Governor wants higher taxes, GOP warns. If only it were true.

mask and a haircut
Gov. Steve Sisolak tweeted a picture of himself with a mask provided by Eagle Promotions.

Nevada Republicans are in quite the huff. They’re convinced Gov. Steve Sisolak has a plan to raise taxes to protect at least some services and programs from deep budget cuts.

As is often the case when it comes to things Republicans think, if only t’were true.

First Governor Sisolak FAILED at economic relief response to the COVID pandemic,” the Nevada GOP stated in an email to the faithful Tuesday. How has Sisolak FAILED? Alas, the GOP email FAILED to explain. Perhaps Republicans are upset because Sisolak did exactly what every other governor in the country did and shut down the economy to save lives.

For the record, when Sisolak did that, he was doing what the casino industry had either already done or was about to do on its own, including Las Vegas Sands, the corporation controlled by Sheldon Adelson, without whom — or more specifically, without whose money — today’s Nevada Republican Party would be little more than a toddler libertarian with a laptop, and the party’s office would be his mother’s basement.

Put another way, Nevada resorts and businesses would have been shut down at or about the same time and begun reopening at the current pace even if Republican bon vivant and Virginia transplant Adam Laxalt had won the governor’s race in 2018. 

But back to the NVGOP email broadside…

After blasting Sisolak for handling the economy the same as virtually every other governor of both parties (unlike Donald Trump who has handled it beautifully, obviously), the GOP blames Sisolak for “chaos, rioting (and) looting.” Admittedly, if Laxalt were governor he may well have tried to get the National Guard to tear gas peaceful protesters so Young Master Adam could stand in front of a church with a Bible. Or maybe a book written by his beloved mentor John Bolton. Although probably not the new one.

And finally, to the NV GOP’s main point, the email declares Sisolak “was caught in his own double speak. First, he told the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce that he wouldn’t enact new taxes, then at a press conference when asked directly he punted the issue to the state Legislature.”

The GOP email included a tweet from Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer.

Kieckhefer is a rare commodity in today’s Republican party because he tends to be more thoughtful than rabid, so a Kieckhefer tweet is some unusually high quality content for a Nevada Republican Party fundraising email.

True, when Sisolak spoke to chamber of commerce types last month, Sisolak said “now is not the time to raise taxes, clearly.” 

And true, during a press conference Monday, Sisolak wouldn’t absolutely positively rule out a tax increase, saying Nevada’s covid-induced budget shortfalls will have to be addressed “through a combination of the revenue side and the expense side.”

So does that mean Sisolak & Co. have pored over the facts and identified some portions of Nevada economic activity where now is the time to raise taxes, clearly?

If only.

Sisolak’s remarks Monday sounded more like an off-hand, on-the-spot, stream-of-consciousness response to a reporter’s question than a product of deliberation.

And that’s too bad.

Early on in the coronavirus era, the governor noted, rightly, that “it is inevitable that we will need to rely on both the government AND business to see us through this crisis” (the all caps emphasis was in the governor’s prepared remarks).

He also declared, again rightly, that the severity and scale of the crisis demanded “some out-of-the-box and proactive approaches.”

Then a couple weeks later he made a beeline for budget cuts, all stimulus-response style. As (ahem) one observer noted at the time, nothing could be more in the box, or more reactive.

There are sectors of Nevada’s economy that can afford to pay more taxes, even — or even especially — right now. And there are methods worth exploring to make them do it. For instance, cut mining tax deductions, reverse publicly financed giveaways granted to the likes of Google, Switch, Amazon, etc., and substantially raise the commerce tax on industries that are doing well, such as mining and data centers. For starters.

Raising taxes in Nevada is preposterously hard because Nevada’s state constitution is an abominable combination of industry sweetheart deals and right-wing AM radio ideology. If Republicans were correct (again, if only!) and Sisolak was planning to raise taxes, he’d still be forced to “punt” to the Legislature, because Nevada’s dysfunctional and undemocratic state constitution says any tax increase must be passed by two-thirds of both legislative houses.

Democrats have two-thirds in the Assembly. But in the other chamber they’re a senator short.

Nevada should raise taxes. Much of the economy is trashed, people are out of work and will be for a long time, the new new normal is going to be worse than the old new normal, and demand for public services is going to skyrocket.

As hammered as the state’s economy is, pockets of it are doing rather well. Those parts of the economy can and should pay more taxes. Nevada has been very helpful to a lot of companies. The least those companies can do now is help Nevadans when Nevadans need help most.

Getting a Republican state senator, or two (or more?), on board to raise taxes while Democrats control the governor’s office and the Legislature would be an extraordinary thing.

These are extraordinary times.

The governor and Democratic lawmakers would have to make a case. They would have to explain detailed, real-world ramifications of severe budget cuts. They would have to identify components of the economy capable of shouldering a heavier tax burden, even in this environment. And they would have to identify taxing mechanisms available under Nevada’s aforementioned boneheaded constitutional constraints.

Outreach to GOP lawmakers ideally would feature demonstrated buy-in, not only from educators, labor, non-profit service providers who will be struggling to pick up the slack as state services wither, and like-minded advocacy groups, but also from the health and medical system, the economic/workforce development apparatus, and business and industry leaders.

And the process to win Republican legislative votes must start (checks calendar) … oh right, the first week of April, when Sisolak first told state agencies to prepare for budget cuts. That would have been a great time to start.

Winning enough Republican votes to raise taxes, whether in the special legislative session Sisolak says will happen before the end of this month, or another one that may (or may not?) occur later in the summer, would require an orchestrated process of negotiation and deliberation. It would also be a towering achievement in politics and governance, a demonstration of exactly the type of leadership this moment, and this crisis, demands.

Nevada Republicans can relax. There is presently no indication Sisolak or Democratic legislative leaders are prepared to attempt anything of the sort.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson 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 author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.