Nevada, like the rest of the country, has its share of underreported stories. Here are just three that should have received more ink and on-air time.
Welfare for casinos
The casino industry has over the years been aided by an array of public assistance. These forms of support have slowly accumulated without getting a lot of scrutiny. For instance, the room tax (created in 1955 for county fair and recreation purposes) is now devoted mostly to tourism promotion. In Clark County, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a $147 million budget, $124 million of it from room taxes. Most of it is used on advertising and promotion to lure tourists.
It is reasonable to ask why, with some of the nation’s most skilled and sophisticated tourism promotion operations located in the executive suites of strip hotel casinos, any public money should be spent on attracting customers to the casinos’ doorsteps. The Reno/Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority posts room tax rates on its Web page but not the revenue generated by those rates. However, the situation is much the same north and south.
Then there are the property tax breaks. When a homeowner loses her job and source of income, she does not get a break on her property tax. Businesses do, and casinos have become expert at getting them. Washoe local governments lost $1.5 million this year after the Board of Equalization granted property tax cuts on the ground that the casinos were experiencing an economic downturn.
Then there are downtown redevelopment districts and special taxing districts to aid casino-demanded projects such as the Reno trench and Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience. On Monday, the Reno Gazette Journal ran a story about a new tax break for tourism-related businesses but did not dissect it to determine its impact.
Paying through the nose for go-juice
Gasoline prices have long been rich mines for those seeking to investigate deceptive consumer practices. The Nevada Attorney General’s Office has on occasion found price fixing by Nevada stations under state anti-trust laws. An investigation by the 1987 Nevada Legislature found predatory practices by Atlantic Richfield that sought to drive other companies out of business. The lawmakers enacted legislation ordering ARCO to divest itself of its corporate-owned stations (the law has since been repealed).
But one practice in Nevada has rarely been examined—the use of pricing “zones.” Under this practice it is possible to find prices of the same gasoline distributed by the very same company varying wildly in the same city, including Reno. Station owners say these zones are used to pressure competitors but also end up victimizing consumers.
Although the practice has gotten national scrutiny, as in the Wall Street Journal’s “Secret formulas set the prices for gasoline” in its March 26, 2000 edition, few Nevada journalists have touched the subject. It’s pretty bad when the Wall Street Journal provides better consumer reporting than more mainstream publications. Among the few Nevada journalists who have reported on zone pricing are Ed Koch of the Las Vegas Sun and Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano, who has written 17 columns on the practice during a seven-year period. (See www.nevadalabor.com/barbwire/barbcontents.html)
Critics of zone pricing say two-thirds of the independent gasoline station owners in California have been driven out of business by the practice. Think about that the next time you try to find Terrible Herbst’s low-cost independent gas station in Reno.
Speaking of gold mines
With gold prices going up and up, many Nevadans are breathing a sigh of relief. Ah, jobs. Ah, money pumping into the dismal economy. But there’s more pumping going on than Nevada’s TV stations and newspapers let on. That’s the pumping of toxic pollutants into the air, onto the ground and into Nevada rivers.
Yes, this kind of thing is regulated. But many complain that too little is done to enforce allowable emission standards. Case in point: Whistleblowers who worked for Newmont Mining Corp. are suing the company for firing them not long after they harangued supervisors about repeated infractions of state and federal environmental laws. Sandra Ainsworth and Rebecca Sawyer were environmental specialists who worked at Newmont’s Lone Tree mine.
Their lawsuit alleges that Lone Tree administrators sought profits over environmental regulations and essentially ignored complaints of contamination to the Humboldt River, groundwater and air. An investigation by the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection ensued. But it got off to a shaky and late start. Inspectors were stonewalled for a couple of weeks because Newmont refused to allow them to talk to mine employees, leaving many to wonder who’s really in charge here.
Even when a large mining company is found guilty of illegally releasing excess waste into the environment, oversight agencies are so mining-friendly that fines are ridiculously low, mere handslaps of a few thousand dollars to a billion-dollar industry. Not to worry. With the Bush administration’s firm commitment to allow corporations essentially to regulate themselves (i.e., initiatives such as Healthy Forests and Clear Skies), things will only get better for big biz and worse for the rest of us.