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August 29, 2014

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Study: Margin tax could compel competing businesses to file taxes jointly

Nevada businesses may see more than a hike on their tax returns if voters approve the margin tax in November, according to an analysis by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank opposed to the tax.

The group’s new report, titled “An Affiliated Nightmare,” claims businesses may have to file joint tax returns with their direct competitors if the ballot measure becomes law.

The report is the latest yarn in a political battle over education funding and corporate taxation. The margin tax, also known as the Education Initiative, would bring a 2 percent tax on businesses with $1 million or more in gross revenues. It is expected to generate about $700 million in revenue for Nevada’s public education, according to one study.

It’s expected to cost the state 9,000 private sector jobs and $413 million in employee wages, according to research by the Coalition to Defeat the Tax Margin Initiative.

The NPRI study paints a picture of a tax landscape in which competing businesses in the same industry or supply chain would become strange bedfellows on their tax returns and may be forced to disclose financial information and share liability with other companies, said Geoffrey Lawrence, author of the study.

Proponents of the tax initiative brushed off the study.

“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a long time,” Education Initiative spokesman Dan Hart said. “This is just another attempt by NPRI to distort the facts and do the bidding of their corporate donors and spread scare tactics.”

Defined as an “affiliated group,” companies with two or more business entities controlled by one or more common owners would be susceptible to filing jointly with other companies, according to the study.

In layman’s terms, according to an example in the NPRI report, that means firms with a single stockholder in common could be considered an affiliated group.

Despite the measure’s current language, state tax regulators will have a chance to fine-tune the margin tax if voters approve it, Hart said.

“Certainly what they’re saying will not occur,” he said.

NPRI and Lawrence aren’t as optimistic. The state may hit legal roadblocks if it tries to retroactively change the language of a ballot measure approved by the electorate.

“Any hopes that Nevada's tax department could ‘fix’ this provision are misguided: Regulators cannot write rules that directly violate the statutory requirements they’ve been handed,” Lawrence wrote in the report.

Supporters of the measure haven’t seen backing from sources that were likely to champion the tax. Aside from the state teachers union — the Nevada State Education Association — organized labor is turning its back to the tax, and Democrats are doing the same. Last week, assemblywoman and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores and the AFL-CIO spoke out against the measure.

It’s rare in Nevada for a complex tax issue to land on the ballot. Both critics and proponents of the initiative say it's something the Legislature should have done in 2013.

But the current climate in the Capitol doesn’t make passing any tax measure easy, said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at UNLV.

Tax measures need a two-thirds majority to pass in the Legislature. Democrats don’t want to vote for taxes that will get killed, “and Republicans are asking for the moon for considering a new tax,” Damore said.

“The two-thirds vote makes it almost impossible for the Legislature to move on this,” he said.

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