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Yes, Tax the Mines:
Nevadan Lives Depend on It

April 7, 2021 | Local Issues
Travis Sanderson

 CW: mentions of suicide

Nevada’s education is a disaster.

According to recent statistics, Nevada ranks among the “least educated” states. In 2015, the state scored 50th of 51 in total K-12 education assessment. To anyone who grew up in Las Vegas, this is not even remotely surprising. This is not a new phenomenon. In my high school, between 2011 and 2015, we celebrated whenever Nevada climbed from 50th to 49th in overall ranking in public education nationwide.

Politicians always bang the drum of education reform, but marginal fixes do nothing to address the root issue. The constant failure of education reform is a consequence of a lack of political backbone to take on the central political force of austerity in Nevada: the mining industry. Education has everything to do with taxing the mines. If we want to fix education in Nevada, we must understand how the mining industry exacerbates the systems of oppression that contribute to the problems in our public education system. The mining industry has so far escaped paying its taxes with devastating consequences for democracy, Indigenous sovereignty, the environment, and social services – including education.

Take mental health as an example.

Teachers are often forced to fill a state-created void of mental health services.  In the Clark County School District, the ratio of students to school psychologists is about 2200:1. The recommended ratio is 500:1. The complete dearth of mental health professionals in Las Vegas schools makes many students seek help from mentor figures they form connections with in the classroom. Teachers are compelled structurally to assume far more responsibilities than their job description dictates in the mental health needs of their students. They often perform and expect an overwhelming amount of extra labor to make up for the lack of psychological professionals. That is despite the fact that their labor is already undervalued and underpaid. That is an unfair burden on teachers that significantly decreases their capacity – both emotional and physical. Instead of enjoying time off after work, I witnessed my teachers in their classrooms several hours after school-bells rang huddled with classmates who may have harmed themselves if left alone that night. That burden on teachers is a direct result of underfunded social services.

Not only are teachers forced into extra labor by the chronic underfunding of our schools, but students are also impacted. The mental health needs of students can easily fall through the cracks of a broken system, a fact that is particularly the case for students from marginalized communities. Nevada’s public education is abysmal across the state, but it is no coincidence which schools are the worst hit by chronic underfunding’s impact on mental health: schools with majority-Black student populations and schools in Tribal communities. Nevada is a “majority minority” state, and racial discrimination is linked to worse mental health. Certain municipal institutions are hotbeds of racial discrimination, like the Las Vegas Metro, which harms the mental health of city residents all the more. Las Vegas has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrants nationwide, forced to live in fear of state-sponsored violence enacted upon them. Studies also show that the kids of undocumented parents receive healthcare at significantly lower rates than the national average. Poverty is linked to lower school achievement and more mental health disorders in both childhood and adulthood, and concentrated poverty is most extreme in Nevada’s communities of color. Las Vegas’s workforce is a precariat of service workers who work odd hours for the casinocracy that exploits them, and leaves many kids without parental support for large segments of the day.

Urban sprawl exacerbates the mental health issues endemic in Las Vegas public schools, as well. Social isolation, linked to worse mental health, is increased by long commute times. These longer commute times are invariably present in a school district without sufficient school buses and awful public transit – both of which are proven to be linked to the racist and classist system. “Black and Brown people comprise a disproportionate share of public transit’s ridership base,” which means that Black and Brown people are impacted at greater rates by underfunded transit and urban sprawl itself.

Even after students and teachers arrive in school, they may be forced to learn and work in facilities with harsh environmental conditions. I attended class in the Vegas heat – which can reach upwards of 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit – with no AC in portable classrooms holding up to fifty students for substantial parts of my school life in Clark County. This environment is clearly not conducive to an effective educational environment, and yet that was our daily reality. My high school’s student population was 90% children of color. Students arrive from long commutes at school, sleep-deprived, with all of the negative impacts of sprawl already enacted after leaving homes where they may face financial instability or abuse or live in fear of state-sponsored violence. They arrive at school to study in classrooms with facilities that are broken down and – quite plausibly – may not even qualify as sufficient by the standards of international human rights, sweating, trying to learn about U.S. history from a curriculum that largely erases the stories of their families and their communities in favor of the stories told by white settler elites, at small desks their might share with other students. They may go the entire year unnoticed by an overworked teacher just as they are unnoticed by the counselor, by the administrator, by the system. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened these circumstances.

No one I knew did not suffer from mental health issues. Many had undiagnosed mental illnesses that plagued them, or from which they had no escape. Many sought help from apps, but apps cannot replace sufficient mental health care. Some of my friends killed themselves. Every single death and untreated mental illness was aided and abetted by woefully insufficient school funding and the de facto abandonment of Nevada’s students by state budgets.

