Nevada Democrats are riding high after this past legislative session. They expanded mail-in voting, banned ghost guns, and decriminalized minor traffic violations.
They also passed Assembly Bill 495, a new tax on the state’s gold and silver mines. It’s a decades-long feat that Democratic leaders say came down to the 11th hour.
But Native Americans say they were left out of those discussions.
“This is the one time, if ever, the tribes should be involved. It just did not happen,” said Brian Mason, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
Mason explained that he and other tribal representatives tried to get involved in the conversation around the new mining tax early on, but had no luck.
Nevada’s 27 federally recognized tribes have their own sovereign governments and don’t directly benefit from state revenue. Still, the proceeds from mining are being pulled directly from their ancestral lands, to which they never gave up their claims.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D–Las Vegas, who shepherded the mining tax through complex negotiations with legislative Republicans and a multibillion-dollar industry, took a victory lap after AB495 was approved with bipartisan votes on the final day of the session.
“It’s historic,” he said after the legislative session ended. “I’m proud to be a part of making history and investing in our kids and education.”
Frierson and the Assembly Democratic Caucus did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The mining industry estimates the new tax could generate more than $300 million over the next two years — all of which will eventually go to funding public schools.
The fight to increase taxes on the state’s lucrative mining industry has been going on for decades. The industry benefits from a constitutionally mandated flat tax rate of 5 percent on net proceeds — meaning they can deduct business costs to reduce that liability even further.
During a special legislative session last summer, Democrats tried to pass mining tax reform, but lacked the two-thirds supermajority they needed to get the bill approved. So they passed three proposed constitutional amendments that would have let voters decide whether to change the industry’s tax rate.
The Clark County Education Association added to the pressure by introducing two ballot initiatives that would have raised sales and gaming taxes to increase education funding. Union officials explained it was an effort to force mining companies to the negotiating table.
So when lawmakers reconvened for the regular session in February, Frierson said he held regular conversations with interested parties in hopes of hammering out a deal.
“I’m proud to have partnered with folks like the mining industry themselves. But also teachers, gaming industry, parents, I think the entire community,” he said. “We all met on a weekly basis all session to come together so we could make informed decisions.”
But according to Mason, tribal members didn’t have a chance to talk to Frierson until less than three weeks before the end of the session.
During the bill’s first public hearing, Mason told lawmakers that tribes were “locked out” of the conversation.
“State tax dollars, for the most part, stop at the reservation line,” he told lawmakers.
When he finally met with the Assembly speaker, Mason said the conversation went nowhere.
“We were told it was too late for the tribes to testify,” he said. “He agreed with everything that I had to say, and that the tribes were correct, but it was too late.”
According to a recent article in The Nevada Independent, behind-the-scenes negotiations continued until the bill passed on May 31.
Frierson and the Assembly Democratic Caucus did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the meeting with Mason.
Tyre Gray, president of the Nevada Mining Association and one of the key negotiators in the deal, said the task of deciding how to distribute proceeds from the new tax is ultimately up to elected officials.
“Mining has no control over how the Legislature goes about allocating revenue,” he said. “But when you speak directly, specifically about tribal relations, we pride ourselves as an industry on being one of the leaders in regards to driving tribal relations.”
Mason says Gray is correct — as long as the mining industry invests time and energy into those relationships.
Mason previously worked for the mining company Barrick as a negotiator with tribal governments. Barrick is headquartered in Toronto, but operates the largest single gold-producing complex in the world in Northern Nevada.
He says while he was in the industry, he often traveled to Canada, where many mining companies are headquartered. He modeled his approach to tribal relations on the benefit-sharing agreements they had with First Nations people up north, which he says are much fairer than the deals usually seen in Nevada.
But ultimately, he believes it should be up to the government to make sure Native American communities get a fair shake.
“If you’re going to do it, it should be all the mining companies and the benefits should be shared with all the tribes,” he said. “The best way to do it is through the tax.”
He said he would have liked to see a 2 percent fee added to the final deal that led to AB495, which would have gone directly to tribal governments. That’s not much for an industry that reported more than $7.6 billion in gross revenues for 2019, he argued, but it would go a long way to improving conditions on reservations like his.
“We could get the heater fixed in our school, so that 8-year-old kid doesn’t have to spend all day with a jacket on, trying to stay warm,” he said. “It would give us hope. And that’s just right, it’s just what’s fair.”
Now that the mining tax has been adopted by the state legislature, Mason says he and other tribal advocates are planning to pursue their own deal through the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada.
Brian Mason, enrolled member, Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation; Tyre Gray, president, Nevada Mining Association