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Going through the motions at the school tax hearings

In a perfect world, legislators would convene hearings to ask probing questions on important issues, carefully weigh the facts and opinions from the experts and ordinary folks on the matter at hand, and then make their policy decisions informed by that testimony.
Nevada is not a perfect world.
There is very little doubt that the Nevada State Education Association-backed Education Initiative, which would put a 2 percent tax on companies doing more than a $1 million in business annually, has essentially no chance of passing the Nevada Legislature. Not only are most Republicans phobic of any new tax at all, but many of the majority Democrats in the Senate and Assembly are unhappy to be asked to support an $800 million tax on businesses.
Supporters of the initiative can throw out all the optimistic verbiage in the world, but it won’t get the constitutionally mandated two-thirds of legislative votes needed to get the measure through the Legislature. Or past the governor’s almost-certain veto.
But you gotta go through the motions, which is why the Assembly and Senate taxation committees combined to hold a hearing on the teachers’ proposal March 5.
Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association, asked the legislators to support the tax measure. He said the revenue was essential to “fixing what is obviously a broken tax structure” in which k-12 classes are “damaging our kids every day,” an extraordinary claim for someone representing Nevada’s teachers.
He said that without new revenue, initiatives from both the Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval to expand and deepen educational programs were doomed.
“There is no really clear way of even funding what has been put forward,” he said.
Peck brought with him an analyst from the National Education Association, who said the tax proposal would stabilize Nevada’s revenue stream to coffers, and assuming the money went to education, would directly generate 7,500 jobs.
Richard Sims, the analyst, said investing in education is essential if Nevada is to attract large employers who demand an educated workforce.
“If your only concern was growing the economy of the state of Nevada, this is an excellent way to do that,” Sims said.
Businesses that would be hit by the tax, of course, lined up in opposition.
Bryan Wachter, a lobbyist with the Retail Association of Nevada, called the business tax “complex and confusing and largely contradictory.” He charged that the tax would not guarantee more money for education, but could be used by the Legislature to fill other holes in the state budget.
He said the association’s own polls show that Nevada voters want to see a reduction in class sizes and higher teacher salaries – but the tax initiative doesn’t guarantee those, either. But when Assemblywoman Debbie Smith asked Wachter how the state would reduce class sizes without additional revenue to hire more teachers, he looked uncomfortable.
Wachter, who said he was a “product of the Clark County school system and proud to be so,” suggested that the school administrators could prioritize funding to reduce class sizes.
Nevada AFL-CIO Executive Treasurer Danny Thompson, who spoke for the tax initiative, said he was “embarrassed” by Nevada’s dismal educational standards, and he linked the state’s nation-highest unemployment rate to the state of the schools. But he also cut through some of the kabuki theater, predicting that the tax initiative will not make it through the Legislature.
Although the speeches for and against the initiative were mostly irrelevant, they might be important in the future. If the Legislature does not pass the initiative, it will go before the voters in 2014 – and so the voters and taxpayers of Nevada are likely to hear the same arguments over and over and over again.