Why that poll on taxes doesn't mean much

The Retailers Association of Nevada on Thursday released a survey that touched on a variety of issues, including taxes.

The poll seems to show that voters are divided over the teachers union's margin tax, which RAN opposes. But that's really not what it illuminates, although it does bring other phenomena to light.

It's worth noting that the poll, conducted by Moore Information of 500 Nevada voters in late September, was withdrawn by the Associated Press late Thursday because Moore is a GOP pollster apparently not up to wire service standards. That's somewhat odd considering the firm's clients -- and plenty of partisan pollsters do good work. -- and that the actual sample skews Democratic. The respondents were 10 percent more Democratic than Republican, about 2 percentage points more than the actual registration difference and much higher than what the makeup of the November 2014 electorate is likely to be. Republicans traditionally turn out in much higher numbers in off years (just ask Pat Hickey).

That established, here are some basic takeaways:

1. The margin tax questions were odd, to say the least.

Here's the first one:

The Education Initiative would create an additional two percent tax on gross revenues on all non-gaming businesses whose gross revenues exceed one million dollars. Please tell me which of the following statements about this proposal comes closest to your own opinion about the Initiative.

Some (other) people say the additional tax on non-gaming revenues will generate needed revenues to support education and this form of business tax is necessary to improve our schools.

Other people say that this additional tax on non-gaming revenues will increase unemployment and cause some already struggling businesses to fail since it applies even to businesses that are not profitable, and it will also harm efforts to attract new businesses to Nevada.

Which statement comes closest to your own opinion?

The strange insertion of the phrase "non-gaming revenues" instead of a previously used "general business tax" might have led some respondents to think casinos are exempt from the tax when many resorts will pay a lot. That could have added to the NO answers.

The second question was bizarre, too:

There is nothing in the Education Initiative requiring that the funds raised by the margin tax have to be spent on education. After hearing this, are you more likely or less likely to vote for the Education Initiative, or does it make no difference to you?

Really? Well, of course almost half of respondents said they would be less likely. I'm shocked it wasn't more. Maybe RAN was just testing that anti-margin tax message. (It is, however, one of the flaws in the initiative, many people, even adherents, believe.)

These questions tell us little or nothing about where the electorate is positioned on the margin tax. RAN's Bryan Wachter told me the group didn;t do a horse race question because "we felt that others had done that already, and with limited space, we wanted to drill deeper into the issue." But there really isn't much data out there, and it wouldn't tell us much anyhow. After messages are tested, after campaign war chests are filled, then we will have a better idea of whether TEI will win or lose.

2. Nevadans don't hate taxes as much as you might think. Consider this question:

And, do you think that raising taxes or fees on businesses will harm Nevada's attempt to diversify the economy and attract new businesses to the state, or do you think that raising taxes or fees will have little impact on the state'sability to attract new businesses?

The results: 52 percent said it would harm the economy while 43 percent said it will have little impact. Not only should that be heartening to the teachers, but consider this: That 43 percent number was the highest in two and a half years, up 6 percentage points from February.

3. Finally, this question made me wince:

Thinking more about Nevada’s tax system:

Some (other) people say that Nevada needs to significantly change its tax system to become less dependent on gaming and sales taxes, and more stable, by requiring more businesses to pay additional taxes. They say every time there is a downturn in the national economy, the casinos are hurt and consumers spend less money, which ends up hurting the state budget.

Other (some) people say that Nevada’s tax system generally works well. They say times are unusually hard across the country, as most other states have major budget problems too. Making all businesses pay more in taxes will only end up increasing the state’s unemployment rate and budget shortfall.

Which statement comes closest to your own opinion?

Not surprisingly, 54 percent said the tax system works well while only 39 percent says it needs adjustment. Once again, the question is written in such a way to elicit sympathy for casinos, which is in short supply, and by telling voters businesses could be hurt and that all states have problems, the die is cast.

Bottom line: On tax questions, we learned little from this poll. We need a margin tax horse race and more education about the potential benefits and consequences.

I'm sure we will get that from Democratic lawmakers.