Republicans angry that Nevada lawmakers approved a $1.1 billion tax package this spring, just months after voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax hike on the ballot, are launching efforts to repeal it and kick some of its backers out of office.
Activists have already set up several fundraising organizations and plan to file paperwork for a ballot referendum and recall as soon as Monday, the first day they’re allowed to do so.
“The public overwhelmingly said ‘no’ to a gross receipts-style tax,” said Republican Nevada Controller Ron Knecht, who’s helping coordinate the efforts. He publicly opposed the taxes during the legislative session and presented an alternative budget that failed to gain traction.
“I’m all for trying to restore voter confidence and make sure people’s voices are heard,” he said.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval led the effort to raise and extend taxes as a way to fund major education initiatives targeted toward children in poverty, English language learners and other at-risk groups. Among other things, the money will fund signing bonuses aimed at tackling a critical teacher shortage, will help keep the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Medical School project on track for its 2017 opening date and will support the state’s first need-based college scholarship.
The popular governor, with public support from the biggest businesses in the state, won over enough members of the Republican-controlled Legislature to clear the two-thirds majority hurdle needed to raise taxes. He called attempts to reverse the plan “a wrongheaded attack on the children and families of Nevada.”
“I strongly oppose the petition. Its passage will destroy a generational opportunity to finally modernize and improve an underperforming education system,” Sandoval said. “If our schools don’t improve, businesses won’t come here. The time is now to build the workforce of the future.”
The three-part package permanently instates temporary taxes first passed in 2009, and raises the rate of the existing payroll tax. A small portion of the revenue comes from the controversial new Commerce Tax, which is applied to gross revenue for businesses that make more than $4 million a year; rates vary by industry.
Proponents say the commerce tax is a much more refined and downsized version of Question 3, the teacher union-backed measure that flopped at the ballot box in November, but opponents say its passage is in direct contradiction to the will of voters and is a slippery slope toward higher taxes.
“The idea is that it’s a lot smaller,” Knecht said. “But in future sessions, we’ve got this vehicle ready-made to increase the tax take.”
Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, one of 10 Republicans who opposed the measure, requested legislative staff draft three versions of a potential repeal referendum. Two groups, the NV80 PAC and the 501(4)c nonprofit Priorities Nevada, are deciding which version they’ll use and are considering coordinating to get the approximately 55,000 signatures they’ll need to get it on the ballot either for the June 2016 primary or the November 2016 general election, Knecht said.
The repeal efforts come as Republican organizations have vowed to replace Assembly members who voted for the tax and are up for re-election in 2016. There’s also a push to recall at least one lawmaker who’s not up for re-election until 2018: High-ranking Northern Nevada Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer.
“He did not support the principles the Republican Party is known for,” said Roger Haynes, chair of the Carson City Republican Central Committee, who’s been working on the recall effort. “Having the ‘R’ after your name means something. That’s why we feel we have to defend our brand, our reputation.”
It’s a long shot. No state lawmaker has been successfully recalled since at least 1993, and the latest attempt to pull a legislator out of office — a recall petition this spring against Republican Assembly Speaker John Hambrick — garnered less than 7 percent of the signatures it needed just to make it to the ballot.
“We’re very much aware that past efforts have not succeeded, and there’s a certain amount of arrogance in the Capitol because of that,” Haynes said.
Kieckhefer defended his conservative credentials, pointing to a sweeping school choice bill he helped advance, collective bargaining changes that give local governments more flexibility to reopen union contracts in financial crises, and public pension changes expected to save the state $1 billion over 10 years.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished during the 2015 legislative session,” he said. “We passed a balanced budget that’s responsive to the needs of Nevadans while maintaining one of the smallest state governments in the country on a per capita basis. I think that on balance, that’s quite a success.”
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