Taxes. Nobody likes ’em. Everybody pays ’em. You pay when you buy your groceries or Big Mac. You pay out of your paycheck. You pay them if you own a house, you pay them through your landlord if you rent. You pay them in your water bill, you pay them if you gamble, drink or smoke, you pay them when you turn on the lights, and you pay them when you put gas in your car.
But if, like death, they are unavoidable, at least they are flexible. They can be raised, lowered, delayed, repealed, applied to one thing and not to another.
The recently ended 2013 Legislature had several taxation issues before it, including the mining tax, a live entertainment tax and a teachers’ union-backed plan for a business tax. But the session ended without significant progress on some of the most significant tax-related issues (see also Hugh Jackson’s column, Page 9).
The whole waffling affair made us — it made a lot of people — wonder about the bigger question, to wit: What should Nevada’s tax system look like?
So we asked people from across the ideological spectrum — a liberal activist, a conservative analyst and experts on tax and fiscal policy — to share their thoughts on an ideal tax structure for the state.
We assumed that the task would require at least the $6.5 billion annual budget that it now has. (There is, of course, debate about that, too.) Their answers were, not surprisingly, as varied as their backgrounds. However, a couple of clear messages came from everyone.
A thorough re-do of the tax system should come with a deep examination of how we spend our taxes, and how those taxes affect the economy. While our three biggest sources of revenue are gaming, property and sales taxes, those are products of generations of legislation and economic changes, and they may not fit the existing economic realities.
“The first thing you have to do is go back and look at every single tax that you have,” said Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association.
Guy Hobbs, a financial analyst who has been called on by local and state government agencies for his work, said that before we even look at the taxes, we have to understand what we are paying for, what we need and what we want: “Are we satisfied with the way that we deliver services today, or is there a sense that we need to increase investment in certain programs? Absent this vision or clarity of objectives, it would be difficult to assess whether we are producing enough revenue to meet our objectives. Absent this vision, all we are really doing is spending whatever revenue we have on the state’s array of programs without a feel for whether we are actually accomplishing our mission.”
Vilardo said much the same thing: “What’s adequate funding? I have a hard time going with the tax first, before I know what we’re trying to achieve.”
Geoff Lawrence, deputy director for policy at the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, said that a tax system should satisfy several broad criteria: It should be effective, with a minimum of negative impacts on economic activity; it should be easy to comply with and easy to understand; it should be equitable, about the same for all income levels; and (on this, everyone agreed) it should avoid volatility, the kind of wild swings in revenue that have whipsawed the state government since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007.
For Lawrence, the ideal tax structure should be a revamped sales tax.
“We believe that a broad-based consumption tax is the optimal method of generating public revenue,” he said, noting that only about a third of purchases in Nevada now carry with them a sales tax. “In fact, we’ve recommended a broadening of the sales-tax base to include the bulk of household expenditures with few exceptions, and with a consequent lowering of the overall rate to somewhere around 4 percent.”
Hobbs said he also sees a need to broaden the sales tax, in his case to include services along with goods. The problem is that decades ago when the sales tax was created, two-thirds of sales were for goods, one-third for services. Today, that ratio is inverted.
“The simple answer — at least mechanically — is to broaden the base for taxable transactions to include both goods and services, with exemptions only for those goods and services that are truly nondiscretionary. Once this base is established, the actual rate can be set, which would, at least mathematically, not need to be at the current fairly high rate of tax,” he said.
Even the liberal Jan Gilbert, a former lobbyist with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said she sees room for more revenue from a sales tax on services. Generally, liberals don’t like sales taxes because they often take a larger percentage of the income of poor and middle-class wage-earners than the percentage paid by wealthy families. She said restructuring the sales tax could bring benefits to lower-income families.
“Our sales tax is quite high,” Gilbert noted. “To counter that, I am not opposed to a service tax for high-end services that are not essential. Then we could reduce the sales tax, which would benefit low- and middle-income families.”
Gilbert, though, said a state income tax would be the fairest solution for the state, but politically impossible to achieve in Nevada. And Gilbert was the only person we talked to who specifically mentioned raising taxes on the gold-mining industry. PLAN has long backed efforts to increase taxes on that industry, and this year the Legislature took the first steps toward taking the cap on mining taxes out of Nevada’s Constitution. And she would like to see a broad-based business profits tax instead of the payroll tax now in place.
Hobbs also said the property-tax cap, which limits increases to homeowners’ property taxes to 3 percent annually, needs to be revised to better reflect the recovery in housing values.
“The caps were put into place when property values were growing at inflated rates, to protect the taxpayer from unreasonable growth in their tax bills,” he said. “Obviously, this problem does not exist in today’s environment and could have been controlled at the local level without this legislation.”
Vilardo said she, too, sees room to change the property tax system so that new buyers are not paying a higher tax than homeowners who have been here for years. Otherwise, though, she was reluctant to describe a “perfect” tax, and she noted that any tax provides winners and losers.
“Is there a perfect tax? There is no such thing, or even a fair tax, because that’s in the eye of the beholder,” Vilardo said. “We agree on some things. We want to get to a stable revenue stream and we want to have the lowest rates possible. We’ve got to take some steps to get us there.”