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December 18, 2014

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Legislature:

A candid Senate showman takes the gavel

Bob Coffin, head of tax panel, unafraid to tell a joke or a truth

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Sam Morris

State Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, presents a box Tuesday that he said held tax suggestions he’s received as the new tax committee chairman.

Second Day of the Legislature

Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, asks a question during a meeting of the Interim Finance Committee in Carson City Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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Beyond the Sun

The savvy shell game being played by legislative leaders here — both Democrat and the occasional Republican — is to pretend a tax increase may not be required to close the state’s $2.3 billion budget hole, and to instead insist they are following a deliberative, thoughtful process as they overhaul the budget and create a long-term plan for a better Nevada.

Sen. Bob Coffin, the Las Vegas Democrat, isn’t exactly on board.

The new chairman of the Senate tax committee is quite blunt about the direction the committee will move in the next two months, even as legislative leaders look the other way.

“The budget is inadequate, and we need more money,” he said in a brief interview after his committee’s inaugural meeting Tuesday.

A wry lobbyist summed it up: “You can always count on Coffin to be off-message.”

Coffin is known variously as iconoclastic teller of hard truths, a windbag and a court jester, sometimes all at once by the same person.

In 2007 he railed on the Senate floor against the trucking industry for failing to contribute enough tax money for road construction, much to the irritation of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio.

Then, he was a joke. Now, he’s chairman.

Even before the first meeting, Coffin was busy making news. He recently said he’d consider — though only consider — suggestions that brothels be taxed, and that prostitution in Clark and Washoe counties be legalized, regulated and taxed.

Coffin’s first turn with the gavel since Democrats took control with their 2008 victory didn’t disappoint. He had a wry grin on his face, as if the prospect of raising the taxes on the state’s scofflaws gave him no small joy.

“Welcome to the 2009 version of ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ ” he began. Although he heads the tax committee, it isn’t clear what role Coffin would play in a final Senate deal, which is expected to be crafted by Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Minority Leader Bill Raggio.

Coffin said that despite his new role of chairman, “I’m not gonna stop being Bob,” which, to the several lobbyists gathered in the room, must have seemed as much like a threat as it did reassurance.

He introduced two members of the staff and told them not to accept dinners from lobbyists. “But the chairman can accept in their stead.”

Then it was down to the business of taxes and who will pay more: “Gaming, mining … all will be considered. We all have a lot of friends in these industries … They’ve been our supporters. In these tough times we have to say, ‘Can you do more?’ ”

He did offer some small solace to the various interest groups assembled in the audience: The Legislature should consider sunset provisions to make new taxes go away when the state’s fiscal crisis clears, he said.

To close the hearing, Coffin said he’d heard a lot of good suggestions on taxes. His favorites were collected in a box he presented, marked “NIMBY,” for “not in my back yard.” In other words, many have suggested taxes to Coffin, but always taxes on someone else.

Good luck with that, people.

Sen. Randolph Townsend, a Reno Republican who also sits on the committee, had a rotund unlit cigar in his mouth as he expressed his fondness for his longtime colleague: “Everyone has a right to their own personality.”

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