All of these factors lead to one conclusion: Underfunding schools is deadly. The mines have blood on their hands. Our economy isn’t boom-and-bust anymore; it’s stumble-and-bust, at best. Whether we are in central Las Vegas or in Northtown or on the Eastside or on a reservation, we survive in conditions created by defunded public services like education. Minerals have more rights than teachers or students. They have since Nevada became a state.

Since the beginning, the mining industry has taken advantage of Nevadan suffering for its own profits. Nevada is the fifth largest producer of gold in the world. As per the Nevada Constitution, the mining industry cannot be taxed beyond a cap of five percent on net proceeds. That constitution was largely written with the ink of Big Mining. When the constitution was first drafted, the arrogance of the California-owned mining companies that sought to exploit Nevada’s resources failed when settler Nevada voters decided against the first proposed constitution. Then, an infamous bust occurred and Nevadan voters “yearned to be rescued by the only thing that they thought could save them, investment from … California corporations and financiers.” The mining industry capitalized on the bust to secure their tax exemption in the Nevada Constitution and benefit from economic collapse.

The fact that Big Mining used a bust to write themselves the tax exemption makes the train of argument from mining industry lobbyists particularly ironic. At the recent IndyTalks session where progressive champion and PLAN executive director Laura Martin faced mining lobbyist Jim Wadhams, Wadhams defended the taxation cap on the grounds that the mining industry does experience recession. The mines do bust; thus, they should not be taxed at a higher rate. However, since the bust part of the mining industry’s economic cycle was the catalyst for mining to receive its much-desired tax cap to begin with, the industry has no moral ground to stand on in weaponizing that very fact to defend the unjustifiable exemption. Big Mining cannot pretend history does not exist if Nevadans remember.

Another argument that the mines use to defend their role in defunding Nevada is that mining does pay other taxes. As the executive director of the Nevada Mining Association argued to the Pahrump Valley News, “the industry, like other businesses, also pays property, sales and payroll taxes.” The same talking point was repeated by Wadhams in the recent IndyTalks session. However, as Laura Martin pointed out, that does not actually capture the full picture of the generous deductions that the mining industry feasts upon that small businesses are not qualified for. Mining is uniquely positioned as the only industry in the state that is constitutionally exempt from any real obligation to Nevadan communities. Instead of paying into our public services, Nevadans foot the bill for cleanup costs, costs of development, corporate services, royalties paid if on a lease, and healthcare benefits. “We are paying for their healthcare,” Martin said. “It’s just mining. No other business gets to enjoy so many deductions. [The mining industry] basically saves $5 billion in taxes owed to the state.”

Mining has an arsenal of arguments steeped in business language and buzzwords, but the simple fact is that mining is legally protected from adequately compensating the state for its heinous activities. We don’t need to get in the weeds. The mines exploit Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe land at the expense of Nevadans – particularly the poorest. We have the fifth most regressive tax structure in the nation, by virtue of Big Mining. As Ian Bigley wrote in the Nevada Current, “Nevadans making less than $20,500 a year pay over 10 percent of their daily income in taxes, while the mining industry pays less than 1 percent of their gross income into the state general fund.” In other words, the poorest Nevadans pay nearly ten times their proportionate worth compared to the entire mining industry. That is by the design of the mining industry that held Nevada legislators’ hands in writing the NV Constitution.

Mining does everything to keep it this way. Sweet, reasonable rhetoric voiced from lobbyists is only one of their weapons. Mining, as the “only game in town,” lobbies and fills the coffers that support key politicians. Nevada Gold Mines donated half a million dollars to the Home Means Nevada PAC, affiliated with Governor Sisolak, in advance of the current legislative session where NV Constitution amendments to tax the mines are on the table.

Meanwhile, mining lobbyists slander legislators that dare to ask the mines to pay their share with the label “eco-terrorists.” That keeps legislators who are early in their terms from criticizing the mines due to fear of retaliation. According to Laura Martin, first-time legislators will often say they “don’t want to cross mining.” The mines delight in maintaining that fear to protect their profits. I witnessed this culture of fright first-hand. When I walked through a government building in the early 2010s, a lawmaker told me about the influence of mining only in a whisper. The industry was untouchable. Mining is a quiet behemoth exerting tremendous influence through a tax exemption they bullied Nevadans to accept 160 years ago.

The fact that our elected officials fear the mining industry’s power demonstrates the extent of their political influence. By constitutional writ, the mines are immune to their democratic obligations to communities and act as a fundamentally undemocratic force on Nevada’s political culture by counteracting our votes with both money and a potential for retaliation that is hung over the heads of Nevadans. Mining not only retaliates against elected officials, but regular residents as well. “We get messages [from people that live near active mines] all the time, [asking how they] can contact their legislator without the mining industry finding out because [their] uncle works there,” Martin indicated in the IndyTalks session. That is doubly true for Native communities who have been compelled to coexist with the mines.

