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Flawed messenger comes bearing "gifts"

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

— Desiderius Erasmus

Gov. John Vellardita has a plan.

He wants to scoop up $1.4 billion for education by raising the sales tax and the gaming tax to about 10 percent each. Those are increases of nearly 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively, over the current rates.

Both of these ideas, filed in separate initiative petitions last week, are vulnerable to all kinds of reasonable criticism. Beyond the pandering populism (tax the rich guys on the Strip) and regressive taxation (sales taxes hit the poor disproportionately), the notion that the ballot is the proper crucible to make tax policy is highly questionable.

But you know what Vellardita has that no one else in Carson City does? He has... a plan.

Yes, Vellardita is one of the most disliked people in the state because of his thuggish behavior. Many people despise him because he elides facts, struts like a bully, uses confrontation as the tool of first resort.

But while people may loathe the teachers union boss who is acting like the de facto governor, he realizes that politics, like nature, abhors something else. And so, chief executive-like, he steps into the vacuum, speaking loudly and carrying a big stick, one he brandishes to beat everyone about the head: Gaming, lawmakers, progressives, conservatives, even the guy who lives on Mountain Street in the capital, who loves the Knights and Raiders but who has not wanted to play Vellardita’s game.

At least not yet.

Vellardita, who is popular with the only group that matters to him (his members), is simply taking advantage of a culture of cancerous neglect and broken promises by the elected and community elite for decades. It’s more than his attempt to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator and ensure his job security; he is presenting ideas, albeit highly controversial, because no one else is speaking and everyone has to listen.

Vellardita, who is no dummy, probably knows that going to the ballot is a terrible idea. But with a serially dithering Carson City government, which is better with Band-Aids than major surgery, the chief probably speaks for many who, to paraphrase Churchill, think going to the ballot is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried (or not even tried) to fund education.

The initiative process is tailor-made for Vellardita. If he can qualify the petitions – and neither is a sure thing – he can spend the entire 2021 session holding them like a Damoclean sword over lawmakers to take action or else it goes to the ballot in 2022.

I’m sure he is telling them this is a big favor, taking a poll of their constituents to give them political cover in the Legislature a year from now. My guess is they don’t see it that way — but, of course, we don’t know because of the capital laryngitis epidemic (or worse, gobbledygook) since these petitions were filed.

And what if the petitions fail? What message does THAT send to the Gang of 63 when it comes to funding education in 2021?

For now, every lawmaker and legislative candidate should have to take a position on the initiative petitions, which could be a salutary effect. Unless, of course, they are allowed to get away with saying something like: “I support education. But I need to take a closer look at these plans and see if they qualify first.”

Oh, really? But will you vote for it, Sen X or Assemblyman Y or Candidate Z?

I’m sure the Republicans will see an opportunity here, too, to bludgeon Democratic candidates — another reason for so many to say thank you to Gov. Vellardita. Then again, he may end up being The Great Uniter. After all, how many plans could bring together the gaming industry and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada?

This is no way to run a state, but this is the natural consequence of a capital failure for far too long. I have written about this many times, including last year when Vellardita again stepped into the breach and made a big deal out of a little deal and threatened to oversee a teachers strike.

Everyone was cowed. He won.

And now, with the session long over and with the Carson City crowd bragging about great strides in education funding that are not so great and a new formula that is really just a study, Vellardita once again capitalized on the lack of leadership. What does he have to lose? Not his job, which pays him five times more than his members, who make up a relatively small percentage of teachers.

The policy in the two initiatives is eminently assailable.

The gamers are not as rich as they once were (MGM is shedding assets and making cuts to reduce debt and learn to speak Japanese) or not as invested here as they once were (Las Vegas Sands makes most of its money in places not named Las Vegas).

Sure, the gamers CAN pay more. But the focus on the casinos, while popular, is not a long-term solution. And that money does not go to education; it goes into the general fund.

As for the sales tax, or the Local School Support Tax (LSST), that revenue source may make more sense. But we already have one of the higher sales taxes in the country, so some will see it as the Least Smart School Tax.

Indeed, progressives who want more money in education have long argued against the sales tax’s regressivity, preferring to tax mining, which is another can of worms since those guys wrote the Constitution and protected themselves.

There are so many other, broader sources of revenue — property taxes and The Commerce Tax, if the floor was moved downward, come to mind. But they are politically dicey, too, especially property taxes, which are low here but people don’t necessarily think so.

And this all begs the question because so many don’t buy the premise that more money is needed — money for the current system of public education, that is. And Vellardita is asking for a Battle at the Ballot, with those opposing him presenting alternatives (merit pay is very, very popular) and rendering state lawmakers irrelevant.

With their sessions of inaction or half-measures, the Gang of 63 may have been asking for that punishment. But while it may be satisfying to some, it’s like any high; you will come down and it won’t feel so good.

John Vellardita is not the issue here. He is just the latest loudest voice in a room full of elected officials and special interests whose insularity has brought this state to its low ranking in virtually every education study.

There’s really only one person, liberated from the hyperbole of campaigns (for now), who can frame the discussion, bring people and groups together and set the agenda. There’s only one person who has the popularity and bully pulpit to make the case, to do whatever it takes to persuade the public that Carson City will act, once and for all, in 2021. There’s only one person who has a bigger stick than Gov. John Vellardita and who can effectively mute him and not worry that he will suffer the same fate as the coach of his favorite hockey team.

It’s time Steve Sisolak took back his title.

Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering politics and government in Nevada for more than 30 years.


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