Nevada's Golden Child 

Canadian mining companies profits questioned in budget slump

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High Country News

Amid the suited throngs milling inside Nevada's State Legislature building in late February, Jan Gilbert looked like a wood sprite who'd wandered into a room full of bankers. With graying hair tousled about her shoulders and an effervescent smile, Gilbert held a clutch of miniature Canadian flags in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. Curious reporters and lobbyists buzzed around her; even an occasional legislator stopped by.

"So nice to meet you!" she'd say, rearranging her armload of props to proffer a flag and a paper printed with a "statement," as she described it, "from one of our Canadian mining shareholders." The message opened with hearty thanks to legislators "for coming to help strengthen the lock" hardrock mining has on Nevada's politics. It dismissed the state's massive gaming industry as "a poor relative" to the mining business, which is dominated by Canadian gold-mining firms Barrick Gold, Kinross and GoldCorp, and it celebrated the "sweetheart tax deals" the industry enjoys in Nevada.

"Even as we Canadian mining corporations made billions in your state last year, we got to pay next to nothing." And should anyone try to change that, "we'll rev up our mercenary army of lobbyists and crush anyone who stands in our way!"

"Nevada," Gilbert added, "has been so supportive of us!"

Gilbert, of course, is neither sprite nor shareholder, Canadian or otherwise. Instead, she's a co-founder of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), a coalition of labor, social justice and environmental groups working to shift Nevada away from its miserly libertarian foundations. She had come to this special legislative session to school whoever would listen about mining's stingy history in Nevada, where a sharp drop in revenues has blown an $887 million hole in the state's $6.9 billion budget. Inside the hearing rooms, state legislators, who typically meet a scant 120 days every other year, worked frantically through the $50,000-a-day emergency session, weighing whether to fire more state college professors or to send homeless psychiatric patients into the street. Meanwhile, Gilbert roamed the hallways, occasionally breaking character to offer her version of a fix: make the $81 billion international gold mining industry pay more state taxes.

Not that Gilbert expected the legislators to abruptly pass any bold new tax laws. "They knew the miners would take them to court if they did that," she said, "and that would take too much time out of solving the dire problems we have." Instead, she was trying to build momentum for a measure PLAN hopes to put to the voters this fall. The "Fair Mining Tax Initiative" would end the state's constitutionally mandated "net proceeds of minerals tax," which allows mining companies to pay no more than a five per cent tax on their profits. It would replace it with a minimum five per cent severance tax, based on the gross value of the minerals severed from Nevada's ground. The organization needs 97,002 signatures before June 15 for a place on the November ballot.

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