Even while encouraging fear, the mining industry pollutes and poisons the land with particular consequences for Indigenous people. “Every waterway — springs, streams, all these watersheds — these mines are operating and damaging our water resources; not only that, but our environment, the survival of all people,” said Shoshone Paiute Tribal Chairman Brian Thomas of Duck Valley. Shawn Collins, a Western Shoshone former employee of the mining industry, discussed in Tainted Thirst how, at the hands of mining, the areas where Shoshones used to camp –  a site where Native elders are buried – was the exact location that the corporation destroyed to build a mine: “they tore up my country, my family’s country.” Meanwhile, the Yerington Paiute Tribe continues to rely on store-bought water bottles because their land has been poisoned by uranium and arsenic shed by the Anaconda Copper Mine. Changes in clean-up were decided in 2019 by a company based on new science, but no notification was given to the tribe. While the mines have made improvements in decreasing contamination caused by their operations relative to decades ago, the fact that the industry continues to avoid paying adequate taxes shows that even the barest form of reparations for crimes against Indigenous people on their own land remain unpaid.

In fact, exploitation of the land at Indigenous people’s expense has been the resulting impact of mining interests since the inception of those interests in Nevada. The only treaty between the United States and an Indigenous Nation in Nevada, the Treaty of Ruby Valley (1863), was written to guarantee free rein for mining to exploit the land at all costs.

While Native people are disproportionately impacted by the mining industry’s operations, the environment itself suffers severe degradation. Where pit lakes form in vacated mining sites, “toxic stews” of melted metals generate acid into a “circular chain reaction of perpetual pollution.” There is a great deal of water in Nevada’s earth, but the mines disrupt natural water flows. The environmental consequences are long-lasting. The Anaconda Copper Mine in Yerington ceased operations decades ago, but clean-up of the plume generated by operations was initially announced to require up to 285 years to “remove the quantity of water necessary to clean up the aquifer.”

Yet, even though that impact directly results from mining, this centuries-long treatment is a responsibility that the profiteers of Big Mining avoid at all costs. ARCO, the company charged with cleaning up Anaconda, has since amended its technical review to only assume responsibility over a much smaller plume zone than it was originally prescribed. That alteration benefits the company, but not the actual process of cleaning up the land poisoned by industry. Meanwhile, mining continues to dewater the environment and impact vital ecosystems by over-appropriating the environment for profit, particularly in locations like the Robinson Mine in White Pine County and in the upper Humboldt River corridor.

Undeniably, the mines harm Nevadans. Ever since the founding of Nevada, the mines have capitalized, giving back little in reparations to the people of the state they exploit. They established a culture of fear among Nevada lawmakers in 1863, and that culture has followed them into 2021. They expect a quid pro quo from legislators who they fund to counteract the needs of the voters who elected those legislators into power. If legislators don’t play their game, they slander them with labels like “eco-terrorist.” They prey on the land with little regard to the impact on Indigenous communities and the environment.

Finally, they stuff their pockets with earnings while public services go underfunded. While many factors contribute to the disastrous Nevada public education system, a large number of them are deeply intertwined with a lack of sufficient funding. Teachers take on additional labor to make up for a dearth of mental health professionals; students resort to mental health apps in lieu of qualified counselors; most students rarely receive one-on-one attention because of oversized classes; students suffer from poverty in classrooms, as well as at home, because of underfunded classrooms; long commutes are made longer by debilitated public transit, which is an effect of underfunding. All of these can contribute to higher drop-out rates and the epidemic of mental illness throughout Nevada schools, culminating in suicides. The consequences of these underfunded public services impact Black and brown students at higher rates than white students, and the mining industry is complicit in every single one of them.

“We do not see our Legislature being as inventive as possible for our kids and for our healthcare in the same way they have been for big business … we shouldn’t have the biggest gold mines and the most underfunded schools in our country,” said Laura Martin in IndyTalks. She is completely correct, as were Nathaniel Phillipps and Courtney Jones when they wrote that “the political imagination of our state does not reflect the severity of oppression under which we live.” The mining industry is a major force striving to prevent the formation of a truly equitable and liberatory political imagination, but only through greater political willpower against the mines can legislators justify deserving our votes. Harry Reid was able to oust the Mob and destroy the forces of organized crime in the city of Las Vegas, but the mines loom untouched by even adequate taxation as democracy is impeded despite our own votes, as Indigenous people suffer without water on their own land, and as Nevadan kids kill themselves in their own schools. AJR1, which would change the tax code to distribute the taxed revenue earned on gross proceeds of minerals to public services like education, is the first step in changing the political imagination of our state and actually making a difference in Nevada education.

Nevadan lives depend on taxing the mines. Pass AJR1.

Use this form to tell your legislators to #TaxTheMines.