Life is Beautiful despite Darth Vader & Snidely Whiplash


"Growth is not paying for itself in this state and we officials have all got to get together to figure out how to make growth pay for itself."

— Washoe County Sheriff Richard Kirkland on KRNV TV-4, 27 Jan. 1999

LIFE IMITATES ART. The solution to the above problem lies in a 1970s TV show. During one episode of the classic Mary Tyler Moore sitcom, news director Lou Grant announced that stingy station management had allocated a $200 monthly increase in the reporting budget. Grant asked his underlings to submit ideas on how to best use the pittance.

Self-absorbed anchor Ted Baxter didn't hesitate: all the money should go to him in order to inspire him to new heights of newsreading greatness.

Baxter today apparently works as a PR man for the gambling-industrial complex. Reno interests want to raise room taxes to build a new convention center downtown, expand the existing facility, or both. Permission, of course, must be granted by the ruling dukes of the Nevada Resort Association. Otherwise, enabling legislation will have no chance of passage by the industry's totally owned subsidiary, the Nevada State Legislature.

Over the past 40 years, the Reno-Sparks and Las Vegas convention authorities have collected hundreds of millions in room taxes. Almost none of the money has gone to mitigate the impacts of growth caused by all that casino corporate welfare. The same holds true for downtown redevelopment agencies which skim property taxes.

So who pays for frills like parks, roads, schools, police and fire protection? You and me, through increased fees and levies on property, retail sales, gasoline, insurance and other items. With costly boondoggles like the Harrah Auto Museum and National Bowling Stadium, both in Reno, and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the tax hemorrhage has become so great that communities cannot keep up.

Unlike the gambling industry which believes in rewarding itself, the comedy writers of the '70s came up with a sensible spending plan. Lou Grant hired four high school students as news stringers and was quickly rewarded with an exclusive story. Nevada's new executive branch should watch more TV.

I laughed in scorn of Gov. Dudley Do-Right's recent State of the State speech wherein he gave his chief of staff, Snidely Whiplash, two years to determine what's wrong with Nevada's tax structure. How can we be the fastest-growing state in the nation and still have trouble paying our bills?

While feigning ignorance, Gov. Kenny Guinn has at least warned us who's gonna get stuck: "When the time comes...'everything will be on the table,'" the guv told the Associated Press on 26 Jan. 1999.

"That would include property taxes which are a key source of revenue for local - not state - government," AP noted.

The Reno Gazette-Journal failed to report Gov. Guinn's comments, but the Daily Sparks Tribune and others ran the story. The Reno paper did print the parallel remarks of gambling's point grease man, ruthless lawyer-lobbyist Harvey Whittemore.

"Gaming, whose taxes are vital to the state's revenue stream and reduce the tax burden for others, can't continue to fund everything it used to, (Whittemore) said. 'In two years, we're going to have a fundamental shift in tax policy in this state,' Whittemore said."

There you have it. Before Snidely's study even starts, Dudley and Darth Vader have announced its findings.

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, even with subtitles. The first half of the film "La Vita e Bella" presents a humorous, wistful romance set in 1939 Italy. It concludes with the uplifting story of a witty father saving his young son's life and psyche in a German extermination factory.

City Life, the Las Vegas alternative weekly, said "Italian comedian Roberto Benigni's audacious concentration camp comedy (imagine 'Schindler's List' with laughs) works brilliantly. The most daring political satire since Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator.'"

That's impressive company, but star-director-co-writer Benigni qualifies. "Life is Beautiful" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In this country, it's been all over the pre-Oscar awards.

See this wonderful film at the Keystone Cinema inside the Reno Hilton. The Keystone is one of the few movie houses I can patronize in these parts. I refuse to spend money at Joe Syufy's corporate welfare mausoleum on Victorian Square in Sparks.

The Keystone may soon allow me to do dinner and a movie in the same place. The rumble in the green felt jungle says that both of Hilton's Reno hotels will soon sign major contracts recognizing the Culinary Union as bargaining representative for most non-gaming employees.

It will mark the turnaround of a campaign started in 1975 when 22 northwestern Nevada hotels and restaurants engaged professional union busters to screw over their workers.

Labor won every round in a long court fight, but by the time matters were settled in 1992, the union had become a shadow of its former self. By overpaying lawyers while underpaying employees, the casinos lost every battle but won the war.

WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN? Ironically, most of the 22 outfits which paid through the nose for out-of-state hatchetmen and slick attorneys have gone out of business. In Washoe County, only these remain, some with new management or ownership: John Ascuaga's Nugget, the Reno Cal-Neva, the Arlington Plaza (now the Plaza Resort Club), the Ponderosa and the Reno Nugget.

There is one more. The Primadonna Club was part of the union-busting consortium. The late Ernie Primm and his family sold the club to the Del Webb Corporation and it became the Sahara Reno Virginia Street Casino. The Sahara Reno is now the Reno Flamingo Hilton. When a union contract is signed, life for the workers will have come full circle after almost a quarter century.

If anyone ever asks you why this area, with its far higher cost of living, pays far worse than Las Vegas, tell them this story.

What goes around, comes around. The longtime erosion of personal incomes coupled with the wholesale corporate welfare engineered by the gambling-industrial complex has helped fuel the statewide tax rebellion I've been reporting for weeks.

Before the year is out, you will see Democratic union activists fighting side-by-side with Republican conservatives and Libertarian Jeffersonians. People get angry when they've been ripped off.

Life can still be beautiful.

Be well. Raise hell.


Copyright © 1999 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 30-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and was campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 1/31/99.

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