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The Clark County Government Center as seen on Thursday, April 27, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Clark County commissioners expressed mixed feelings this month after lawmakers gave them the option of raising the sales tax to support education, aid for the homeless, and workforce development for the hospitality and gaming industry.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s AB309, which awaits the governor’s signature, would give county commissions the power to increase the sales tax by one quarter of one percent. In Clark County, the levy could raise an estimated $106 million a year, although critics have noted that the sales tax burden is already relatively high and the tax disproportionately affects low-income residents.

“The devil is always in the details and it’s our job to look at that and look at the benefits for the community,” said commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick after the board’s meeting the day after the legislative session adjourned. “We can go forward and I think that’s where we will all be with it. It’s been only 10 hours! We don’t even have the final writing.”

Frierson’s bill emerged a few weeks before the end of the session as the Clark County School District sounded the alarm that it did not have enough money to pay the teacher raises that Gov. Steve Sisolak promised. Should commissioners approve the tax increase, districts could use it for ancillary education initiatives such as pre-K, anti-truancy and adult education programs, freeing up other money for basic K-12 instruction.

Using the funds for core instruction would violate a constitutional provision that all the state’s districts must be funded equitably. It’s unlikely that all counties would approve the tax increase.

With the school district announcing this week that the Legislature provided enough money to fund the salaries, it’s up to the seven-member, all-Democrat commission to decide whether the tax is needed.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Tick Segerblom, who recently left the state Senate for a seat on the commission. “Then we can do that on top of the [Distributive School Account]. I ran on that last year when I ran for County Commission.”

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly acknowledged that the county needs more services, but wondered whether a sales tax hike would overly burden consumers. Nevada has one of the highest sales tax burdens in the country, while property taxes — considered a more stable revenue source and one paid only by those with enough assets to own property — is among the lowest in the country.

Lawmakers took no action this session to adjust Nevada’s property tax structure, even though many observers are critical of caps that have suppressed the rebound of tax revenue for local governments since the recession.

“I want to make sure that we are not imposing a tax that will continue to put people in more debt or put people in situations where they find themselves struggling and suffering for mental health because they can’t keep up,” Weekly said before the bill passed.

And he expressed frustration that the Legislature had pushed the decision-making to the county rather than take the political risk of raising taxes themselves. Sisolak, for example, promised he would not raise taxes this session but deferred to the county when asked whether taxpayers in general might be facing a tax increase.

“That’s very bothersome to me,” Weekly said. “I think that if they can sit there and dream it, and think about it, then they should be able to vote on it and not send it down for somebody else to vote on their ideas and thoughts because many of them aren’t willing to face the voters.”

Commissioner Justin Jones said he still wanted to vet the bill after a last-minute amendment from Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a former political director for the Culinary Union, authorized some of the proceeds to go to a union-affiliated workforce training program for the hospitality industry.

“I’m still assessing the ramifications of the potential increase in the sales tax,” Jones said. “I definitely support education and other potential uses but we’re still taking a look at the bill and analyzing what to do.”

Commissioner Michael Naft said he liked that the measure gives local governments the opportunity to explore either raising taxes or just reallocating existing money.

“It is certainly the prerogative of the Legislature to do what they did and I think they looked at every option they had,” he said. “We got to give it a little bit of daylight here, and give the public a chance to weigh in, give the stakeholders an opportunity to tell us what their needs are. But, I think we will know pretty quickly here.”

Commissioners Larry Brown and James Gibson did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

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