In a boffo performance that won’t come soon to a theater near you, Nicolas Cage appeared before the Nevada Senate Finance Committee early in May to support a state tax credit for film production in Nevada. The actor, who lives in Las Vegas and won a best actor Oscar for his performance in the 1995 film, Leaving Las Vegas, delivered a handy selection of broadcast- and publication-ready sound bites to a full scrum of news crews that were happy to use them. “I have four scripts that could easily be shot in Nevada,” the Las Vegas Sun quoted him as saying. “I know investors around the world. I could give you names. Give me six months, and I’ll give you a list of names of folks who would love to come to Nevada to make a movie.”
Less than two months later, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the tax credit bill into law, allowing up to $20 million in annual state tax breaks to be bestowed on qualifying film and television projects, with no one production eligible for more than $6 million in credits.
In many ways, the Nevada tax credit bill followed a script common to such “tax expenditures.” A legislative champion—in this case, Democratic State Sen. Aaron Ford—brought forward a measure to give an industry a tax break, contending that it would encourage the industry to expand in the state and create jobs. A requisite number of public officials and business leaders supported the measure as a good idea, generally speaking. Good-government organizations weighed in with their complicated concerns, and the news media provided standard-issue coverage, quoting supporters and opponents of the measure fairly, but without going deeply into details as to their reasoning. And the bill became law, because in the abstract, almost everyone is almost always in favor of lower taxes and more jobs.
Indeed, Nevada’s film tax credit is anything but exceptional: The Motion Picture Association of America website lists 40 states as having significant tax incentives for film production. Nicolas Cage aside, the process by which this particular tax break became law was fairly routine.
And that, it seems, is the problem.
Shortly after Cage’s appearance at the Nevada legislature, Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political journalist, unleashed a torrent of criticism on his blog, including this seething summary: “This is how they do tax policy—a hodgepodge of giveaways and takeaways with no underlying rationale or overarching approach. This is tax policy in Nevada.”
Ralston hosts the Ralston Reports news program, has written for both the Las Vegas Sun and the Review-Journal, and has watched Nevada politics and media for years. In a recent interview, he said he found “all of the fawning tweets and coverage” of Cage to be “utterly ludicrous,” given the state’s low ranking on a number of quality-of-life indices, particularly indices concerning education. He acknowledged that he hasn’t made a thorough survey of media coverage of the film tax credit but also offered a criticism born of long experience: He thinks the state’s major media outlets have done far too little in-depth coverage of a Nevada tax-expenditure problem that extends far beyond the film tax credit, and that showers businesses with tax breaks while it deprives the state of revenue it desperately needs. (As Exhibit A of that problem, Ralston points to $89 million in tax incentives given last year to Apple as an incentive for the company to locate a data storage center outside Reno.)
The Sun and Las Vegas Review-Journal journalists who covered the film tax credit bill acknowledge that Cage’s appearance in the capitol momentarily captivated the media, and that Nevada has a tax expenditure problem. Their view of the coverage of tax expenditures is more nuanced than Ralston’s; where he sees failure, they see effort with limited resources and at least partial success.
Anjeannette Damon, senior editor for politics at the Sun, said the Cage appearance created a “spectacle” within a “circus atmosphere” that Democratic supporters of the tax credit had fostered. As a result, she concedes, the Sun’s coverage of that appearance was somewhat “light-hearted.” But she said she thought that, overall, the paper covered the film tax credit bill reasonably critically. And even if it didn’t do a deep dive specifically on the bill, she said, Sun reporter Andrew Doughman did write a story earlier in the year that explored the state’s lack of systematic study of tax expenditures. She also cited two lengthier pieces—one detailing some of the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax expenditures passed in the legislature, the other on who would benefit from the film tax measure —as worthy parts of the paper’s coverage of tax breaks.