A post-casino future

Photo By DENNIS MYERS Nevada Controller Kim Wallin is saying things some Nevadans don’t want to hear about the future of the state’s economy.

Nevada Controller Kim Wallin is talking up the need to
diversify the state’s economy, cautioning other officials
that—unlike past recessions—there is no guarantee the
casino economy will ever rebound.

“It’s been about 80 years since Nevada has suffered this
bad, and that’s when gaming was legalized in the state to help us
pull out of the depression,” Wallin told the Lyon County
Commission last week. “As a result of that, I think that gaming
was our hope and our savior 80 years ago, but gaming is our downfall
now because we’ve gotten used to the easy money, and we’ve
placed such a reliance on it that we always thought we don’t have
to diversify our economy, we don’t have to broaden our revenue
sources.”

In an interview, she did not shy away from the implications of her
statement—that if tourists are no longer paying the state’s
way, residents will have to take up the slack.

Over a couple of generations, state legislators have made an art out
of tapping other people’s money to keep residents’ taxes
low, as with casino taxes, room taxes and sales tax on
prepared—usually restaurant—food. But if tourism does not
rebound after the recession, those sources will no longer pay the
state’s way, at a time when Nevada needs to beef up higher
education for its goal of attracting energy investment.

“Well, you know, we have to start facing up to the hard
choices that we’re going to have to make,” Wallin said.
“We’ve had it good for so many years. And because gaming
was our way out of the Depression about 80 years ago, we came to rely
on that source as being the way that we fund our state. And the times
have changed, like I’ve said. We’re not the only game, so
to speak, for gaming anymore. And I think because of the easy
money—I’ll call it easy money—it’s kept Nevada
from making the tough decisions that we’re going to have to sit
down and make.”

She said there is no likelihood that the public will repeal the ban
on a state income tax in the Nevada Constitution, so if the state is
going to follow through on its effort to become an energy-exporting
state, it will have to find money from other sources to invest in the
education resources high tech companies demand.

“And the other thing that Nevada has to do is something that
we haven’t focused on because of our reliance on gaming, is we
need to have an educated workforce here,” Wallin. “And
that’s probably one of the big complaints when companies want to
come into Nevada.”

At one of Wallin’s appearances, she was asked, “But
aren’t low taxes—don’t they go and bring more
businesses into the state?”

Wallin replied, “Companies do not come to a state just because
of the low taxes. They come to a state because of quality education,
quality lifestyle, and having services in place for their workers.
Because if low taxes brought businesses into the state, I mean, we
should be having tons of businesses coming from California into our
state, and we aren’t.”

She acknowledged that enhancing education to attract corporations
that then will pay taxes will be expensive, but she said the
state’s investment must precede the influx of companies. And it
won’t be cheap.

“It’s kind of the chicken or the egg, right?” she
said. “I guess with this crisis, you know, hopefully the public
will start sitting down, saying, ‘All right, what can we do if we
really want to make Nevada a great state like it once was?’ We
need to go and make those hard decisions and step up to the
plate.”

In 1983 the Nevada Legislature, at Gov. Richard Bryan’s
recommendation, created a new state program to attract businesses to
the state in an effort to diversify the economy. It was a reaction to
the crippling 1981-82 recession. While that program had some successes,
it was also a period of growth in the casino industry. As a result,
casino growth kept pace with the arrival of new businesses and in the
end, economist said, the state’s economy was diversified little
if at all.

And as time went on, the sense of urgency imposed by the 1980s
recession was lost. Even the advent of tribal gambling in the 1980s
(which would eventually come to California, Nevada’s big market)
did not cause state legislators to step up efforts to build a
post-casino economy. The casino lobby even funded a study that claimed
the economic development program was not worth its funding.

Historian Guy Louis Rocha, who has been speaking to community groups
around the state about the need to let go of reliance on the slowly
declining casino tourism economy, praised Wallin for being willing to
say things that other politicians have not. Rocha said many state
leaders are like those who governed Nevada in the long state depression
of the 1880s and ’90s, endlessly expecting the Comstock Lode to
come back instead of coming to grips with the state’s problems.
Now, he said, state leaders are making half-hearted efforts at
diversification while expecting casino tourism to recover after the
recession.

“She’s saying the king has no clothes, and I really
appreciate her candor,” he said. “What I would say is that
we always thought that we don’t have to diversify our economy.
… We diversified but nowhere near what we needed to, and I would
say that that’s where gaming hurt us, that even when we did make
a reasonable effort to diversify, we still were addicted to gaming.

“So I would congratulate [Wallin] in being forthright here and
really saying some things about an industry that’s had its way
with the state. Certainly we’ve enjoyed relying on it now, and
now we’re in the position of trying to figure out, ‘What do
we do now?’ and we’re late to the game.”

For instance, he said, plans to connect the power grids of Northern
and Southern Nevada next year should have been done in the early 1990s,
but the political leadership was lacking. Now Nevada is playing
catch-up to states like Utah with better planning. And the problem of
leadership is still with the state, Rocha said, because most
politicians have not embraced Wallin’s thinking. He said
they’re like the state legislators of the post-Comstock
depression.

“They’re still drinking the Kool-Aid of casino
tourism,” he said.

Rocha is also less optimistic than Wallin about the public pitching
in. He said Nevada’s current tax structure attracts people who
bring their financial assets to the state but want to avoid engagement
with the community or responsibility for it. Many Nevadans, he said,
are “residents but not citizens.”

Rocha’s message of warning, though, has received a positive
reception from his audiences. At one conference of county school board
members—a relatively conservative group—participants
crowded around him after his remarks, seeking more information.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.