Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Tax increases have long been considered the third rail of Nevada politics.
But steep cuts in government and pay reductions for public employees, including teachers, as Gov. Jim Gibbons calls for in the budget he unveiled last week, come with their own political risks.
A poll conducted early last week and paid for by the state teachers union concluded that those cuts are more unpopular with Nevadans than raising some taxes.
In the statewide survey of 507 likely voters, 22 percent had a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of cutting state and public school employee salaries by 6 percent. Freezing pay received 39 percent approval. And cutting benefits got 20 percent approval.
Some tax increases, meanwhile, got approval ratings in the high 60s to 70s.
Releasing a poll is, of course, a time-honored way to get information out to influence a debate. The poll, paid for by the Nevada State Education Association, was done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. (SourceWatch.org identifies the polling firm as having ties to the Democratic Party.)
Even if some argue the support for raising taxes is inflated by the pollster, it’s informative to see which tax proposals did the best. The most popular were higher levies on alcohol and cigarettes (72 percent), on businesses netting more than $250,000 a year (69 percent) and on gaming (69 percent). Even with gaming in the tank, the public doesn’t give it a break.
The least popular taxes were to take away exemptions so all businesses pay more (46 percent) and to tax mining (48 percent). Have Nevadans reinvested their 401(k)s in gold?
Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, says the poll confirms that Gibbons’ way to balance the budget — cutting without minimal increases in revenue — is not only wrong, but unpopular.
“The public doesn’t want to support cuts to pay and benefits for teachers,” Warne said. “We continually hear from the public and voters in the state that they do not want to see education cut.”
Gibbons’ approval rating was at 25 percent in the poll. The approval rating for the state Legislature was 30 percent.
To some Republicans — even those who don’t take the poll at face value — the results could reflect a new truth in Nevada politics. The electorate is more moderate than it was two years ago, or in 2003, during the last tax battle.
“We can’t run out and tell these newly engaged, newly energized voters that they’re just wrong. We can’t tell them we need to make these arch-conservative draconian cuts,” one Republican insider said.
This is the view of many Republicans, including in the state Senate. They will agree to negotiate on some votes, even on higher taxes, to get some “long-term conservative principles” in the legislation.
“Steep cuts, strict accountability need to be tied to increases in revenue,” the source said. “That’s something constituents are looking for. Not just sitting in a little tent complaining that they can’t get anything passed.”
Others, though, see that as a dead end for the party. These Republicans, who tend to be more ideological, argue that Gibbons didn’t go far enough in his budget because he included a voter-approved room tax increase for Clark and Washoe counties.
They dismiss polls showing the public would rather raise taxes than cut services or salaries.
Republicans have lost their conservative ways, and that’s why they got trounced at the ballot box in November, they say.
Robert Uithoven, Gibbons’ former campaign manager and a Republican campaign operative, said of the poll: “I believe the numbers, but I also believe polls can be written to give you the numbers you are seeking.”
Chuck Muth, the conservative activist who is the de facto spokesman for the anti-tax movement and has the ear of some Assembly Republicans, said he welcomes the poll. He pointed out that neither Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley nor Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, both Democrats, have presented any alternative to the governor’s plan that would include tax increases.
Indeed, to know how toxic taxes are, Buckley and Horsford spent months holding town hall meetings to highlight the state’s fiscal troubles without talking about raising taxes.
Of course, that was before the teachers’ poll showed how popular they’ve become.
The full poll can be viewed at lasvegassun.com.