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.
Las Vegas Review-Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Sean Whaley said he thought the film tax credit bill “got a fair amount of attention,” and that his articles on the bill quoted both supporters and opponents of the bill. The legislature is covered by a lot fewer reporters these days, “for reasons we’re all familiar with,” Whaley said, but, because of Cage’s involvement, the film tax credit bill actually got more attention than other tax expenditures. It was, Whaley said, “fairly well documented for the public.”
That statement, factual though it may be, is not a particularly stirring call to the kind of aggressive journalistic treasury protection that taxpayers deserve.
The film tax credit bill in Nevada did indeed get media attention; drawing media attention is, after all, something Hollywood does well. Given the amount of work to be done in covering a legislature in session, it is also reasonable to claim that daily reportage on the film tax bill was adequate. Coverage of the bill included comments from critics—among them the Nevada Taxpayers Association and the Nevada Policy Research Institute—and over time, the bill changed, apparently in response to criticism. The tax credit measure that passed offers just $20 million (rather than the original $50 million) in tax breaks to film producers, and it became a time-limited pilot program, expiring at the end of 2017 unless there is further legislative action. Also, the legislature passed two bills designed to measure the cost of a variety of tax breaks the state has awarded.
Even so, Nevada’s major journalism outlets need to marshal their resources to do a better job of policing the state’s tendency to deplete the treasury through tax breaks for business. From the largely superficial coverage provided by the Sun and the Review-Journal, readers could have gleaned no real idea as to whether the tax credits being proposed did or did not have a reasonable prospect of luring production facilities and long-term film industry jobs to Nevada. Also, the most thorough and in-depth coverage of the film tax break came after the relevant bill was signed into law, when that coverage could not possibly have helped shape the legislation or action on it. (One of those after-the-fact stories made a startling point: Because most film productions coming to Nevada will owe relatively small amounts of state tax, and Nevada’s film tax credits are transferrable, a significant beneficiary of the film tax credits will actually be casinos, which can acquire the credits from film makers and apply them to gambling tax bills.)
It is time consuming to make a proper journalistic assessment of the merits of a proposed industry tax break meant to spur economic development. Each such proposal has unique and devilish details, and tax incentives aimed at the same economic development goal can vary wildly among states. Capitol reporters cannot reasonably be expected to undertake such deep assessments—to assemble the complex array of facts needed to properly weigh costs and benefits—while they cover a busy legislative session full of important legislation.