2013's legislative legacy II

Despite a brand-new set of legislative leaders who uniformly proclaimed vows to work together (nicely!) to solve the state’s problems, the 2013 session dissolved into chaos and disorganization, causing yet another special session as a few key bills missed the midnight deadline. But the most important issue of all, tax reform, was not on the agenda.

The day before the Legislature concluded its business, a collective sigh of disbelief was heard across the state when Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 to create a working group to develop “a broad-based and stable revenue structure for Nevada’s educational system” during the interim between the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions. He also pledged to introduce an early bill draft at the 2015 session to “implement” the new tax based on the results of the “discussions” of the importantly-named Select Committee on Nevada Commerce Tax.

Sen. Denis insisted this “is not a study” but rather an “open and transparent means of engaging business groups, teachers, parents and labor” to create revenue to fund schools and essential services.

The resolution was widely panned by education advocates, lobbyists and the press who, back in January, predicted the tax reform stalemate of the 2013 session, despite rosy promises that this session would be different. The skepticism of legislative insiders and outside observers was colorfully expressed by tax lobbyist Carole Vilardo, best known for her unending supply of hats, when she remarked: “This state needs another tax study like I need another hat.”

Indeed. While disappointing, the 2013 Legislature’s failure to enact a broad-based business tax, as every study has recommended for the past 60 years, was hardly unexpected. The only surprise was that some legislators actually thought it might happen, with their pledge to “discuss” (that word again) tax reform from the second day of the session onward.

Midway through the session, Sen. Denis held a press conference to reiterate his intent to secure more revenue for education, stating: “I’m not leaving here without getting more money for education. I’ve been very adamant about that … We’re talking about these issues. We’re having these discussions.”

But the Democrats lost the moral high ground on education funding when they pushed hard for more corporate give-aways, such as a $20 million a year subsidy for the film industry, a failed idea already tried by some 40 other states. How can we take their pro-education funding statements seriously when they also allowed the governor to exempt even more businesses from paying the miniscule Modified Business Tax without a whimper? Now we have a business tax that 75 percent of Nevada’s businesses don’t pay.

Even the hard-working Speaker caved on her signature legislation to eliminate loopholes in the entertainment tax, which quietly died in the last few days despite a last-minute attempt to put the “fun” loopholes back in (movies, golf and health clubs). She vowed to introduce the bill in 2015 after more “discussion.”

And in a sad display of abdicating power and responsibility, the Legislature punted Assembly Bill 46, the bill to raise more revenue to rehab Washoe County’s crumbling schools, to the Washoe County Commissioners since it was impossible to get to the two-thirds vote threshold in the Legislature. Republicans were apoplectic in acknowledging the desperate need to repair aging schools but not supportive enough to take a vote and force the governor’s veto hand.

In the end, it’s clear that more “discussion” and collegiality won’t make any difference at all. The stranglehold in the Legislature over reforming an inadequate and outdated tax structure will continue in the years ahead, leaving progressives, teachers, parents and education advocates with one sole option.

Pass the Education Initiative in November 2014. Let’s show them who really cares about our kids.