Casino alchemist Wynn turns high art into low taxes


Expanded from the 4-18-99 Sunday Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

Last week, the Nevada State Senate voted 14 to 7 to grant Las Vegas billionaire Steve Wynn corporate welfare beyond the wildest dreams of greed.

Senate Bill 521 is so bad it stands to bankrupt the state by making Nevada casinos tax free.

Our gambling halls already pay the lowest taxes in the world. They are also the state's biggest welfare queens.

They shunt property taxes to downtown redevelopment projects. They skim room tax money for casino advertising, railroad trenches and convention halls.

All this comes as the fastest-growing state in the nation encounters trouble paying for that growth. Las Vegas needs to open a new school every 40 days for the next 10 years but the school district has recently had to fight the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the gambling industry's tax-subsidized promotional arm, for school construction money. LVCVA has been trying to steal $12 million a year from room tax funds promised for schools. (Go to

Screwing the schools is really what SB 521 is all about. In the name of art education, casino mogul Wynn stands to rip off millions from Nevada students for many years to come.

Wynn thinks school children should subsidize his $300 million Bellagio Resort art collection. The tax break passed in 1997 lets Wynn keep money which would otherwise go to schools if he allows free student viewing 20 hours a week for 35 weeks a year.

Wynn has insisted on charging everyone, telling reporters last year that he did not want to "cheapen the experience" by admitting anybody gratis.

"It won't bust anyone if I make it ten bucks," Wynn told the Reno Gazette-Journal last October. He has since upped the ante to $12. Wynn personally earned $3.75 million in salary and bonuses in 1998.

"People want to be near it. If I have fine art, I'll be flattering the people," he told the Reno paper.

These are the ethics of Baby Doc Duvalier, the brutal former Haitian dictator who nationally televised a lavish presidential palace banquet. He was sure that his starving people loved him so much that they would find relief just by viewing him pigging out on food they could only dream of.

I guess he was flattering them. They immediately rioted and overthrew the government. Baby Doc barely escaped with his life.

He should have let them eat cake.

Last November, Mr. Wynn sued the Nevada Tax Commission which had refused to let him have his cake and eat it, too. SB 521 would allow Mr. Wynn to do just that.

The full proportions of Wynn's bill to "clarify" current law were not known until Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, brought out the facts in senate debate on Friday, April 16.

Casino lobbyist Harvey Whittemore had amended the original bill so that the loophole became big enough to drive a state through.

SB 521 will allow a casino to designate just about anything as original art. The coffee shop silverware and crockery with fancy casino logos. The awful carpet with patterns designed to cover up the mess left by a sick drunk. Old cars. Antiques. Chandeliers. Slot machines. Draperies. Wall paper. Cocktail napkins and swizzle sticks. Towels, matches, ash trays.

Flying to Paris or Rio on the corporate jet to shop for casino paintings can be written off against one's art collection.

Just like Nevada mines or Hollywood movies, Wynn's art will be taxed on the net-net-net. There are plenty of things in this bill to make sure there will never be a net profit. Any contribution to art education or juvenile delinquency programs becomes a tax break double-dip, deductible against state as well as federal taxes.

Levies currently paid on non-art gallery property, such as hotel-casino furnishings, equipment and vehicles, could be avoided if charged against a casino's museum. From whisk brooms to parking lot street sweepers. From golf carts to room service carts.

"For the owner of a casino, this deduction would include personal property taxes on all the furniture, equipment, vehicles and so forth used by the casino," wrote Paul Mouritsen, principal research analyst of the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau's research division.

"Since this amount is so large, it seems unlikely that the owner of a casino would pay any tax on the works of art," Mouritsen concluded in an analysis appropriately dated April 15. Sen. Neal has sent Mouritsen's memo to every member of the assembly.

Steve Wynn has even redefined the calendar. A year may be 12 months to you and me, but it's eight months whenever Mr. Wynn says "show me the Monet." He may take a full year's tax break on a work displayed just eight months. SB 521 also applies retroactively to pieces Wynn purchased as long as two years before the Bellagio gallery opened.

Give this damned thing a little time and creative casino accountants will redefine everything down to toothpicks as tax-deductible masterpieces.

The Wynn art tax loophole will drive public budgets to a breaking point. Casinos already pay a rapidly decreasing share of state taxes. Last year, the gambling tax dropped to fourth behind the sales tax.

