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Hugh Jackson: Policy with the stars!

<p>Nicolas Cage and his agent Michael Nilon. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)</p>

Nicolas Cage and his agent Michael Nilon. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

“Conceptually speaking, we are grossly underfunded,” Elaine Wynn told the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce last week.

She wasn’t using the royal “we.” At an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion, whatever aggravations might bother Ms. Wynn, underfunding isn’t one of them.

Rather, she was talking about Nevada public education. Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed her to the state Board of Education late last year, and so now Nevada is supposed to pay attention to things that Elaine Wynn says about schools.

According to coverage in the Sun, Wynn’s belaboring of the obvious — that Nevada education is “grossly underfunded” — was applauded by the chamber gathering. Let’s be charitable and assume area business leaders were not clapping for Nevada’s notorious failure to adequately fund education, but cheering Wynn on for acknowledging that Something Must Be Done.

Alas, if the chamber has its way, nothing will be done. Nevada is one of only three states that taxes neither business income nor revenue, and the chamber has steadfastly done everything in its considerable power to keep it that way. The chamber’s top priority is not spending more money on education. The chamber’s top priority is killing the teacher-sponsored business-tax initiative that, if passed by voters next year, would … spend more money on education.

The chamber is “for” education. So a billionaire can sashay into a chamber gathering and win applause by saying that education needs more money — just so long as she qualifies her declaration as a “conceptual” need that merely requires the nodding of heads, as opposed to an actual need that demands businesses start paying some taxes. Of course, if Wynn were eager to tell the chamber to pony up, Sandoval’s political handlers would have never signed off on her appointment to the Board of Education in the first place.

Steve, the other Wynn, tends to confine his involvement in Nevada public policy to quiet rooms where his campaign contributions can do most of the talking. But he parachuted into Carson City the other day to tell legislators what casinos magnates always tell Nevada: Now, clearly, is no time to raise the gaming tax.

No one in the Legislature has talked about raising the gaming tax. Wynn’s visit unintentionally accentuated the magnitude of that oversight. Wynn complained that Nevada’s gambling industry suffers from a “serious health problem” brought on by competition posed by gambling’s expansion outside of Nevada.

Wynn’s whining came just days after he agreed to pay a Boston suburb tens of millions upfront as part of a deal to build a casino. More importantly, as Wynn was complaining about the Nevada’s eroding market share, Macau officials announced that gambling revenue in April was 13 percent higher than April of last year.

Macau’s gambling revenue is reportedly about six times higher than that of the Las Vegas Strip. As it happens, the gaming taxes Wynn pays on Macau gambling revenue is also about six times higher than what he pays in Nevada.

Whatever health problem plagues Nevada’s gambling industry, it pales compared to that suffered by the state budget. Wynn has done far more to cause that ailment than he’s done to cure it.

Financial health appears to be a continuing concern for Nicolas Cage, brought on by buying one European castle too many and neglecting to pay millions of dollars in taxes in a timely manner. So naturally the Nevada State Democratic Party hitched their wagon to Cage’s star and blasted out an e-mail urging the faithful to support a proposal to give tax breaks to the film industry.

It’s not only stupid policy. It’s Republican policy. But it was made all the more ludicrous because the day after Cage put on his famous hangdog face for legislators and asked for a tax break, Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick unveiled her long-awaited, much-worked-on proposal to tack an 8 percent tax on admission to all sorts of stuff, including but not limited to movies — even those starring Nic Cage.

So to recap: Democrats want to give tax breaks to movie producers while taxing people for going to movies. I know what you’re thinking: Why didn’t they throw in a resolution to free Jodi Arias while they were on such a populist roll?

Unlike the Wynns and Cage, Kirkpatrick is neither rich nor a celebrity. But as soon as she somewhat unexpectedly came in line for the Assembly speakership, all corners of the state’s political-media-industrial complex rushed to gush about Kirkpatrick, invariably praising her work ethic.

Earlier this week state Senate Democrats unveiled a painfully modest payroll tax proposal. The estimated revenue the tax would raise, perhaps $250 million over two years, falls short of what the state needs to spend on English-language learning alone — to say nothing of the rest of the state’s needs. And yet that amount dwarfs what would be raised by Kirkpatrick’s admissions tax, which she has effectively set up as her signature piece of the 2013 session.

Hard work is fine. But it also matters what you’re working on.

All of which brings us back to that business-tax initiative that will be on the ballot next year. The Wynns, Cage and even the frequently over-praised Kirkpatrick provide mere mortal Nevadans with a powerful reminder that if they want something done, they’re going to have to do it themselves.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.