The start of 2021 promises new hope and possibilities for everyone, but also major concerns for rural Nevadans.
In a poll conducted this week at elkodaily.com, 41% of respondents said their biggest personal concern heading into the New Year is work/finances, followed closely by health/fitness at 38%.
These issues are interlinked by the COVID-19 pandemic, a disease whose name is now outdated by not one but two years. Although new strains of the virus pose a threat, it is still named after the year it emerged in 2019.
Elko County’s economy fared better than many places in 2020. The region’s mining industry did an excellent job of adapting to restrictions and keeping production going throughout the year. Elko’s jobless rate initially rose along with lockdowns but dropped back below 4% by the end of the year.
New home construction thrived despite the pandemic. Building permit valuations totaled nearly $57 million, an increase of 19% over the prior year.
Still, small businesses including restaurants and bars have suffered, while a sharp drop in tourism left its mark.
But perhaps the biggest reason for concern about the economy as 2021 gets underway is the fact that the Legislature will be meeting this year, as it does every odd year. Lawmakers will be considering multiple proposals to increase the amount of taxes paid by the mining industry.
Mines in Nevada pay a “net proceeds” tax that has been capped since its origin in the 19th century. This is in addition to all of the regular taxes that other businesses pay, and serves as a sort of royalty on gold and other minerals that are removed from the ground.
Efforts to increase the tax have come up many times in the past. The most vigorous recent effort was during the Great Recession when mines profited as gold prices soared during the nationwide downturn. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting even more pressure on the state’s key industry – tourism – as hotels in Las Vegas have been severely restricted in the number of guests allowed.
Three joint resolutions aimed at the mining industry in this year’s session could increase taxes by 380%, according to Tyre Gray, president of the Nevada Mining Association.
Gray and others will be lobbying strongly against the tax on behalf of the industry’s 37,000 employees and the communities where they live. Elko and Spring Creek are home to a large percentage of those employees.
The NvMA has launched a “Stand Up for Nevada Mining” campaign designed to educate the rest of the state on misperceptions about the industry and the vital role it plays in Nevada’s economy – to the tune of $11.2 billion a year.
Small rural businesses will continue to face challenges this year as well. The nation’s vaccination program has gotten off to a slow start and there is concern that it will not be able to slow the spread of coronavirus until later in the year (or even a decade from now, if you believe president-elect Joe Biden).
Nevada continues to have a higher than average number of confirmed cases and a high death rate from the disease. According to the CDC, as of Dec. 31 the case rate per 100,000 people over the past week was 58.6 in Nevada. That’s lower than the 91.9 rate in California, where the virus has been overwhelming hospitals, but Nevada’s death rate per 100,000 people over the past week is 99, compared with 63 in California.
Elko County and the rest of the state saw a huge surge in cases and deaths in December, following an increase in travel and social activity around the Thanksgiving holiday. The number of COVID-related deaths in Elko County was 17 at the beginning of December but had doubled by the end of the month.
Within the next two or three weeks we will see if Christmas travel had a similar impact.
The New Year typically brings to mind resolutions aimed at losing weight or going to the gym more often. This year the main focus for many will be to avoid catching the virus and to stay out of the hospital.
Much uncertainty lies ahead, at least over the first half of 2021. Hopefully, by summer the virus will be under control and lawmakers will be heading home after a session in which they did not damage the mining industry.
Some say that getting back to “normal” will not be possible. Perhaps the new normal will be different from what we are used to, but it should include full in-person instruction in our schools, the ability to dine out with friends free of fear, and the opportunity to take a relaxing vacation.