vs. the volcano and explosive nuclear follytix
CARSON CITY - On Oct. 9, Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, traveled to
Carson City to face down the most powerful man in Nevada.
I was surprised to see Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn show up in
person. The wealthy usually send their minions to do the dirty work. The
king is only supposed to come down from the counting house to collect
tribute after certain victory.
walked away with nothing, smoked by a lone wolf populist liberal. Mr.
Wynn tried to show the Nevada Tax Commission the error of its ways.
That body is charged with implementing a tax break Wynn juiced through
the 1997 legislature over Neal's strenuous objections.
The tax commission
voted in August that if Mr. Wynn wants to take advantage of several
multi-million dollar loopholes for his $300 million tourist attraction
art collection, he must admit the public free for at least 20 hours
per week, 35 weeks a year.
The tax break never
would have passed had not such "educational" display hours been added
as a late maneuver. If Nevada school children are going to lose tax
revenue to subsidize casino Van Goghs, the law says they should occasionally
get to see what they've paid for.
What really fried Wynn's
fritters this time was a submission Sen. Neal made for the record. It
contained a quote from an item by veteran southern Nevada journalist
Ken Ward in the Sept. 2 Reno News & Review.
said 'Every museum in the world charges admission in order to survive.'
"That statement," Ward
wrote, "might have impressed the Nevada Tax Commission and a handful
of readers in southern Nevada. But there's a problem: It's total balderdash.
"Fact is, major art
museums coast to coast are free to the public. The Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York has never charged admission. Los Angeles' new Getty
Museum doesn't, either. And, last time we checked, none of them had
a money-making casino attached."
Wynn was livid. He
took the microphone to trash both Ward and Neal for misrepresenting
reality. He said he could not understand why Neal "constantly disseminated
false information...Why this turned into a populist 'Don't let the rich
guy get away with something' is inexplicable to me," Wynn said.
Should you ever need
to define moral obtuseness, save that quote.
Wynn could not resist
a political potshot, intimating that Neal's real intent was to bolster
his "abortive campaign for governor." (Apparently, no one has informed
Mr. Wynn that the Sept. 1 primary election is over and Sen. Neal lost.)
Only one commissioner
sided with Wynn last August. On Oct. 9, when they voted 5-3 to reconsider
their admission fee decision, I thought Neal was toast. When they finally
decided 5-3 to preserve the free admission under the law, I was shocked.
Joe Neal had fought
and won against the explosive personality who built his own volcano
in Las Vegas.
Perhaps the commissioners
became uncomfortable when faced with answering one question posed by
a nondescript citizen: What has changed between August and October which
causes you to reconsider?
Wynn railed against
what he called "unbridled admission," but unbridled ambition was the
order of the day. It did not carry the day.
A miffed casino magnate
afterward announced that he would nonetheless charge $10 a head when
his new Bellagio megaresort opens in mid-October. He can still get his
millions in tax breaks if he implements a few free hours for the public,
but seems reluctant to do so.
Last August, he said
he wanted to charge "because I don't want to cheapen the experience."
Wynn learned an expensive
lesson at the hands of Joe Neal. In order to maintain political power,
don't get into a fight you haven't fixed upfront. Otherwise, people
might begin to doubt your clout.
SPIN THE BOTTLE
UPDATE (Oct. 18) - Right after Mr. Wynn's August defeat at the tax
commission hearing in Las Vegas, the Mirage myth-making machine went
into overdrive. Wynn himself traveled to Reno to meet with the editorial
board of the Reno Gazette-Journal.
got sucked in by Mr. Wynnderful's spin. First to fall were the estimable
Reno and Las Vegas alternative weeklies. An extensive article entitled
"Monet Grubber" by longtime southern Nevada reporter Steve Sebelius
appeared in both Las
Vegas City Life and the Reno News & Review.
Here are the opening
lines: "Let's get one thing straight about the tax break law for fine
art passed during the 1997 Nevada Legislature at the behest of Mirage
Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn: It doesn't apply to him.
"Wynn and his company
have registered with the state as art dealers, which means they're automatically
exempt from paying any sales tax on the inventory, as long as it's for
sale, the same way car dealers aren't taxed on their unsold fleets,"
Mr. Sebelius reported.
It ain't necessarily
so. Wynn's status as an art dealer is still up in the air. On Oct. 8,
the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that the Nevada Tax Commission was
commencing a two-month investigation to determine "if Steve Wynn actually
is an art dealer."
Underlying the investigation
is Wynn's desire to lease some of his art collection to his gambling
Last July, the Nevada
Tax Commission held a workshop on the art tax issue in Carson City.
Mr. Wynn's lawyer argued
for extra-legal expansion of the law by the regulatory body. Because
the law is silent with respect to admission fees and leasing, Wynn attorney
Jeff Conway said "if it is not prohibited, then it is permitted."
I interviewed a district
judge on that subject a couple of years ago. He agreed with Sen. Neal's
position: If if it's not in the law, it is not permitted.
