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Columnist Hugh Jackson: While Kihuen and legislative Dems dithered, Republican Michael Roberson co-opted their big issue

<p>State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, center, speaks during a meeting of the Legislative Commission at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas on Thursday, Mar. 29, 2012. (Jessica Ebelhar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)</p>

State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, center, speaks during a meeting of the Legislative Commission at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas on Thursday, Mar. 29, 2012. (Jessica Ebelhar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Nevada’s Legislature had 40 days to either enact or reject the business tax that teachers have qualified to put on the ballot in 2014. That deadline came and went last week, and underscoring why teachers took to the initiative process in the first place, your lawmakers did what they do best: jack.

Legislative inaction means the business tax will be on the 2014 ballot. Recent polling suggests it would pass easily if the election was today. But of course the election isn’t for another 20 months, a long time for lavishly funded big business front groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Association of Nevada to explain at you about how Nevada’s brave “job creators” are too weak to do what their counterparts in 47 other states do: Pay some form of tax on income or revenue.

The details of the tax will be explained or, on the business community’s part, demonized between now and November 2014. Let’s save that for another day (or days).

Besides, the most interesting development in the otherwise colossally boring Nevada Legislature is the plan to kill the business tax by taxing the mining industry instead. If both initiatives pass, whichever gets the most votes wins.

The idea came from Mike Roberson, a Henderson Republican who leads his party’s minority in the state Senate. It’s doubtful that he’ll get his do-nothing colleagues in the Legislature to pass the mining tax alternative. Roberson has already scored a huge victory, however, by setting himself up as the champion of the wildly popular idea to tax mining, effectively stealing the issue right out from under the noses of sleepy Democrats.

Make no mistake — Roberson can and will spout Tea Party-style, radio-ready talking points as vapidly as the next Republican on the scene. He never says “business tax” unless it’s preceded by the trite modifier “job-killing.” He’s introduced legislation designed to make residential customers pay higher water bills so Sheldon Adelson and other “job creators” don’t have to. As I noted a few a weeks ago, he’s fond of citing widely discredited pro-NRA statistics about the calming effect of runaway weapons worship. Roberson would bristle at the suggestion that he is a moderate Republican, let alone a progressive one (assuming such an animal existed somewhere). The guy used to work for former GOP house speaker and all-round evil wingnut Tom DeLay, fergawdsake.

But Roberson bucked his own party, including the governor, on mining. Astonished cow-county Republicans complained of back-stabbing, but they’re mostly irrelevant to the Democratic-controlled Legislature, as Roberson is keenly aware. Meantime, he’s running circles around Democrats and seized what was arguably their best issue of the 2013 Legislature, the mining tax, and made it his.

While a mining tax alternative may not make it on the ballot, an amendment to strip mining’s protected status from the constitution almost certainly will. Roberson joined Democrats in voting for the amendment in 2011 (it has to pass the Legislature twice and then voters get their say). But Democratic leaders were sounding squishy on the subject this year, and when asked about it would resort to “we need to have that discussion” (a banality that has become the official motto of legislative Democrats).

Mining lobbyists had clearly confused and scared Democrats with obfuscation and a specious claim that if mining’s tax protections were no longer in the constitution, the industry would not have to pay any mining taxes at all. Roberson clearly stunned lobbyists, and outflanked Democrats, by doing something the mining lobby doesn’t expect from GOP legislators: He looked behind mining’s spin.

Roberson is on record saying that he will support the resolution (SJR 15) to take mining out of the constitution this year, even if he doesn’t get an accompanying mining tax proposal on the ballot to compete with/kill the business tax in 2014. Legislative passage of the amendment is now very, very likely, which means the Legislature can replace mining’s sweetheart deal with a modern, effective mining tax in 2015.

But here’s the thing: Democrats should have never let Roberson take the issue from them. SJR 15 was assigned to the Senate Revenue Committee, chaired by Ruben Kihuen, who can boast an impressive record of garnering local and national media attention as a rising Latino Democratic star. Alas, his record of legislative achievement is not as grand. SJR 15 is low-hanging fruit, something that Kihuen should have loudly and proudly championed from Day 1 of the Legislature. The best legislative opportunity of his young political career was served up to Kihuen on a platter, and the Democratic wunderkind let it get stolen from him by a guy who used to work for Tom DeLay.

Kihuen’s ambitions for higher office are obvious — he’s already made an aborted run for Congress. Roberson is a full-on political animal, and it’s hard to believe that he too does not have political aspirations beyond spending six months in Carson City every other year.

Meantime, the most momentous political issue in Nevada over the next 20 months will be that business tax. Teachers and their allies are eager to engage that debate and punch holes in arguments made by the likes of big business and Roberson. Ever-tentative Nevada Democrats, by contrast, can be counted on to sit on their hands and pretend that debate isn’t happening, at least if their performance thus far in this year’s legislative session is any indication.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3 and blogs at