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Hugh Jackson: Teachers vs. Goliaths



Banking, gambling, construction and real estate, insurance, utilities, health care, retail and pretty much every other industry in the state is going to spend lavishly to defeat The Education Initiative at the polls next year.

The Education Initiative is what the teacher’s union and its affiliated political action committee have dubbed the proposal to create a 2 percent business tax on revenue of more than $1 million (businesses have three generous deduction options: the cost of goods sold, the cost of payroll, or a standard 30 percent deduction). Only two other states don’t tax business income or revenue, and obviously a business tax in Nevada is long, long overdue. Alas, whatever Nevada’s institutional strengths, competent budgetary policy is not among them. Politicians have shown time and again that they won’t do it, so people will have to do it themselves.

What many politicians will do, of course, is join forces with the special interests that fund their campaigns, and try to defeat the tax. Gov. Brian Sandoval in particular has vowed to make his opposition to the tax pretty much the cornerstone of his reelection campaign (his campaign’s got to be about something, s’pose). Yes, a handful of Democratic lawmakers will support the tax — state Sen. Tick Segerblom is for it, for instance. But Sen. Patricia Spearman, who like Segerblom is something of a darling among progressives, was on the The Agenda last week and refused to take a position on it. Sigh. And if Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis stick with positions they’ve indicated in the past, they’ll actually oppose the tax.

So The Education Initiative will be aggressively opposed by, and have almost no public support from, virtually the entire business and political establishment.

Good. If that doesn’t persuade swing and casual voters to support the tax, it’s hard to imagine what will.

Teachers are highlighting familiar arguments in favor of the tax — Nevada is 49th in per-pupil spending, Nevada businesses are taxed more lightly than anywhere in the nation, etc. Teachers can even run ads quoting anti-tax Republicans like state senators Michael Roberson and Ben Kieckhefer or business leaders like Elaine Wynn admitting that Nevada needs to spend more on education. When Wynn recently lamented the lack of funding for schools at a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce gathering, chamber members applauded her observation — even though the chamber will be among those yelling loudest that oh heavens we mustn’t tax our precious “job creators.”

But if belaboring the obvious — that Nevada needs to spend more on schools – was an effective argument, well, Nevada would already spend more on schools. The teachers are going to have to do better than that.

So instead of a campaign that explains the need more money — a campaign that is just “for” education — teachers also must campaign against something. Who better to run against than the governor, the Legislature and the special interests that control them — that is, the forces that have dug in their heels to assure that Nevada schools are underfunded in the first place? The juice brokers, power player and insiders comprising Nevada’s political and economic establishment not only present a target-rich environment. They deserve it.

One can envision ads with names scrolling through the screen — Bank of America, MGM, Target, R&R Partners, Nevada Power, Station Casinos, Wells Fargo, about 50 others, as the voiceover says something along the lines of “the most profitable special interests in Nevada are spending millions of dollars to avoid paying taxes to fund schools. They always say they support education. But they’ve controlled the governor’s office and the Legislature for decades. They had their chance and instead of looking out for education, they looked out for their own bottom lines. Now it’s up to us.” Or words to that effect.

The anti-tax forces will saturate the airwaves with ads featuring teary-eyed “small” business owners (who will never pay the tax unless their revenues are a million-dollars-plus). Many of the anti-tax ads will be paid for by the Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs. Perhaps nothing is more crucial to passing the business tax than making sure voters know that the “Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs” is what giant banks, national big-box chain stores and transnational gambling-hotel conglomerates are calling themselves these days.

In an editorial this week, the Review-Journal predicted that teachers union and its PAC will run a campaign based on “the demonization of large corporations as tax dodgers who can afford the burden.”

For once, let the R-J opinion page be right about something.

Because I have a nagging fear that the teachers union, its allies and its strategists may not have the stomach to run the in-your-face “we-wear-your-opposition-with-honor-you-greedy-bastards” sort of campaign that is called for. After all, it is Nevada. If two candidates want to cast all manner of horrifying aspersions on one another, fine, so long as all the political consultants get paid. But attacking the very power structure of the state, and shaming corporations and corporate executives by name? Jeepers, how impolite.

But the teachers watched a legislative session this year that again did little for education while casinos, the power company and other special interests won yet more sweetheart deals and yummy favors. The teachers union knows — it has to know — that Nevada’s education system has endured just about all the politeness it can stand.

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