LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gay marriage activists in Nevada have an unlikely fiscal ally: domestic violence programs.
That's because the only state-allocated source of domestic violence program funding comes from a $25 surcharge on each Nevada-issued marriage license. Revenue from that surcharge has dropped over the past decade as marriage rates have fallen throughout the United States and fewer tourists have headed to Las Vegas to elope.
But making it legal for same-sex couples to wed in Nevada would mean an increase in marriage license revenue, observers say, and a windfall for domestic outreach programs such as Safe Nest, the state's largest domestic violence charity.
"We understand this is a controversial issue," said Estelle Murphy, executive director of Safe Nest. "We are neutral in terms of taking a stand on it, however we recognize the reality that if there were gay marriage in Nevada that we would be assisted substantially by the increase in funds."
Last fiscal year, the state collected and allocated less than $3 million total for programs like the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence and Safe Nest shelters through marriage license surcharges, according to Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin. That figure also includes a $5 surcharge Clark County assesses for each civil marriage service.
Domestic violence programs also receive grants from other sources, but the marriage license surcharge is the most consistent source of money. Despite a surcharge increase about four years ago that boosted state funding to nearly $3.5 million, funding totals are nearly equivalent to 2003 levels at $2.7 million and dropping, said Sue Meuschke, executive director of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence.
"Historically Nevada has had a higher per capita marriage rate than every other state," Meuschke said, but between 1950 and 2011 marriage rates declined by about 66 percent, according to a University of Maryland study. "There's an overall decline in marriage around the country, and during the recession there was a decline in people traveling to Nevada to get married."
Besides the drop in marriage licenses, last year's census data recognized Nevada for receiving one of the greatest cuts in government funding for domestic violence programs in the nation. In a survey, 50 percent of Nevadans who were refused assistance for domestic violence were turned away because of a lack of funding. The only state that turned away victims at a higher rate due to budget cuts was New Mexico at 52 percent.
"Last year when sequestration kicked in there was an across-the-board cut, and that had a huge impact," Meuschke said.
That, combined with a decrease from marriage licenses, hit the Nevada domestic violence outreach community hard.
"It's that perfect storm you talk about," Meuschke said. "Suddenly you've cut everything you can possibly cut, and now you're starting to close things."
A STATE OF CRISIS
As funds dry up for outreach programs, the state of domestic violence in Nevada remains one of the worst in the country.
About 48.2 percent of women living in Nevada have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, according to Lisa Lynn Chapman of Safe Nest. Chapman acknowledged that not all perpetrators are men, but being a woman in Nevada carries its statistical risks.
Throughout the past 15 years of available Violence Policy Center data, Nevada ranked in the top 10 for men murdering women, and 90 percent of those cases, on average, were domestic violence-related homicides. For six of those years Nevada ranked No. 1, including 2008, 2009 and 2010.
The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that conducts research on violence in America, releases reports with a two-year delay, so data for 2012 and 2013 is not available yet.
The only year Nevada didn't place in the top 10, according to available data, was 2011, but Meuschke said these totals are ranked per capita. Judging by population, Nevada comes in at No. 35 of 50 at a little under 3 million people, so "a small difference can be significant," she said.
Twenty women were murdered by men in Nevada in 2011 — 15 fewer than in 2010, a year in which Nevada ranked No. 1. Though Meuschke said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the drop, the Metropolitan Police Department reported that 25 domestic violence-related homicides happened in Clark County alone in 2012 and 30 in 2013. The victims' genders were not specified.
As of mid-June this year, Metro reports 15 domestic violence victims have been killed.
The Nevada attorney general's office recognized the crisis and created a combined Domestic Violence Fatality Review task force in 2011 to address the issue.
The task force consists of a team in Washoe County and Clark County, as well as a statewide team that serves rural areas.
"Instead of just scratching the surface, we're digging much deeper," said Washoe County Assistant Sheriff Darin Balaam, describing detectives delving into case history and making more in-depth and well-researched recommendations.
These recommendations are typically systemic changes aimed at preventing deaths, said Tara Phebus, the Clark County team's coordinator. Examples include youth domestic violence education, eliminating language barriers in community domestic violence resources, and recommending legislative change, but it's on a case-by-case basis, she said.
"The end goal is to prevent fatalities due to domestic violence," Phebus said. "To have zero deaths related to domestic violence in our community."
Despite salary freezes and therapy cutbacks, Chapman encouraged victims to contact Safe Nest through its 24-hour hotline. From there, they can receive information on shelter stay, protection orders, crisis counseling and perpetrator counseling.
"It's been stressful," Chapman said. "One of the things we're proud of is that we are doing what's necessary. All of our services are essential."
Though the attorney general's office cannot speculate how gay marriage laws would affect state programs, gay rights activists like Freedom Nevada Director Ward Curtin have recognized what legalization could mean for community programs.
"Just for in-state couples, we're looking at $4 million more for state and local government," Curtin said, though that's a projected three-year, across-the-board increase that does not specify domestic violence programs.
Still, more marriage means more money.
"These figures only estimate local marriages," he said. "It doesn't at all take into account destination weddings."
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