MY COLUMN: The margin tax dilemma

Rarely will voters be confronted with a more abysmal choice in November and on the most important contest on the ballot.

When it comes to the margin tax, Nevadans will have to choose between relying on a school-funding measure that was poorly constructed and could have deleterious effects on the economy and leaving the task in the hands of a dithering, invertebrate Gang of 64, a k a the governor and the Legislature.

This is not a lesser of two evils or pick your poison choice; this is asking voters the equivalent of betting that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series or that the Buffalo Bills will take the Super Bowl.

One offers the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, of an enhanced K-12 system at the potential cost of economic prosperity, with the latter negating the former. The other offers the near-certainty of tossing the funding problem into the Carson City black hole, where the chances are virtually nil that anything will ever emerge. It is a choice between a huge gamble that the pros will outweigh the cons and a bienially paralyzed group that never fails to disappoint.

I am tempted to say, as I did a year and a half ago, that voting for the flawed tax makes more sense than trusting the Gang of 63 because whatever harm "The Education Initiative" may do to the economy is outweighed by the near-impossibility that the Legislature will do anything. Ever.

But think about how insane that sounds: Take a chance on sticking a knife in a recovering economy because the elected officials won’t do their jobs?

I blame a lot of people for the cancerous neglect over decades that has brought us to this impossible choice, and chief among them are some members of the coalition trying to defeat this tax. Although it’s true that the gaming industry, partly (mostly?) out of self-interest, has supported broadening the tax base and infusing money into education for many years, the Big Business folks, a k a the “Just Say No” caucus, have paid virtually nothing forever and mastered the art of saying they will take a seat at the tax table and then not showing up.

And while I understand, based on the research conducted by numbers maven Jeremy Aguero, why some of these folks are worried about the margin tax, I find it incomprehensible and reprehensible that they think it is responsible to paint an apocalyptic picture of what will happen if it passes while providing no alternative. None.

“We all want to improve our schools, but the Margin Tax Initiative is not the solution,” the coalition’s first news release said. Oh, please.

And when I tried to elicit what they would support as an alternative when spokeswoman Karen Griffin appeared on “Ralston Reports” last week, she changed the subject faster than you can say, “Let them eat cake.”

I am glad Mr. Murren will go to Carson City, but it will take more than one gaming executive. Indeed, the only way to get something enacted to broaden the tax base – and even this is a long shot depending on the legislative matrix –  is if this politically potent coalition were to propose another way and commit to going to Carson City in 2015 to get it done.

Without that promise – and yes, I know few will believe it – I can understand why many people, including some frustrated progressives and education advocates – would blindly and reflexively support the margin tax. Right now, it is the only solution out there to a badly underfunded K-12 system that, despite crowing about increased graduation rates and despite the herculean efforts of new state Superintendent Dale Erquiaga, needs help.

Thus, I feel sick.

I am sick of the hollow rhetoric on this issue that I have heard for decades.

I am sick of the lack of leadership, from governors to lawmakers to business leaders.

I am sick of facile arguments against taxes used in campaigns and during legislative sessions.

I am sick of the sophistry of presenting this as a binary choice between reform and money.

I am sick of the teachers union doing its holier-than-thou act, when it could easily have mimicked the .8 percent rate in a previous iteration and not proposed one two and half times as high.

I am sick of the AFL-CIO, because of personality politics but also because of legitimate worries about jobs, not thinking it has to present another idea.

I am sick of the moneyed folks crying wolf for so many years about the economic destruction a business tax would bring  (and sicker still that the wolf may finally have arrived in the form of the margin tax).

I am sick of watching well-intentioned lawmakers help pave the way to the hellish choice we now have.

I am sick of watching the Clark County School District grind up superintendents who have impossible jobs and limited resources to deal with problems, especially a debilitating English Language Learner conundrum that is fast becoming an impediment to all students’ success.

I am sick of the forces on the Left screaming that this is the only answer, that mining and gaming are greedy and that the tax axe must fall.

I am sick of the forces on the Right mouthing facile rhetoric about school choice and vouchers and charter schools, as if eviscerating the public school system is the answer.

It’s well past time for a governor, who has no threat to his reelection, to lend his bully pulpit to this effort. It’s well past time for legislators to actually show some sign they might keep their pledges. And it's well past time for the louder private sector voices in the state to stop just saying no and propose an answer.

This is not just about education, either; it is about the long-term stability of the Nevada economy and the quality of life in the state. And until the Forces of No provide a concrete alternative to the margin tax and a plan to get it passed, I don’t blame anyone for gambling that the doomsayers are wrong and that The Education Initiative is the only way forward.