Payback time for the gambling-industrial complex


The Nevada gambling industry has always exploited the taxophobia of this supposedly conservative state.

Twenty years ago, at the height of the growth spurt fueled by the opening of the MGM Grand and seven other casinos, Sparks-Reno was choking.

People driving new cars were living in tents on the river. Future Reno mayor Barbara Bennett rose up to lead the humble, begging the Reno City Council to do something to help locals deal with madly spiraling rent increases.

In such an environment, one might think that the public would look with favor upon a gaming tax increase to deal with the impacts of casino-spawned growth.

Wrong. I polled the issue and was overwhelmed by the results. People disliked any tax hike.

Not anymore. Last week, the Sen. Alan Bible Center for Applied Research at the University of Nevada-Reno published a poll which showed that Nevadans have changed their minds almost overnight.

In February of last year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal surveyed the gaming tax increase issue. It lost 42% to 34% statewide. That result was perfectly consistent with longtime conventional wisdom.

Then, along came Joe. The same poll showed State Sen. Joe Neal ( ), D-North Las Vegas, within eleven points of casino-anointed gubernatorial frontrunner Kenny Guinn. Neal had just declared his candidacy while Guinn had been campaigning for two years. Nonetheless, the black liberal from a predominantly white Clark County district proved competitive right out of the box because he uttered the unspeakable: gaming does not pay its fair share to deal with the impacts of the growth it causes and from which it is the principal beneficiary.

Gomorrah South gambling mogul Steve Wynn and his cronies went right to work looking for a more acceptable Democrat. By November, voters were presented with two casino-approved choices for governor. The Gaming Party's win streak remains unbroken.

One election loss does not faze old warhorses. My friend Joe kept up the fight for tax fairness, beating back casino magnate Wynn's attempt to pirate school funds to subsidize his $300 million art collection.

When the legislative session begins on Feb. 1, Sen. Neal will propose a two percent increase in the gross gaming tax on the state's three dozen most obscenely profitable casinos. He will offer legislation to close casino tax loopholes. He wants to end both Wynn's "Show Me the Monet" art tax break and another hemorrhage which allows gambling clubs to deduct from state taxes the face value of lucky bucks and comp chips.

Recognizing that Nevada's tax inequities spring from billions in public funds shunted to casino corporate welfare, Neal will also introduce a New Jersey-like ban of industry influence in the political process.

The UNR poll just provided him with unexpected help from the voters. In the last quarter of 1998, researchers polled 1,200 Nevadans. Support for a gaming tax increase proved shockingly strong at 69 percent statewide. Sixty-four percent favored it in northwestern Nevada; 71 percent in southern Nevada; 63 percent in conservative rural Nevada. Statewide, 62 percent favor a general corporate profits tax.

For years, I have made common cause with Nevada's far more numerous conservative commentators in railing against hidden taxes foisted on us by corporate overlords. The message has apparently gotten through.

Today, 75 percent of Nevadans oppose an increase in the gasoline tax; 60 percent oppose a sales tax on services such as auto repair and haircuts. (Most probably don't know we already pay a tax on insurance premiums.) Eighty-three percent stand against taxing groceries, something which took decades of effort and a state constitutional amendment to repeal back in the 1970s.

However, the stealth effect of all the hidden taxes remains very evident. Fully 72 percent feel their state taxes are "just about right." Forty-seven percent mistakenly believe their levies lower than other states. Actually, our per capita state and local tax burden ranks sixth-highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. (See the 1-3-99 installment of this column.)

The hyper-conservative editors of the Las Vegas Review-Journal waxed apoplectic over the UNR poll. They think we're stupid.

"Though predictable, this pattern is still disgusting -- and not only because it shows such ignorance of basic economics," the state's largest paper said.

"Will newly jobless Nevadans think higher corporate and gaming taxes are still a good idea once they choke off our economic growth?"

When "don't kill the golden goose" becomes the best rebuttal they can dredge up, you know the power structure is low on ammunition.

The public realizes that casinos exploit everyone and everything around them, including their communities and workers. The gambling industry facilitated tax increases on all but itself in the past two legislative sessions. People feel the effect every day in their pocketbooks.

They see Nevada gamblers take advantage of the lowest taxes in the nation, then invest in other states and countries while starving out Nevada schools, parks, recreation, police, fire protection and pothole repair.

Municipalities have little choice but to raise what taxes they can, fueling a property taxpayer revolt statewide. (Sixty-nine percent oppose increased property taxes.)

The UNR poll shows that today's Nevadans have proven surprisingly, er...liberal...when it comes to people programs. They see increases needed for education, child care, mental health, Medicaid, environmental protection, drug treatment programs; police training for domestic violence cases; child abuse and juvenile crime prevention. They want more money for parks and recreation areas and assistance for the low-income elderly, but no increases in prison construction. Fifty-one percent think $348 per month is too little to support a mother and two children.

Gambling addiction was not addressed, but should be in a future survey.

This sea change in public opinion has occurred in less than one year. Nevadans should thank Sen. Neal for campaigning for tax fairness. They should also thank the gambling industry which, in its richly appointed arrogance, stuck us one time too many with the bill for corporate welfare programs. (See the last nine installments of this column for details.)

The Nevada legislature can now act on Sen. Neal's reforms or face initiative petitions and angry taxpayers at the polls in 2000. Let the games begin.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 30-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 1/17/99.

Top of the Page

This site created and maintained by The NevadaWeb
We welcome your comments and suggestions!