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Gaming Guru

Scott Wyland
 

Las Vegas room tax plan approved

2 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Voters will be asked in November whether hotels should pay a lodging tax to offset $260 million in reduced funding for local schools expected in the next two years.

Clark County commissioners Tuesday approved a ballot question for the Nov. 4 election that will gauge voters' opinions about imposing a room tax of up to 3 percent on hotels.

The straw ballot and proposed tax were touted as a joint effort between three major casino companies and an education employees' union.

Education advocates hope that enough voters will get behind the room tax to encourage the governor and state lawmakers to support it. Although it's a regional tax, the Legislature must sign off on it.

If approved, it would go into effect July 1, 2009.

"We face tough times," said Terry Hickman, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association. "But we cannot say we cannot change or improve, or that there is nothing we can do. This is a first step."

Harrah's Entertainment, Wynn Las Vegas and Station Casinos were involved in crafting the proposal.

"I think it's terrific that the county commissioners took the position that they've taken," said Marybel Batjer, Harrah's vice president of public policy and communications.

Revenue generated from the tax will initially offset the estimated 14 percent in reduced funding for area schools during the next two-year state budget cycle. After that, the money will be used to improve student achievement and pay teachers' salaries.

It's vital to ensure teaching jobs aren't lost as the Clark County School District continues to grow, said John Jasonek, executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

Education activists recently pushed to amend the state constitution to allow a tax increase on gaming receipts, but that venture drew the ire of gaming companies and would've yielded no funding until after 2011.

The room tax proposal would get money to schools three years sooner without the political turmoil, Jasonek said.

"This has been a forged agreement so we're not going to be fighting the gaming industry," he said. "This is a big hurdle to jump over."

If the tax passes, hotel owners would pay a maximum rate of 3 percent. They might shell out less, depending on lodging taxes they already pay.

The total taxes levied cannot exceed 13 percent of revenue.

So if a hotel pays 10 percent, it could be charged 3 percent under this plan. If the hotel pays 11 percent, then no more than 2 percent could be added.

Although commissioners voted unanimously to put the advisory question on the ballot, a few argued that the tax would be too modest to truly improve the area's schools.

"This is lousy ... but Nevada has a lousy tax system," Commissioner Tom Collins said. "I'll vote for this advisory thing. I do not like liver, but I will eat it before I starve."

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who taught special education in middle schools, said the room tax is far from ideal. She said she'd like to see a broad-based business tax implemented to ensure that school funding is always adequate. That would be better than relying so much on sales taxes, which heavily burden senior citizens and the middle class, she said.

"It's time we recognize we have a duty in this state," Giunchigliani said. "Sometimes it's hard to make those tough decisions."

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said if the majority of voters support the tax, then the next task will be to ensure some of the money goes to older neighborhoods where schools are deteriorating.

"We want some equity," Weekly said.

Commissioner Susan Brager said children should be treated as a high priority.

"I hope that for the first time in our state, we don't just say that children are first, but that we show them they are first," Brager said.