Trench warfare

Tax first; talk later

After the Reno City Council voted 4-3 last week to reject a proposal to put the ReTRAC train trench project to a public vote next November, some renewed calls for tax reform.

Washoe Commissioner Jim Galloway opposes the plan to spend three years and untold quantities of money to lower train tracks through downtown Reno. He says the county commission raised the sales tax three years ago for the project because of a loophole in state law. Because state law requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, Galloway contends that legislators—unable to find a majority to raise taxes—passed the baton to local governments instead, making it possible to increase taxes for local projects like the trench.

“This thing started out as a tax looking for a project,” Galloway says.

Galloway and other proponents of putting the trench issue on the ballot say that trench supporters fear overwhelming public opposition to the project—that’s why they don’t want the issue put up for public vote. They cite a poll conducted in April showing two-thirds of city voters opposing the project and more than 70 percent wanting a public vote.

Galloway says that the state law needs to be clarified on raising new taxes—especially on projects with no fixed costs, as the trench project is to this date. Depending on whose numbers are used, estimates range from $200 to $500 million.

Ted Harris, a tax reform activist from Incline Village, says the trench issue is just one more example of the kind of thing that drove frustrated voters in the state of Washington to try to pass a referendum that required every tax, fee or levy to be put to a public vote. While Harris says that Washington’s action would be too extreme in this case, he agrees with Galloway that a public vote should be required on projects with no fixed costs.

“There ought to be some limits,” he says.

Harris also says that the reason why trench supporters do not want a public vote is because it’s a lot easier for the special interests—casinos, labor unions and the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce—to control four votes at the council table than spend thousands of dollars to convince voters at the polls.

"It’s dollars on the bottom line," Harris says.