By Zachary Kenney-Santiwan
In Nevada, it seems as though the government is just as strapped for cash as many of the citizens. The Legislature can’t find the funds needed to get us out of the bottom tier in health care access; the City of Las Vegas needs to beg for donations to provide services to the homeless; and then there’s the perpetually starved Clark County School District. Though the district by some miracle managed to come up with the funds needed to avert a teacher strike, it still faces a $35 million budget shortfall over the next two years.
The problem isn’t a lack of money in our collective bank, though. The array of bright lights, refurbished hotel rooms and literal ivory towers that define the Las Vegas Strip perfectly encapsulates the wealth of the gaming companies. Our burgeoning marijuana industry has been so lucrative it has far exceeded revenue projections in every fiscal year since legalization. And on top of it all, we have an NFL team on the way with millions in ticket sales not far behind.
Neither is this a problem of ignorance or inaction. For all their faults, state lawmakers did make an attempt to boost education funding this past legislative session, though extending an already existing tax and punting the issue to Clark County is a piddling effort in my book. That betrays what the real issue is though, doesn’t it? While no one denies that these efforts are well-intended, the sad fact is they’re just treating the symptoms of a much larger disease, at best. Said disease being our system of taxation as a whole.
Most of the state government’s money comes from gaming taxes and various kinds of sales taxes. Part of the reason for that is it forces the multitude of tourists that come through to foot a good chunk of our tax bill, which is nice for the residents. The problem, however, is that this kind of revenue stream is extremely unreliable, especially during a recession where folks are spending less and taking fewer vacations (hence why major cuts to education and other social services were made during the financial crisis eleven years ago). It also means that during an economic downturn, when demand for social services is the highest, funds for those services are the lowest. With some saying another recession is on the horizon, our current budget woes could end up getting even worse if we don’t stop relying on this system.
Sales taxes are also regressive, meaning that those with the lowest incomes tend to bear the brunt of it. A 2015 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that the poorest 20 percent of Nevadans pay more taxes than the richest 1 percent despite the much higher incomes. A 2003 study by the Pew Center on the States went as far as to name Nevada the worst state in the union for tax fairness.
The easy solution to this is to simply become less dependent on these sort of taxes, but that leaves the question of what to replace it with. Many have already pointed out that the obvious option for education funding is to direct the marijuana excise tax revenue directly into the K-12 budget, as was originally intended and as the Legislature facilitated this year.. Another good option is to remove the antiquated portion of Nevada law that allows only the net proceeds of mines to be taxed. For those who don’t know, mining used to be the biggest industry in Nevada, and thanks to some very good lobbying back in the day, mines are given special treatment in not being taxed at their assessed value as all other property is. It’s an old unfair provision that limits a viable source of revenue.
I would also go as far as to suggest further amending the state Constitution to allow for a graduated income tax. While Nevadans have previously expressed contempt for the income tax, the fact that it’ll at least prevent those with the least from being taxed the most could be used to bolster public support. If nothing else, that at least makes it preferable to the status quo.
The bottom line is that there is no excuse for how critically underfunded Nevada is. There’s something wrong with a state that can’t gather enough funds to provide adequate health care access to its citizens. There’s something wrong with a city that has enough wealth for glimmering five-star resorts but can’t provide for the thousands of homeless citizens literally living in their shadow. There’s something wrong with a county that somehow has enough cash to spare for a football stadium while its schools are forced into increasingly difficult budget cuts.
If we want to make it right, we need to embrace changes bigger than the timid half measures and ridiculous tax manipulations the government’s attempted. And we the people of this state, need to step up and be willing to accept the responsibility of making a better Nevada.
Zachary Kenney-Santiwan was born and raised in Las Vegas. He is an undergraduate student studying political science at UNLV, and does volunteer work for various political campaigns and organizations such as the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Human Rights Campaign and Nextgen Nevada. Zachary can be contacted at [email protected]