Let voters have a say on mining taxation

As the 81st session of the Legislature barrels toward sine die and the inevitable special sessions to follow, I cannot help but be taken aback by the seeming sudden shyness about putting mining taxation on the ballot in 2022. The COVID special sessions of last summer, held during the worst economic situation in a decade, saw an unprecedented rally to finally address the status of mining taxation and what many, including me, argue is too many generous carve outs and allowances for deductions and taxation on net proceeds.

This goes to the larger challenge of running the Nevada of the 21st century on archaic revenue policies. Wealth and population in our state is no longer tied tight to the mining claims of Northern Nevada. Corporate taxation is often criticized as a job-killer, something that will make businesses leave Nevada and take jobs and their money with them. This argument obviously falls flat when it comes to companies that extract valuable minerals from Nevada. If we change the manner of mining taxation, will mining companies just give up their claims and go elsewhere? I doubt it.

At issue are the three measures passed this past summer: SJR1, AJR1 and AJR2. With 26 days left in the session, these measures have yet to receive a floor vote. I find this frustrating, because when it came time to hastily raise $750 million in tax revenue for the building of Allegiant Stadium, every cliché about the slow work of government was shattered at a record pace. Now that we have no fewer than three possible measures to allow voters to decide on the status of mining taxes in our state, the Legislature is falling into the trap our policymakers always fall into after an economic crisis: deflection.

It is no great secret that Nevada’s tax base needs to expand. The people of Nevada know it every day, and especially after every economic crisis. “Smaller government” is a cool slogan to throw on a t-shirt in election years, but there is real suffering and serious consequences that come with that “small” fact, as Dr. Nancy Brune wrote in The Nevada Independent in October. However, every time we find ourselves on the other side of economic troubles, we back down from the bold talk of diversifying the tax base — until next time, and there is always a next time.

From a political perspective, putting any or all of these measures on the ballot should be an easy choice. Let the people decide. Who in office could argue against the collective wisdom of the Nevada electorate? The Legislature doesn’t have to take a stand on the merits or facts, only send one or more of them to the ballot in 2022. Even if the political class thinks the voters get it wrong because they were not well-informed (see: Regents, Nevada Constitution) they can always bring it back and try again. The fact is, we are way past the era of Nevada as a provincial wide spot on the road. Nevada continues to grow by leaps and bounds but has an outdated taxation formula on an industry that makes profits hand over fist. 

We as Nevadans need to have a larger family discussion on taxation in our state. If we want to continue to live in a state with no personal income tax and low property taxes, we need to raise money from somewhere else. Cutting our way out of economic downturns and shielding mining companies from paying a fair share of taxes is short-sighted and irresponsible. Lawmakers should not be letting our state’s economic future be horse traded away, or worse, preventing us as citizens from having our say. Let the people decide on mining’s future, and if the proverbial “they” — members of the Legislature, mining companies or the governor — are afraid of what people will say about it, well, wouldn’t it still be better to see one of these LCB-reviewed measures pass than see one or more as a future voter referendum? 

It’s time to grow up, Nevada.

Nathaniel Waugh is a member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and a program supervisor at Hope for Prisoners where he focuses on workforce development for dislocated workers and recently released offenders. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from UNLV.