The Nevada Democrats’ quiet surrender to minority rule

And the measure the teachers’ union should have put on the ballot

early birds
Since the teachers' union didn't do it, Democratic legislators should take it upon themselves, right now, to get the ball rolling on the ballot measure Nevada really needs. (Nevada Current file photo)

Nevada Democratic lawmakers are pretty pleased with themselves, and rightly so, for taking steps over the summer to assure people would be able to vote safely during a pandemic. 

Elected Nevada Democrats have supported numerous other voting measures, from same-day and automatic voter registration to restoring the rights of the formerly incarcerated.

Weird, then, that after fighting to expand the electorate and access to the ballot, Democrats seem content to allow no more Republicans than can fit in a mini-van to ride roughshod over the will of the voters.

Where things stand

As more of the population gets vaccinated and the coronavirus crisis recedes, “people will be excited to travel, hungry for entertainment, and desperate to get out and have fun again,” said the head of the gambling industry’s collective lobbying arm in Washington D.C. recently. 

“That’s an environment where gaming will thrive,” said American Gaming Association’s Bill Miller.

The resort industry is brimming with similarly rosy scenarios from analysts and executives, which comes as wonderful news to all Nevadans, including those who serve in the Legislature, a resort industry subsidiary.

State lawmakers have convened, sort of, in Carson City, where they are trying to put a happy face on more cuts to underfinanced public services, pretending small measures are consequential, and waiting for Joe Biden and Congress to bail out Nevada with money for state and local governments in a new covid relief bill.

Yes, it’s all a bit shabby.

Between now and the session’s end in June, legislators will also have to determine what to do about the Clark County Education Association’s ballot initiative to raise the tax Nevada levies on gambling revenue.

Barring some shocking act of bipartisan conniving that persuades the teachers’ union to back off in exchange for crumbs, legislators won’t offer any alternative to the casino tax increase, do nothing, and let it go on the 2022 ballot.

The same scenario will play out with CCEA’s other initiative, a sales tax hike.

Nevada already has one of the nation’s most unfair tax structures, because the sales tax, Nevada’s largest revenue source, hits the poor the hardest.

But Nevada’s low-income households don’t have a well-financed army of influence peddlers and campaign operatives, so the sales tax is the politically easiest to hike. The initiative to increase the sales tax is soulless and insidious and the union should be ashamed for proposing it.

The gaming tax hike, by contrast, is an idea that is long overdue. Nevada has the lowest tax on gambling revenue of any state, and it’s not close. Nevada’s kid gloves treatment of its largest industry would be laughable, if Nevada public services weren’t miserable.

While the resort industry is telling shareholders everything is awesome, it’s telling Nevadans what it always tells them whenever anyone suggests the world’s largest gambling corporations should pay more: Now, clearly, is no time to raise the gaming tax.

But nobody’s talking about raising the tax right now.

Voter approval of the tax wouldn’t take effect until after the 2022 election. By then, the resort industry will be basking in pleasure and profit.

At least that’s what corporations are telling their shareholders.

Industry sycophants, perhaps the most prominent being your governor, will echo the industry’s age-old “now, clearly, is no time…” line.

They will also adopt very serious tones and warn that crucial policy should not be set at the ballot box, because these complicated matters are best settled by lawmakers chosen by voters to address and confront such weighty issues.

It’s a nice idea. Unfortunately, the state constitution effectively says lawmakers can’t do that.

Which brings us to the real measure CCEA should have put on the ballot, an initiative that should enjoy full-throated public support from Democratic lawmakers.

In fact, since CCEA didn’t do it, Democratic legislators should take it upon themselves, right now, to get the ball rolling on the ballot measure Nevada really needs. 

Ignoring the elephant in the room

Under an amendment adopted in the 1990s, the state constitution requires support from two thirds of both legislative chambers to create or increase taxes.

Thanks to the two-thirds rule, a tax increase broadly supported not only by a majority of legislators but also Nevada voters — making mining pay more, to take a recent example —  could still be blocked by only eight Republicans, provided they’re in the Senate.

Ask a Democrat about raising taxes, and invariably that Democrat will say this:

“Oh my stars and garters yes we need to raise revenue. But under the two-thirds rule in the constitution we need votes from Republican legislators, and they won’t vote for any tax increases. That means dang our hands are tied and we are powerless, so boo-hoo.” 

Okay, that’s a paraphrase. But it’s a dead-on accurate one.

Democrats thought they had one — a Republican, that is — for about 15 seconds last summer. Had he not changed his other mind on the 16th second, the highly profitable mining industry’s tax deductions, as generous as they are pernicious, would have been reined in, if only a tiny bit. 

(That Republican, state Sen. Keith Pickard, wouldn’t be in the Senate if the CCEA hadn’t backed him instead of his Democratic opponent in 2018. See? That’s another reason CCEA should be ready, willing and able to put its considerable organizational clout behind a push to get rid of the two-thirds rule: A malicious sales tax proposal isn’t the only thing CCEA has to atone for.)

Democrats don’t have two-thirds majorities in either legislative chamber now. But they do have simple majorities in both, which is all they need to pass a resolution to start ridding the constitution of the two-thirds requirement.

If legislators pass the resolution this year, and then a second time in the 2023 session, the amendment would be on the ballot in 2024.

In the nearly three decades since the the rule has been suppressing the will of Nevada voters, not once have Democrats undertaken an organized effort to remove it from the constitution.

Either they secretly like it, because it gives them a ready excuse for not raising taxes that might upset campaign contributors. Or they doubt their ability to explain why the rule needs to go.

Trying to get rid of the two-thirds mandate would require a combination of guts and leadership. Assuming such qualities exist within the Nevada Legislature, perhaps they can be coaxed out into the open.

Meanwhile, the best-case scenario for this session and beyond might go something like this: Voters will get the chance to approve a very weak “olive branch” mining tax amendment, as well as the CCEA’s gaming tax increase, which is also weirdly small, and the CCEA’s atrocious sales tax increase.

Those are the most consequential measures currently on Nevada’s policy horizon. 

Each has nothing or very little to do with the Nevada Legislature.

Maybe Democratic legislators like it that way.

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.