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Candidate for Lt. Governor, Michael Roberson, as seen during a Nevada Republican Men's Club luncheon at the Bali Hai Golf Club on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Last week, a major state politician and candidate for higher office provided a scathing critique of gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s major talking points.

That evisceration came from his running mate.

Yes, state Sen. and would-be lieutenant governor Michael Roberson, in a Northern Nevada speech, not only provided a robust defense of the Commerce Tax he almost singlehandedly pushed through the Legislature, he also couldn’t have been more effusive about Nevada’s economic vibrancy. His address to the Mt. Rose Republican Women’s Club came only days after Attorney General Laxalt lamented that Nevada was turning into high-tax, debt-ridden California and reiterated his desire to repeal Roberson’s signature legislative achievement.

Roberson’s undercutting of Laxalt’s major campaign themes highlights what an awkward pairing this is at the top of the GOP ticket, providing as it did much fodder for Democratic ads against Laxalt in the general election. Although in Nevada, the governor and lieutenant governor do not technically run as a ticket, Roberson tethered himself to Laxalt during the 2017 session, trundling over to the attorney general’s office for strategy meetings and acting as a designated character assassin when the GOP circled the wagons after a scandal emerged.

Here’s some of what Roberson said, according to audio of the event I have obtained:

After being congratulated by an attendee for his courage in coming despite his shepherding through the largest tax increase in history and notably not mentioning it in his speech, Roberson said he was “hoping someone would bring up the Commerce Tax. I actually would like to talk about it.”

Oh, I’m sure.

Remember this is the tax that Laxalt has said he wants to repeal and can easily be replaced by other revenue. Laxalt also has said he opposed it at the time – he did not, except on a talk-radio appearance or two – and he has not explained why it needs to be erased.

Roberson asserted that he ran for re-election in 2014 on putting more money into education and insisted he did not lie about raising taxes. What he didn’t mention is he signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge when he first ran for office and bragged about cutting taxes in his 2014 re-election bid.

No matter. Revisionist history is par for the campaign season.

Roberson then embarked on a full-throated defense of the tax his running mate wants to repeal.

First, he distinguished himself from Laxalt and others who claim the Commerce Tax was the same as the gross receipts tax that failed at the ballot in 2014. (They often cite this as evidence of going against the will of the voters.)

Roberson correctly points out this is not so:

“The margins tax — it was on the ballot, I opposed it. Governor Sandoval opposed it. Business throughout the state opposed it. Gaming opposed it. Why? It was a 2 percent tax on all revenue above a million dollars. The Commerce Tax, on the other hand, the average effective rate—first of all, it’s only on revenue above $4 million dollars—the average effective rate is .086 percent. Now do the math. The margins tax at 2 percent is 23 times the rate of The Commerce Tax — 23 times the rate.”

All true. Maybe he could explain this to his running mate?

Even though Laxalt erroneously has dismissed any concerns that erasing the Commerce Tax would have any effect on the budget, Roberson correctly told the crowd “it brings in $175 million dollars a year.”

His point: That ain’t peanuts.

Then he went on to make the case that it has no effect on small businesses, which Laxalt seems not to understand:

“It only affects the largest 1 percent of businesses doing business in this state, and one of the reasons why we supported it is because it’s the only tax that doesn’t affect small businesses in this state. The MBT, the payroll tax affects small businesses, the state sales tax affects small businesses. It doesn’t affect regular people. It doesn’t affect small businesses, and the rate is 86 cents per every thousand dollars of revenue. 86 cents. So some perspective on this is important.

Why, yes it is, senator. Can you think of anyone who needs some perspective?

After boasting of his tax-cutting bona fides, Roberson makes the case that Sandoval and former economic development czar Steve Hill did that the tax is a catalyst for companies to move here. You know, like from….California.

“And by the way, the Commerce Tax, there’s an exclusion on that. It’s only on what’s defined as Nevada revenue. That’s revenue that’s generated and spent here in the state. It does not include exports. Why? Because we want to encourage economic development. We want companies building products here and selling them outside of the state, to bring money from outside of the state in here. So exports are not included in the calculation of the Commerce Tax.”

Roberson went on to forcefully make the case of how Nevada is nothing like California, how wonderful the economic climate is here:

“Now, I wish we didn’t have any taxes at all. But here’s the reality, and I think this is something that everyone needs to discover in the big picture context of this. We have currently, today, the fifth best business tax climate in the country. We have the eighth lowest property taxes in the country. We have the eighth lowest tax burden on a per capita basis and as a percentage of income. This past year, Nevada was number one in the country in job growth. Number one. And by the way, the biggest proponents of the Commerce Tax, it was large businesses and industry throughout the state. Primarily the gaming industry. Who pays more of this than any other industry? The gaming industry. This does not affect small businesses, I doubt there’s anyone in this room that pays it.”

Look at the big picture. Good advice again, senator. Know anyone close to you who might benefit from that counsel?

But he wasn’t done yet. Roberson also emphasized how Nevada is, essentially, nothing like California: “We don’t have personal income tax, no corporate income tax, and very low property taxes.”

And then one more plug for his tax increase and for funding education:

“We’ve got a great pro-business environment. We’ve got more jobs than there are people to fill here in Nevada right now, because we’ve got problems with workforce development. We don’t have enough kids coming out of our schools with the skills and the training they need for the jobs of the 21st century. That’s what we need to be focusing on. That’s why we increased education funding in 2015 at historic levels.”

Historic indeed.

To recap: The likely GOP candidate for governor thinks The Commerce Tax should be repealed and frets that Nevada is becoming more like California. His running mate, on the other hand, touts the great value of the tax he helped pass and thinks things in Nevada are going swimmingly.

I am really looking forward to some of the debates for major offices this year. But, frankly, the best debate would be one that won’t happen:  Laxalt v. Roberson.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @ralstonreports

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