In 1997, the Nevada gambling industry paid about $570 million in taxes, fees and licenses. It got back roughly a third, and perhaps more, in subsidies and loopholes. Redefining everything with a logo on it as artwork will widen the corporate welfare hemorrhage.

Cities and counties are increasingly unable to pay the costs of growth stimulated by gambling expansion.

Localities are forced to saddle taxpayers with ever-higher fees and property taxes for necessities like parks, roads, police and fire protection. This is why angry homeowners will soon circulate a Nevada version of California's Proposition 13.

Gov. Guinn has promised tax reform in 2001 but has already hinted that higher property taxes will be his solution. The property tax-cutting petition and Sen. Neal's initiative to raise the gross gaming tax will both hit the ballot in November, 2002, if the 2001 legislature fails to enact them.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN who voted against Wynn - Republican Sens. O'Connell of Las Vegas and Amodei, Carson-Lyon-Storey. Democrats: Las Vegas Sens. Care, Coffin, Titus and Wiener; Sen. Neal, North Las Vegas.

THE OBSCENE 14 who bowed to the king - Republicans: Las Vegans James, O'Donnell and Rawson; Raggio and Townsend, both Reno; Jacobsen, Washoe-Carson-Douglas; McGinness representing Fallon and central Nevada; Porter of Henderson; Rhoads representing Northern Nevada outside Washoe-Carson; Washington-Sparks. Democrats: Carlton and Schneider of Las Vegas; Martin-Mathews, Sparks-Reno; Shaffer, North Las Vegas.

THE THREE BLIND MICE who voted against Wynn in 1997 but for him last week: Martin-Mathews (D), McGinness (R), Porter (R).

ONE LAST EXERCISE IN FUTILITY -- The Nevada Assembly Committee on Taxation will hear the Wynn freebie bill on Thursday, April 29, at 1:30 p.m. in hearing room 3142. Show up to testify or contact your representative. Here is the committee lineup.

Las Vegas Democrats: Committee Chair David Goldwater; Morse Arberry, John Lee, Mark Manendo, Harry Mortenson. Other Southern Nevadans: Bob Price, D-North Las Vegas; Sandra Tiffany, R-Henderson.

From rural Nevada: Committee Vice-Chair Roy Neighbors, D-Esmeralda, Lincoln, Mineral and Nye counties; John Marvel, R-Battle Mountain, representing northeastern Nevada.

From Reno: Greg Brower (R), Vivian Freeman (D), Dawn Gibbons (R).

Legislative e-mail addresses are made up of the lawmaker's first-name initial and full last name followed by Here's an example for Bob Price.

You can leave a phone message at the legislative hotlines: (775) 687-4848 in northwestern Nevada, (702) 384-2225 in the Las Vegas area or (800) 978-2878 toll-free. You can fax any assemblymember at (775) 684-8888 and any senator at (775) 687-5898. Make sure to include the bill number, SB 521, on everything.

You also have a bit of time to use the U.S. Postal Service. Many lawmakers still give great weight to paper and diminish e-mail. You may send letters to lawmakers at the Legislative Building, Capitol Complex, Carson City NV 89701-4747.

Please call, fax, e-mail, U.S. Mail (or all of the above) your local lawmaker before it's too late.

DON'T SAY LIE, JUST SAY CLARIFY. Steve Wynn's lobbyists have long repeated the shuck that SB 521 changes nothing and merely clarifies legislative intent from 1997. Mr. Mouritsen's memo pretty much knocks that one through the looking glass to Tweedle Dum Wonderland.

A more egregious bit of corporate propaganda has even been repeated by some lawmakers in support of the bill. They've been defending themselves saying that Nevada would never have had the chance to host this collection without the 1997 tax break.

Bull. Wynn began collecting the pieces well before his last-minute push to grant himself a loophole.

WYNN'S NUMBER ONE. The San Francisco Chronicle last year called the Bellagio gallery "pro-rated on a per-painting basis...the most expensive museum in the world" to get into. (Go to /MN50464.DTL

AND WE'RE NUMBER ONE! "Nevada prison inmates lead the nation in hourly wages for prisoners," reports "Nevada News--The newspaper of the University of Nevada, Reno." Nice to know that the underdog is making progress somewhere out here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream.

Be well. Raise hell.


Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a 30-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and head of Casinos Out of Politics (COP). In 1998 he served as gubernatorial campaign manager for State Senator Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas.
Since 1988 Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune, where an earlier version of this column appeared on 4/18/99.

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Copyright © 1982-2004 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 35-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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