State of play on taxes at the one-third mark: No trust, no plans, nowhere

Here’s what we know:

The margins tax is dead, but will live on the 2014 ballot.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson has a plan, but it’s not drafted yet.

The Democrats want more revenue, but their path to get there is unclear.

Here’s what we don’t know:

Most lawmakers don’t trust Roberson.

The mining industry’s scare tactics include threatening to blow a huge hole in the budget and suing to preserve their rights not to pay any more taxes (or less).

The Democrats will have a plan that includes closing live entertainment tax loopholes and an admissions fee, but no clear timeline or how much it will raise.

So there you have it: One third of the way through Session ’13, and we have heard lots of talk, even more wailing and still we are….nowhere. But as opposed to past sessions, where this is where we arrive at sine die, at least we have gotten nowhere fast.

But why I still have hope – here come the catcalls – is that I actually believe Roberson wants to get somewhere, and not just higher office, and I actually believe Democratic leaders want to get somewhere, and not just to revenue-neutral solutions.

The problem of escaping purgatory and achieving solutions resides in the lack of trust that already has built between Roberson and other forces, both elected and otherwise, in the Legislative Building. Because he has behaved differently than Bill Raggio might have – grabbing headlines, shocking the orthodoxies – his motives have been ceaselessly questioned by his own party’s members, the Democrats and lobbyists.

Many of these folks do not have Roberson’s best interests at heart and are protecting their own. But in that universe, process matters. Feelings matter. Egos matter.

If you don’t take that into account, you are a bull in a china shop, not a leader moving the discussion forward. Here’s what everyone misses, though, in criticizing Roberson’s motives, suggesting it his repressed Kansas memories about mining (can you still hear the miners flaying the landscape at night, Michael? – say it in your best Lecter voice), or his insatiable desire for higher office or his craving of the spotlight: None of those theories really make much sense.

Although I can find fault with the way he unveiled his March Mining Madness proposal, it’s hard to argue anything other than he really believes it. Yes, believing in something is the hardest sell in Carson City, where so few believe in anything and too many don’t care enough to believe in something.

And if you need a political angle, this one is more likely: Roberson thought he was going to be majority leader, almost guaranteed it. When he lost, he learned some lessons about the electorate, about issues, about the future.

Roberson is not dumb, folks. So criticize him for being ham-handed and exclusionary, and sneer at him for being a publicity hound (and I think his SNWA-PUC bill only fuels that perception). But he has a goal in mind, even if there are miles to go....

He may have miscalculated how mining’s whisper campaign could hurt him or how much he has alienated Democrats and Assembly Republicans. But I am pretty sure he has a plan to tax mining, is working on the vehicle and only needs to figure out three minor items: If it will pass court muster, if he can get the votes to pass it and if he can persuade the governor to sanction it.

Right now, the betting is he goes 0 for 3.

Despite a Legislative Counsel Bureau opinion that says lawmakers can place an alternative on the ballot, many lawyers think not  The governor is committed not to approve any alternative, which may entomb it.  And the Democrats, to be blunt, don’t trust him.

“Where’s the (mining tax) bill draft?” asked one Democrat. “It’s all political. (Roberson’s) more worried about construction defects. I have no trust with him”

That is no solitary sentiment. Indeed, Roberson’s Achilles heel also may be that many Democrats simply will not budge on that issue, one that he has made clear is his ticket to the tax negotiating table.

Burt his bigger hurdle is overcoming the distrust he has engendered with the Democrats, especially on the Assembly side. Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who prides herself on being a workhorse and not a showhorse, is quietly and deliberately trying to forge a plan for that LET bill and an admissions fee that, depending on how it is applied, could be broad-based and raise a fortune.

Is it a perfect solution? No. Does it include all the businesses that virtually have escaped taxation? No. But it does bring a lot of major payers into the mix that were not there before.

One interesting sidelight here is the dynamic between Kirkpatrick and Senate Finance Chair Debbie Smith. They have worked closely together before – they even live together. But I am not sure they are on the same page – at least not yet.

Smith has no interest in a ballot question alternative to the margins tax. Nor does Kirkpatrick. But can they get on the same page on how money is raised for this session, how much is needed and do they have any chance to get enough Republican votes?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Roberson is frustrated by Kirkpatrick and Smith keeping their hole cards close because he is playing his hand open. That’s not the best way to play poker, but if he really wants to make a deal, they better turn their cards up soon or it might be too late.

Meanwhile, you will notice that the Democrats, who overwhelmingly supported taking mining out of the Constitution, have gone mum on the subject. Some have speculated the diabolical mining lobby has them locked up and firmly convinced they will lose money – a $300 million hole! – if it passes.

I don’t think so. I now believe that the Democrats, partly because of Roberson but also because of their past vote and their allies, will vote for it. But now Kirkpatrick et. al., knowing how much Roberson wants it, will hold it as long as they can. Bill Raggio would be proud.

The late legendary legislative master also might be smiling as he sees reporters can’t get much out of Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, who only wants to talk about things are “up for discussion.” He commits to nothing, says even less.

Maybe he was watching Raggio. Or maybe, he doesn’t have a plan.

The same goes for Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, who can count and know what leverage he has with Kirkpatrick. They appear to have a great working relationship, and she is cultivating the GOP folks, too. (She testified on a bill with Ira Hansen this week!)

Hickey wants to bring home issues for some of his caucus members – construction defects, prevailing wage, collective bargaining reform. He is concealing his cards, too, very expertly.

So the only one really exposed now is Roberson, who must feel like an island. But a great leader operates in the universe he or she is in, not the one he or she wishes existed. The Carson City cauldron is what it is – a steaming stew of pettiness and partisanship.

We will see if Roberson, if Kirkpatrick, if Denis, if Smith, if Hickey can adapt their agendas to that universe to get somewhere by June 3. Oh, and they have to find a way to get Sandoval on board, or run over him.

Otherwise, we will end where we began and are now: nowhere.