Cathleen Allison / AP
Published Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | 11:16 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | 1:54 p.m.
CARSON CITY — Senate lawmakers passed Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax plan this morning, pushing the bill past its first hurdle in the Nevada Legislature and beginning what’s expected to be an incendiary battle in the Assembly.
It passed by a 17-4 vote, easily clearing the two-thirds requirement necessary for tax measures. Republican Sens. Pete Goicoechea, Donald Gustavson, Scott Hammond and James Settelmeyer voted no on the bill, SB252.
For Republicans, the governor’s call to raise $438 million in taxes a year is something unseen since 2003 — the year the state implemented a payroll tax on businesses.
Sandoval had the backing of the Senate leadership and the party’s moderate lawmakers, who have supported the bill as a way to bolster the state’s education system and economic development efforts.
The unanimous approval by Democrats was not a surprise. But pundits expected party members to hold out longer as a way to leverage concessions on other measures.
Democrats said a series bills that would interfere with voter registration, early voting and the ballot initiative process will either die or be significantly changed in return for their support on Sandoval’s tax measure.
Sandoval is one of at least 10 Republican governors nationwide supporting tax hikes, and the effort here has done more to divide an already-split Nevada GOP.
No Republican lawmaker pushed harder for the measure than Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson. He’s spent weeks counting votes to gauge whether the chamber could win 14 or more votes to overcome the supermajority requirement.
“Change is never easy, and it has been easy for the naysayers to criticize. Fine, let them,” he said. “Today, we are poised to help Nevada grow up as a state and do the tough things the people of Nevada expect of us.”
The majority of Roberson’s naysayers are in the GOP’s no-new-tax wing.
Many of those critics refer to the governor’s plan as a rehashed version of the margin tax ballot initiative that 80 percent of voters killed in the November election. The margin tax was a 2 percent tax on the gross revenues on businesses and was expected to raise more than $800 million a year.
Sandoval’s plan taxes businesses at varying rates and is estimated to raise more than $430 million a year. The governor’s measure is a broad-based, revamped version of an existing business license fee.
Conservative senators didn’t shy away from comparing Sandoval’s plan to the margin tax and expressed concerns about scaring away business.
In dissenting from Sandoval, they are straying from the state’s most popular and powerful Republican.
“It takes courage to get up and say, ‘No, I am not going to support the governor’s bill on taxes,’” Sen. Donald Gustavson, R-Sparks, said. “I have to do what I believe is correct.”
The Senate’s vote on taxes is one of few areas where the chamber’s 10 Democrats agreed with the majority party.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said he’s been waiting a decade to see a substantial tax increases that would adequately boost education funding.
He applauded Sandoval’s initiative to step out in front of no-tax conservatives and said a tax hike could help woo residents of California, the nation’s most populated and taxed state, to Nevada.
“If low taxes were a solution to a good economy, they would already be flowing over here,” Segerblom said.
In a statement following the vote, Sandoval thanked Roberson and Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas.
“We are now one step closer to securing a future in which Nevada is the leader in education, innovation, and student success that I wholeheartedly believe we can be,” he said.
The bill’s passage in the Senate opens the doors for a battle in the Assembly, where antitax members say they have at least 15 votes to kill the bill.
“The votes are not here for that tax proposal,” said Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, who expects lawmakers will try to hash out a consensus plan.
Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, said conservatives “cannot and will not vote on” the governor’s plan as written.
Members of the Assembly are expected to revise Sandoval’s plan with proposals from of other lawmakers.
Democrat Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, for instance, has a bill to reform the state’s entertainment tax, and Assembly Republicans Derek Armstrong and the Majority Floor Leader Paul Anderson have a bill to raise $499 million by hiking the rate on the state’s payroll tax.