Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wither Tax Reform (Again)?

Just as I was getting hopeful again, we're now seeing this.

“We have some concern regarding language,” Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said of the proposed ballot initiative. “As of now, we’re not signed on.”

Warne said she supports in concept the effort by AFL-CIO head Danny Thompson to raise money for schools. But her position highlights growing uncertainty about the fate of the tax effort.

“There was a deadlocked certainty there’d be an initiative two or three months ago,” said one political operative. “Now, not so much.” [...]

Representatives of the gaming and mining industries, which are both being targeted with industry-specific tax initiatives authored by a conservative businessman, would not comment for this story.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s announcement last month that he would support extending $620 million in taxes set to expire in 2013 appears to have dulled the sense of urgency behind the tax-related ballot initiatives.

The teachers union’s unwillingness so far to sign on to the AFL-CIO initiative presents two significant problems for the effort to get the tax passed. First, teachers are among the most visible, sympathetic faces of government services. Second, and most important at this stage, the teachers union has a reserve of cash that could be used to gather signatures.

If proponents of the initiative collect signatures, it would first go to the Legislature, which would have 40 days to pass it. If the measure doesn’t pass, it would be placed before voters in 2014.

This was one of the top goals of Brian Sandoval's "shift to the center" and sudden embrace of the sunset taxes. In addition to making himself look "moderate" and encouraging Republican Legislature candidates in tough races to do the same, Sandoval also hoped this would blunt momentum for progressive tax reform that had been building since last year. Yet even as Sandoval may be hitting a snag on the former (thanks to Chuck Muth's "tea party temper tantrum" causing some G-O-TEA primary mayhem), he still seems to be reaping some success on the latter. But then again, just blunting momentum for tax reform may be enough to boost Sandoval, setting him up for the best possible negotiating position with a (still) Democratic controlled Legislature and a prime opportunity to campaign as a "bipartisan uniter" when he runs for reelection in 2014.

And now, the Nevada AFL-CIO and the state's top teachers' union look to be playing right into Brian Sandoval's hands. Early on, the business margin tax promised to be the most viable tax initiative, as it had the most potential to attract strong financial backing. But now that NSEA is threatening to join the Nevada Resort Association on the sidelines, it's unclear how Danny Thompson can mount an ongoing and hard hitting tax campaign for the next two years. Even if he can get the signatures this year, the initiative must still go to the Legislature next year. And if the Legislature can't muster the 2/3 super-majority to pass this tax, then it must go to the voters in 2014.

Oddly enough, progressives' best hope for serious tax reform may lie with none other than conservative activist Monte Miller. His campaign for mining tax reform is looking increasingly serious. Even Republican pollster Glen Bolger has shown strong support for mining tax reform, and legal eagle Maggie McLetchie has so far found success in turning back mining industry efforts to block the initiative in court. And since Miller's mining tax initiative is a constitutional amendment, it will go directly to the voters this year and in 2014.

So maybe tax reform isn't entirely dead yet, but it's certainly in a precarious position overall. At this point, it all depends on how committed Monte Miller is to his mining tax initiative as well as whether the AFL-CIO and NSEA can work out differences on the margin tax. However, at this point it also looks like Brian Sandoval has gained some more breathing room on the budget.

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