Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
For a lawmaker who has been tarred as a tax-and-spend liberal, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus took a step toward rewriting the narrative by voting in committee against her party’s health care bill, saying she opposes the proposed tax hikes on small businesses and upper-income households needed to pay the $1 trillion tab.
The vote was strategic. Titus is the first Democrat to represent the politically split 3rd Congressional District in the Las Vegas suburbs. She won the seat last year having campaigned on her support for health care reform.
Titus has said she wants coverage for the 47 million people nationwide who have no insurance. Nevada has a greater portion of uninsured residents than most states — nearly 500,000 residents, or 18 percent of the population.
But Titus also wants to allay concerns of fiscally conservative voters who are worried about rising government spending and skeptical of her record on taxes.
Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Titus’ no vote in the House Education and Labor Committee allows the freshman congresswoman to burnish her anti-tax credentials among more conservative voters while leaving the door open to support the final bill.
The health care bill making its way through the House proposes taxing upper-income earners — individuals earning more than $280,000 and households with income exceeding $350,000 — to pay for coverage for the uninsured.
The surtax would be tiered to rise with incomes. Households earning $350,000 to $500,000 would face an additional 1 percent tax; those earning $500,000 to $1 million would be taxed 1.5 percent; and those earning more than $1 million would be subject to a 5.4 percent surtax.
Many small-business owners fall in these categories. Additionally, small businesses with more than $250,000 in payroll would be subject to an 8 percent increase in payroll taxes.
Supporters say slightly more than 1 percent of households and 4 percent of small businesses would be hit with the new taxes.
The bill aims to bring in more than $500 billion in revenue to pay for the $1 trillion over 10 years, and cut nearly $500 billion in costs.
But the House’s fiscally conservative Democrats, as well as Titus and other freshmen elected in 2008 from traditionally Republican districts, have been resisting the tax plan.
Last week, on the eve of historic votes in two of the three committees considering the bill, Titus joined more than 20 lawmakers in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in opposition.
“We are extremely concerned that the proposed method of paying for health care reform within this legislation will negatively impact small businesses,” Titus and the others wrote.
On Friday a busload of the recalcitrant lawmakers was sent to the White House for a sit-down with President Barack Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
Titus said she told the president her concerns about the tax plan.
“In Las Vegas, in the suburbs, you have lots of small businesses, small shopping centers, small restaurants,” Titus said.
Titus represents the Southern Nevada expanse beyond the hotels and casinos of the Strip. These neighborhoods are home to a mix of middle-income and affluent households, and some of the region’s attractive planned communities.
While the income thresholds may seem high in some regions, Titus said “in today’s world and our district, it’s not a realistic figure.”
“A family like that probably has two kids in college, a house that’s upside down, a car payment,” she said.
Titus is crafting her views carefully, much the way her predecessor, former Republican Rep. Jon Porter, tried to balance his views as the Republican district began trending Democratic.
Even though Titus beat Porter in 2008, the margin was slim. She will be up for reelection next year in a district where Democrats now outnumber Republicans, but the surge included new Obama voters. Nevada’s Democrats remain more conservative than most.
Elections in her district often turn on independent voters. Those unaffiliated with either party have told national pollsters they are concerned about government spending and the growing national debt.
Titus must show her district she is fiscally prudent, and not the “Dina Taxes” character in opposition campaign ads.
Pelosi has floated the idea of having the surtax apply only to millionaires — taxing those households earning more than $1 million. Titus says she could support that.
“If they have to have a millionaires’ tax, most of my people don’t fit in that category,” Titus said, “and I think would understand the benefit that accrues more than makes up for that.”
In fact, even if the proposed surtax remains at the current income levels once the final bill comes to the floor, she might support it — depending on how the rest of the bill looks.
Her committee vote last week wasn’t the final word.
“I will see what else is in there,” she said. “That wasn’t an indictment of the bill; it was a statement that we can do better.”
So if taxing people earning $280,000 or households earning $350,000 is in the final bill, it’s not a deal breaker?