At the July workshop,
deputy attorney general John Bartlett noted that the law allows tax
exemptions only for art purchased for display and re-sale. Art purchased
for lease falls outside the law and is thus not exempt from sales, use
and personal property taxes, Bartlett said.
Mr. Wynn failed to
include leased art in the bill he pushed through the last legislative
Thus, a waiver of sales/use
tax and personal property tax would certainly apply personally to him
as lessor of high-priced art to his gambling clubs.
Nonetheless, Mr. Wynn
continues to push the idea that he's exempt. In that same Oct. 8 Reno
Gazette-Journal article, he continued to spin the idea that he's already
beyond his own law.
"Wynn said he intends
on charging $10 (admission) anyway, explaining that he's an art dealer,
therefore making his collection exempt from any Nevada sales taxes,"
longtime reporter Bill O'Driscoll wrote.
Use tax is the flip
side of the sales tax coin. It applies to property USED to make money,
rather than re-sold. The Nevada Dept. of Taxation says a use tax, calculated
in the same manner as applicable sales tax, must be paid on "merchandise,
equipment or other tangible personal property purchased without the
payment of a Nevada tax and used by you rather than being resold."
If Mr. Wynn follows
through on his oft-reported plan to lease some of his art work to his
corporate parts, the taxes discussed in his own law would certainly
seem to apply to him according to state tax counsel Bartlett.
Mr. Sebelius' article
even noted that Wynn is "also making an additional $4.8 million per
year by leasing some of his personal collection to the Bellagio."
The king's sins of
omission should be corrected in future reports.
(For a complete background
on the art tax loophole controversy, go to http://www.neal98.org See
references, below,* for news coverage of the Oct. 6 hearing and aftermath.)
ATTENTION ANY RAILROAD
WORKER OR RETIREE WITH A LONG MEMORY: Please contact me. I am looking
for old timers to interview about the railroad people who built Sparks
as the Rail City. I want folks who might remember when there was little
to the town but the tracks and the future.
BUY LOTS OF COPIES
of the October 20 edition of "Woman's World" magazine, available for
just a buck and a quarter at any grocery checkout until Tuesday, Oct.
20, when the next edition comes out. The national magazine carries a
full page story about Rosalind Clarke, the California visitor who saved
Assemblyman Bob Price's (D-North Las Vegas) life at the Reno airport
earlier this year. The magazine used a photo which first appeared with
this column last April 5.
Former Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., has tried to defend
the nuclear waste voting record of her former colleague, Rep. John Ensign,
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid,
D-Nev., Ensign's current opponent, has pointed out that Ensign voted
for a May 18, 1995, measure calling for high level nuclear waste storage
at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.
Vucanovich "said Nevada
has kept nuclear waste out of the state because the congressional delegation
has been united," the Carson City Nevada Appeal reported.
"Harry Reid is threatening
that unity with his claims about John Ensign," she said.
The facts are otherwise.
In 1983, Vucanovich's boss, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., ordered his freshman
subordinates, Vucanovich and Sen. Chic Hecht, R-Nev., to adopt a "wait
and see" attitude on nuke waste. Washington read that as a reflecting
a softening of Silver State public opinion. The nuclear train soon started
coming our way.
Vucanovich has a long
record of decrying Nevada nuclear waste storage while at the same time
helping it along.
On May 23, 1991, in
an interview with Reno KRNV TV-4 reporter Victoria Campbell, Vucanovich
announced her support for temporary ("50 years or something") high level
storage in Nevada. (See this column of June 23 and 24, 1991, for a
verbatim transcript of Campbell's reports. It can be accessed at any
library housing the Daily Sparks Tribune on microfilm.)
told the Carson City paper on Oct. 9 that "having fought the nuclear
power industry myself, I could not sit quietly by and watch (Reid) mislead
people about John Ensign."
What fight? In their
first year in office, Vucanovich and Hecht both made Ralph Nader's top
10 of those taking the most nuke money while most consistently voting
the nuclear lobby's way. Vucanovich even took $1,000 from the main front
group promoting the Nevada dumpsite.
For a full history
of Laxalt-Vucanovich nuclear support, see this column of
April 13, 1997.
Mr. Ensign would do
well to look for a more credible defender.
Be well. Raise hell.
* For news coverage of the tax commission hearing, go to the Associated
Press, the Las
Vegas Sun or the Las
On Oct. 8, the Carson
City Nevada Appeal joined the Sun, Review-Journal,
the Daily Sparks Tribune, City Life, the Reno News
& Review and several Nevada small county newspapers in severely
criticizing the Wynn loopholes.
"The fallacy of the
exempt-art legislation strikes home when one remembers that the same
Legislature wouldn't exempt hearing aids from sales tax.
"If there's new legislation
to be heard next year, it should be to repeal the sales-tax exemption
on art," the capital city editors concluded.
Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated
columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News
and was campaign manager for Democratic
candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano
has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column
were originally published 10/11/98.