Last fall, the teachers union in Clark County collected 400,000 signatures for two ballot measures to raise taxes to boost school funding.
One would increase the sales tax in Clark County, and the other would increase the gaming industry’s top-tier tax. If state lawmakers do nothing about them, voters will say yes or no in the next general election.
John Vellardita is the executive director of the Clark County Education Association. He explained that the union had a plan for the tax increases before the coronavirus pandemic started.
The union was concerned that the state would not pursue new revenue streams ahead of the 2022 election when Gov. Steve Sisolak would be up for re-election.
“So, we targeted two revenue pieces. One was the local school support tax that is part of the sales tax," he said, “So, we proposed a 1.5 percent increase that would go directly into K through 12 that amounts to about a billion bucks a year of revenue for schools.”
He said the $1 billion mark is not an arbitrary number but is based on three different studies that looked at what it would take to move the needle on Nevada's school system.
The second proposal would boost taxes on gaming revenue over $250,000 by 3 percent. Vellardita noted that Nevada currently has the lowest gaming tax rate of any state.
“We targeted them because we knew that gaming had to be part of the discussion. They had to be at the table,” he said.
The gaming tax increase would produce around $300 million a year, but it would not go directly to schools. Instead, it would go to the state's general fund.
The tax increases were purposed before the pandemic hit the state. Vellardita said the union considered whether it was an appropriate time to start increasing taxes when the economy was essentially shut down.
But since diversify the economy has become such an obvious necessity and since diversification depends so heavily on an educated workforce, the union felt there was no better time to get more money for the education system.
“We essentially said, ‘listen, this is all the more reason why we have to change Nevada's economy," he said, "We have to diversify it, attract different types of businesses and industries so we’re not dependant on these two industries of gaming and tourism and we have a much more stable revenue system.”
He said all 400,000 signatures for the ballot measures were collected during the pandemic.
Of course, there was push back to the tax ideas at a time when the state’s economy is faltering. However, Vellardita believes the union and the business community can find some common ground, especially around workforce development strategies.
"We're engaged with them," he said "We've made it clear to them that we're not wed to these revenue streams that we've purposed, but in the alternative, we need to have something different than what we currently have."
So far, Vellardita said leadership in Carson City has not shown interest in the union's proposal. He believes that instead of trying to find more revenue, lawmakers may stick with the status quo.
"In other words, let's deal with our budget by making cuts and trimming programs," he said.
He said the union hopes that is not what happens.
Vellardita said he would like to see the state revenue issue worked out by lawmakers, but if it isn't, he is prepared for the union's ballot measures to go to the voters - and he believes the voters will support the increases.
"You ask anybody who has been unemployed, particularly a working-class person who has been unemployed for six months, hasn't gotten their unemployment check and has a household full of kids that are not learning under this current distance learning model, whether or not their future for their kids and their family is dependant on passing revenue to improve these schools and we're confident they're going to land on the right issue," he said.
One of the big complaints about a sales tax is that it is regressive, meaning it impacts the people who can least afford it more than people with more money.
Vellardita admits that is the case, but he said for middle and higher-income people the increase the union is purposing would only cost about 58 cents a day.
"We would say: What's more regressive? Fifty-eight cents a day or a classroom of 40 or 50 kids, no textbooks, no chairs to sit on, no social workers, no psychologists, no support systems," he said, "We would say that's regressive - that current system."
Besides pushing for more money through tax increases, the union also commissioned a study on diversifying the state's economy.
Vellardita said the report looked for industries, outside of gaming and tourism, that were already in Nevada that had a chance for growth.
"This report identified four areas, and then what can the state do, what can lawmakers do, around passing policy and legislation to support that growth and that's what the paper identified," he said.
The three areas the report said lawmakers could make a difference in diversification were workforce development, infrastructure and incentives.
John Vellardita, executive director, Clark County Education Association