Riverboat gamblers, Joe the giant killer & magical Merlin

From the 2-7-99 Daily Sparks Tribune

Nevada never suffers a slow news day. Last week provided a plethora of examples.

JOE VS. THE VOLCANO. State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, introduced a set of bills which have shaken the gambling-industrial complex to its greedy foundations. No other lawmaker had the courage to sign on.

It was reminiscent of 1981, when only Sen. Bill Hernstadt, D-Las Vegas, had the guts to co-sponsor Neal's bill mandating fire sprinklers in all Nevada high rise buildings.

Notwithstanding the deaths of more than 100 guests in two Las Vegas hotel fires, the casino industry opposed it as too expensive. Sen. Neal prevailed. Countless lives have since been saved and Nevada is now the world model for fire safety.

Neal considers his current proposals as another kind of insurance — against federal taxation.

"The public pays for the costs of addiction and other gambling-related problems. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission will see this and propose appropriate taxation," Neal noted last year during his gubernatorial campaign.

"A two percent increase in the gross gaming tax on the largest Nevada casinos is the best preventive medicine the industry can take. Otherwise, the federal government will come calling and take our fair share to Washington," he said.

Sen. Neal's timing proved prescient. On the very day he introduced his legislation, the Clinton administration proposed witholding income tax from bingo and keno jackpots.

Neal contends that gaming actually pays little or nothing in state and local taxes, as all such levies are fully deductible on federal corporate income tax returns. Neal says that the industry should pay a fair share for the growth it causes and from which it is the principal beneficiary.

Neal promises to initiate a statewide petition if his colleagues fail to act on his proposals. Sen. Don Mello, D-Sparks, made the same threat a dozen years ago. Gamblers caved in to a tiny increase and have never seen another. Nevada clubs remain the most lightly taxed in the nation.

"Nevada should run gaming, gaming should not run Nevada," Neal says. According to a recent UNR-UNLV poll, 69 percent of Nevadans favor a gaming tax hike.

Casinos in other areas pay as much as 34 percent for the privilege of holding a gaming license. Atlantic City operations pay New Jersey eight percent on gross revenues with an additional 1.25 percent earmarked for a community reinvestment program.

Nevada's current three-tiered taxing system would have four levels under Neal's proposal, Senate Bill 88. The 26-year lawmaker would protect smaller operations from any increase. Gambling operations grossing less than $50,000 per month would continue to pay three percent. Casinos generating between $50,000 and $134,000 per month would remain at four percent. The 12 year-old top rate of 6.25 percent would continue to apply to those grossing from $134,000 to $1 million per month. The highest volume enterprises grossing more than $1 million monthly would be subject to the new rate of 8.25 percent under Neal's plan.

Perhaps even more hard hitting than his tax increase is Neal's introduction of tougher, New Jersey-inspired campaign finance reforms. Neal would make it illegal for gambling interests to contribute money to candidates or to lobby governments. SB 86 is patterned after New Jersey's prohibition. Enacted more than 20 years ago, it has withstood constitutional scrutiny. (See "The Jersey Way" by Steve Sebelius which recently appeared in Las Vegas City Life and the Reno News & Review.)

Other Neal bills would close gambling industry tax loopholes which became law over his opposition in 1997. SB90 would eliminate the sales and use tax break on high-priced works of art passed at the behest of Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn. Last year, Neal successfully blocked Wynn's attempt to take the tax break and still charge admission to children whose schools would lose millions to Wynn's corporate art collections. Wynn is suing the Nevada Tax Commission over the issue.

Neal also proposes to close another loophole whereby casinos deduct the face value of lucky bucks coupons and complimentary chips from their state gaming taxes, a de facto license to print money.

Another Neal campaign reform is designed to wean political hopefuls away from the need to chase big dollars for advertising. With SB91, he proposes to allow office seekers to publish 400-word statements on sample ballots. Candidates would pay printing costs.

Neal also introduced SB 89, a measure which would mandate that Nevada's Public Utilities Commission use unclaimed property to help pay the utility bills of indigent consumers. He has other legislation in the pipeline to expand the size of the Las Vegas City Council.

For more details on Sen. Neal's positions on gaming and taxation, go here. The texts of his new bills may be accessed through the Nevada Legislature's website.

HOME SWEET HOME. The 1997 legislature passed a bill by Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, to better regulate homeowners associations. The new state ombudsman's office is sponsoring an all-day seminar for HOA members this Wednesday in Reno at 6000 Bartley Ranch Road. If you're interested in going, call (702) 486-4033. Ask for Terry McGillivary at extension 239.

Joni Greenwalt has written a splendid book on such organizations. "Homeowner Associations, A Nightmare or Dream Come True?" can be purchased by calling 888-683-9550. For more information, go to

POWER OF THE PRESS. Congratulations to Daily Sparks Tribune reporter Willie Albright. The story he exclusively broke about the potential illegality of the firing of 325 Reno Riverboat Casino workers resulted in the employees retaining labor lawyer Michael Langton (775-329-7557) and the filing of a lawsuit last week. See "Riverboat Casino pours water on the drowning".

Albright's story ran December 1. The Reno Gazette-Journal totally ignored the issue until last Friday.

CANDIDATE ALERT. So far, the upcoming Sparks mayor and council elections are a testament to disorganization. Some candidates and potential candidates have sent me stuff, some have not. Some have gone to the Sparks Tribune, some to other newspapers, but rarely have all the bases been touched. The Reno paper found out about one candidate after seeing this column. Anyone thinking of running, please let me know. My readers include those who go out and get people elected. All submissions, declarations and prevarications are acceptable by phone, fax, e-mail, paper trail, sled dog or carrier pigeon. Politics does not reward the shy. Call me.

Merlin the Great, Vol. 1
Merlin, Part Deux

MERLIN THE MAGICIAN. The January 28 death of Merlin Shea went largely unnoticed by local media. He was one of the greatest athletes ever to play at Sparks High School. Shea was a standout middle-distance trackster and all-state running back on the Railroaders' 1941 state championship football team. He went on to play at the University of Nevada-Reno.

I'm planning an extensive piece on my old friend Merlin. Anyone with memories to contribute should call me as soon as possible.

Be well. Raise hell.

Copyright ©1999, 2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano, a member of CWA Local 9413, is 30-year Nevadan and editor of He was gubernatorial campaign manager for State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988, where an earlier version of this column appeared.

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