senate Republicans repeatedly voted to prioritize a corporate tax break over Nevada’s students and teachers,” Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said this week in response to the Republican suit, adding that for her and her Democratic colleagues, “funding public education is a top priority.”

But Cannizzaro’s statement might ring more sincerely if so many Democrats, including and especially Sisolak, hadn’t fought so hard to raise taxes to subsidize billionaire NFL team owners in 2016, and then preemptively ruled out new taxes for education and other nice things this year.

Well, again, new taxes simply would not have passed anyway. Any Democratic legislator will tell you that. Quickly. And eagerly.

The Jim Gibbons Let’s Hate Government constitutional amendment, you see, provides Democrats a readily available, powerful excuse to not even mention specific tax policies (other than raising regressive sales taxes) that might upset certain voters or, perhaps more importantly, fat cat campaign contributors.

How convenient is that?

Democrats are focused like a laser beam on winning as many seats as possible in 2020 so they can control who draws political lines and thus assure control of the Legislature for the next decade.

But some Democrats, probably and especially Sisolak who will be up for reelection in 2022, might be hoping the party isn’t so successful in 2020 that they win two-thirds super-majorities in both houses.

Because if that happens, in the 2021 legislative session, they would no longer be able to hide their ineffectual budget and tax policies — or non-policies — behind the great and powerful and super convenient Jim Gibbons. Instead, they’d have to act, or explain why coddling those who can afford to pay more while working Nevadans suffer is good public policy.

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.

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