Battles over business taxes nothing new
Taxation in Nevada and the arguments over its policy are not of recent phenomena.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century there was much contention over the best way to raise adequate revenue for the state.
Factional fighting, dominant industries, and governmental experimentation were also features of taxation policy during the first 50 years of the state’s history.
During the Territorial period, which lasted from 1861 to 1864, revenue came from property taxes and a mining tax on gross proceeds of mines.
The gross proceeds tax was far below the rate of the general property tax.
The amount of revenue from these sources were not enough to sustain the Territory so the last Territorial Legislature in 1864 enacted a law taxing mines and mining claims under the provisions of the general property tax being assessed as real estate.
Another revenue source was on a tax on toll roads receipts.
The First Constitutional Convention met in Carson City in 1863 to write a Constitution for the new State of Nevada.
An issue which kept the delegates in session for a lengthy time, was the taxation of mines.
Factional disputes were prevalent between the agricultural interests and the backers of the mining industry.
The former faction favored keeping the gross proceeds of mines tax from the Territorial period while the latter group wanted a net proceeds tax.
The matter was decided in favor of the gross proceeds tax on mines.
Those opposed said this gross proceeds tax would hurt the small miner and the lone prospector, because taxing all mines whether profitable or not would discourage those men who could not afford to pay taxes on mining claims that may never yield any ore.
The chief opponent of the gross proceeds tax was William Stewart who said he stood behind “the poor miner.” However those who favored the gross proceeds tax on mines believed that William Stewart was not standing behind the poor miner but was in fact the mouthpiece for the large corporations and capitalists of San Francisco who controlled the mines on the Comstock.
In 1863 these corporations from California were strongly disliked in Nevada and finally what emerged from the first Constitutional Convention was a gross proceeds tax.
The voters however rejected this State Constitution in 1863 and when a second Constitutional Convention met in 1864 matters had changed in Nevada.
A depression had hit the West and Nevada was suffering from lack of capitol and mine closures.
While the year before there was much sentiment against the influence of California capitalists, in 1864 the people of Nevada needed that money and were willing to make some concessions in order for the mines to be open again.
The Second Constitutional Convention hence included a net-proceeds- of-mines tax provision and as the people of the State of Nevada approved the second constitution the net proceeds tax remained.
The first State Legislature in 1865 passed a revenue act which implemented many different taxes to ensure the new state treasury would have enough revenue for both state and local government.
These taxes included a property tax, a poll tax, a stamp tax, a franchise tax on toll roads, a passenger tax, and a tax on insurance.
Also this first revenue act imposed license taxes for county purposes.
These types of licenses included billiards, bowling alleys, theaters, circuses, saloons, pawnbrokers and peddlers.
Over time in the 19th century these license taxes would be greatly expanded.
These include gambling in 1869, drummers in 1877, hurdygurdy houses in 1887, prize fights in 1897, and licenses for sheep, cigarettes, automobiles for hire, and fishing and hunting all before 1911.
The State of Nevada also accrued revenue from licenses.
These were usually earmarked for specific funds other than the General Fund.
The Secretary of State had corporation fees, the Clerk of the Supreme Court had a docket tax, and there were various other licenses and fees charged by all the constitutional officers.
Some of the taxes passed by 19th century legislatures did not survive judicial scrutiny.
The Nevada Supreme Court declared the tax on drummers unconstitutional in 1887.
And in 1867 the U.S.
Supreme Court declared the passenger tax unconstitutional.
This tax amounted to $1 for each passenger carried from the state by any stagecoach or any other transportation carrier.
Supreme Court declared this tax trespassed on the power of the national government to regulate interstate commerce.
There was contention throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries on the issue of the property tax and the administration of this tax.
The assessment of the property tax was up to the county assessors and in many instances the large property owners evaded paying a proper assessment of their property to the counties and its fair share to the state.
Sometimes this was a deliberate underpaying as in the case of the large railroad corporations or just a county assessor for may reasons could not get around his county to properly assess all the property.
The county assessor would take the property owner’s word for value of his property and improvements made in the last year.
This led to the undervaluation of many properties.
Also big landowners such as railroads and ranch owners had property that occurred in many counties and the assessment would differ from county to county.
The State of Nevada was especially upset at this lack of uniformity in property values and constantly reminded the county assessors of their duty.
Finally the State of Nevada was able to pass through the Legislature of Nevada a law in 1891 that set up a State Board of Equalization to oversee all the property tax assessments in the state.
This Board was made up of elected state officials and they did their best to travel over the state and give these big property owners a uniform assessment.
The revenue poured into the state coffers because of this state board.
However the property owners, who found their taxes greatly increased were able to have this law repealed in 1893.
After the repeal the state officials concerned with revenue continued in their efforts to more properly administer the property tax.
At the turn of the century a new state board was established made up of the county assessors.
It was called the State Board of Assessors and they met once a year to decide the tax rates on the major categories of types of property.
This State Board of Assessors was never seen as a final solution but more of a compromise.
The lack of confidence in this board led to discussion and a citizens committee on a proper solution.
What came out of these discussions was the Nevada Taxation Commission.
It was a commission with experts automatically appointed to it along with appointments by the Governor.
In 1913 this commission was established in statute, and it was believed at the time that this was a solution to the tax administration problem in Nevada and a big step forward in the taxation policy of the Silver State.
Christopher Driggs is an Archivist with the Nevada State Library and Archives.He has been with the State Archives since 1996.
Driggs has written a biography of Nevada Governor Emmet Boyle and also has written on Nevada’s participation in World’s Fairs and Expositions for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
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