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Ed Vogel

Gaming tax hike petitions in works

4 April 2008

CARSON CITY, Nevada -- The head of the state teachers union said Thursday that her organization will begin immediately to circulate a petition that would let voters decide whether to increase the gaming tax rate to benefit education.

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said she was thrilled that acting Judge Miriam Shearing threw out challenges to the petition filed by gaming industry lawyers.

The association must collect 58,836 signatures by May 20 to place it before voters in November.

Under the petition, the gaming tax rate, now 6.75 percent, would increase to 9.75 percent. The additional 3 percentage points would raise $250 million to $400 million a year.

The petition specifies the additional revenue would be spent on higher pay for teachers and other school employees, except for administrators, and on programs to improve student achievement.

Nevada Resort Association President Bill Bible did not return a call late Thursday for comment. But following the hearing Monday before Shearing, Bible said his organization might appeal an unfavorable decision to the state Supreme Court.

Warne said she expects that will happen.

"It is a delaying tactic," she said. "The gamers are going to do everything they can to keep this off the ballot, because they know voters will pass it."

A poll by the Review-Journal last fall found more than 2-to-1 support for the plan to tax gaming at a higher rate to pay for improving education.

Warne said the NSEA has no choice but to start circulating petitions now, because the deadline to submit signatures is less than six weeks away. If the Supreme Court were to change a single word on the petition, then any signatures the NSEA collects would be voided.

Since the union is trying to amend the state constitution, the petition must be approved by voters in November and again in 2010. The higher tax would not be implemented before 2011.

The union's lawyer, Mike Dyer, said Shearing, a retired Supreme Court justice acting as a district judge, rejected arguments by the Nevada Resort Association and Las Vegas Sand that the petition violated a state law limiting petitions to a single subject.

Dyer said Shearing found the plan to increase salaries and improve student achievement is "functionally equivalent and germane to each other." The law permits petitions that contain several items as long as they meet the functionally equivalent requirement.

In her 12-page opinion, Shearing said it is clear the NSEA regards teacher quality and student achievement as "inextricably intertwined."

Only three months ago, Shearing threw out a similar NSEA petition on the grounds it violated the single-subject rule. That petition specified in detail how the revenue would be spent. For example, 40 percent of the funds under the first petition would have gone to salaries, 20 percent for incentive pay and 40 percent for reducing class sizes, covering out-of-pocket expenses by teacher and other items.

After that decision, the NSEA filed the second petition, which does not specify what percentage of funds would go for salaries and for student achievement programs.

While the gaming industry quickly challenged the second petition, this time Shearing found no reason to prevent it from being circulated.

"This time it was not confusing," Warne said. "She has given us a clean bill. We are going to move forward."