Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The top two Democrats in the Legislature are talking about taxes.
Indeed, as the legislative session enters week two, Democrats have held committee hearings and news conferences to have the promised discussion on taxes.
But so far, it’s come down to just that: Talk.
In a 10-minute news conference on tax reform Tuesday, Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis uttered the world “discussion” a dozen times. But they revealed little on their positions for what shape that reform might take.
Instead, the pair said they want to have a come-one, come-all data-driven discussion about what kind of state Nevada could and should be and how much taxpayers should should help pay for that vision.
Denis said the three broad objectives are to “create jobs, make education better and fix our failing revenue system.
“What we're trying to do is make the case for why we need to do what we need to do,” Denis said.
In a committee hearing later that afternoon, Democrats began building that case, taking on Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to extend temporary tax increases another two years and his call for a payroll tax cut.
“What I took away from this is that 75 percent of businesses don’t have skin in the game,” Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, D-Las Vegas, said during a hearing on Nevada’s payroll tax and Sandoval’s proposal to exempt another 2,883 businesses from paying it.
Republican leaders have expressed a willingness to join in the tax discussions early, and have indicated support for broadening the state’s tax base.
“Change,” Kirkpatrick said of broadening the state’s tax structure. “Hold me to that.”
“We need to look at broadening the revenue structure in a revenue-neutral manner,” said Senate Republican leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. “We have a generally flat budget this session, and we’ll learn to live with that.”
All four leaders in the Legislature are new to their positions this year and have expressed an unusual desire to work together and have policy-oriented meetings.
“In the past, I don’t know that it was so open,” Kirkpatrick said.
Democrats have sprinted forward with tax hearings during the first and second week of the Legislature, but they are absent a tax plan. The choice word this week is still “discussion.”
Kirkpatrick said these conversations extend to Sandoval, a Republican, as well.
“He said we can meet on a weekly basis,” she said.
But openness doesn't necessarily mean agreement.
Although Denis wants to examine a margins tax proposal that the state teachers union hopes to pass on the ballot in 2014, Roberson said that’s a nonstarter — a position akin to that of Kirkpatrick.
“You’re not going to get a single Republican vote to support the margins tax,” Roberson said.
Sandoval has consistently said that he will not support spending beyond what he has proposed in his $6.55 billion budget. But he’s also indicated a willingness to look at a tax reform plan if one is presented to him.
“I think we do need to make the case to Sandoval,” Kirkpatrick conceded.
Democrats want at least $60 million more for public education programs than the governor, offering more schools all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes.
They would have to find money somewhere to pay for those goals.
Kirkpatrick said data will drive the debate.
Holding a sheet of data in her hand in her office Tuesday, she said Sandoval’s proposal to exempt more businesses from the payroll tax would mean only one in four businesses would pay the tax.
“It’s harder to refute because I’ve got the facts,” she said.
Kirkpatrick and Denis also said this week they would like to talk about cementing some temporary taxes into the state’s tax structure, which would give the state more stability.
“We're not giving anybody any stability for trying to put new programs in place,” she said. “In two years, those come up, and they're now on the chopping block.
“Folks want stability and right now they don’t have any stability.”
Kirkpatrick asked Sandoval’s budget director, Jeff Mohlenkamp, what the governor plans to do with $1.2 billion in temporary taxes and diversions — almost 20 percent of total general fund spending — when the state crafts another budget two years from now.
“We don't know if the extensions will need to be extended again,” Mohlenkamp told a legislative tax committee. “We'll have to wait and see.”