Smokers Among Winners At 2011 Legislature

At first glance, the 2011 Legislature did nothing to make the life of John and Jane Q. Public any worse.

No one will pay one cent more in taxes or additional fees during the next two years. But if you're old or young or poor, a teacher or a state employee, this legislative session won't go down as one of the best in Nevada history.

And if you're a smoker, you may have your cigarette and eat too -- at bars and taverns.

Final impact of legislation wasn't completely known until Friday, when Gov. Brian Sandoval signed 79 bills into law and vetoed nine others.

For Nevadans of just about any age, students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno will pay 13 percent more in tuition this fall -- if they can find the classes they need -- adding about $400 a year for full-time students.

For poor senior citizens, legislators and the governor eliminated the $5.7 million-a-year Senior Citizens Property Tax Rebate program. Seniors in the program had been getting back more than $300 a year in paid property taxes.

For state employees, professors and schoolteachers, salaries will drop 2.5 percent this fall. State workers must also take six furlough days, equaling another 2.3 percent pay cut.

And for the smokers? Some bars and taverns will start allowing them to drink, eat a snack or even a full meal and enjoy buy cigarettes at the same time. They won't be able to take anyone under 21 with them, though.

Nevadans who like to talk on their cellphones while driving their car or truck won't be able to do so starting Oct. 1 -- unless they have a hands-free device of some kind.

And texting while driving? That won't be allowed at all for drivers.

While this might be seen as bad news for freeway conversationalists, it's good news for motorists who know what kind of mischief distracted drivers can bring to the roadway.

Police will issue warnings for the first three months, but will start citing drivers who ignore the law in 2012.

The penalties will grow the more often violators are caught. They will be $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 for the third and subsequent offenses.

On the money side, Mary Lau of the Retail Association of Nevada, said average Nevada residents "fared well" at the Legislature because their taxes won't go up on July 1.

Among the continuing taxes will be a 0.35 percent sales tax that raised $282 million for public education. With the retention of this tax, the sales tax in Clark County remains at 8.1 percent.

"It won't be noticed by most consumers," said Lau, who figures the typical resident doesn't know the sales tax rate. "When the increase was first put in, you notice it. But after a while people just pay it."

And businesses? Lau said small businesses did well at the Legislature. Under the budget compromise, businesses will continue to pay a 1.17 percent tax on the payroll of their employees.

But the first $250,000 in annual earnings won't be subject to business taxes. That frees 70 percent of companies in Nevada from this tax, a savings of up to $1,250.

Yet Lau said that's enough money for a small company to pay for a computer or a copy machine.