Historic tax package heads into final hour
With mandatory adjournment fast approaching, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, gave up on subtlety Monday night to push a decision on the state’s largest tax increase.
He combined legislation funding public schools with a tax plan raising $869.1 million over the next two years, saying the Senate could vote on both at once. That left tax opponents the unpleasant choice of opposing school funding or supporting taxes they don’t like.
Sens. Sandra Tiffany, R-Henderson, and Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, protested the tactic. Saying she supports public school funding, Tiffany described the Unified Business Tax as “an absolutely unacceptable tax.”
Raggio said he was going to send the bill to the floor and “people can vote it up or down.”
His problem is the Senate needed 14 of 21 votes — a two-thirds majority — to pass any tax. With Bernice Mathews, D-Sparks, joining the anti-tax faction headed by Tiffany and Cegavske, they didn’t have it with less than two hours before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn.
The tax increase also would have to pass the Assembly before 1 a.m. today, as legislators pushed back the midnight deadline, and a two-thirds majority also was in doubt there.
Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, a strong supporter of the budget and tax proposals to fund it, said the situation mirrors life: “Spending money is the easy part. It’s getting it that’s the problem. That’s what it’s all about tonight.”
Even with the tax package in trouble, the state budget was headed for final approval. That includes the Appropriations Act, laying out how state general fund money will be spent; the Authorizations Act, spelling out how federal funds and all other revenues will be spent; and class-size reduction, state employee pay and capital improvements projects bills.
Raggio and Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, were trying to avoid a special session by passing a tax plan that funds the $4.92 billion general fund budget before the session expired.
Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, said flatly his caucus had the votes to block passage of higher taxes.
He and other tax opponents were trying to prevent passage of any plan until the budget is reopened and some additional cuts made.
Assemblyman Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said he thinks they can hold out long enough to force review of 30-40 percent increases in education and human resources programs.
If a special session is necessary, the question is whether Gov. Kenny Guinn will tell lawmakers to reconvene immediately and work until they have an agreement on taxes or take a couple weeks off.
In any event, something must be resolved by July 1 when the new budget takes effect.
Most of what is in the tax package is acceptable to lawmakers — including increases in cigarette and liquor taxes, restricted slot fees, secretary of state fees and an entertainment tax.
The objections center on the Unified Business Tax — which would generate nearly $200 million of the total in the next two years and more than $150 million a year once fully implemented.
The business tax is a modified version of the governor’s gross-receipts tax. It caps the impact on high volume-low margin businesses such as grocery stores.
Guinn and Assembly Democrats like it because it hits most big businesses in the state. Businessmen have opposed any tax based on gross receipts since the session began.
In addition to a tax on business receipts, the proposal Monday night included hikes in cigarette and liquor taxes, a half-percent increase in gaming taxes, and an increase in the real-estate transfer tax.
There has been growing pressure from some opponents to consider Nevada’s old standby — a larger increase in the state gaming tax.
The budget package agreed to by both Senate and Assembly money committees will require $860 in new tax revenues over the two-year budget to cover $4.92 billion in general fund spending.
That is some 27 percent more than the current $3.85 billion biennial budget.
Figures generated by the Nevada Taxpayer’s Association say that includes a 42 percent increase in the university system budget and 40 percent more for Human Resources programs.
The funding for public education also increases about 27 percent under the proposed budget to a total of $1.71 billion in general fund money over the biennium.