Commentary by Guy Farmer: Nevada’s budget crisis – Doing less better
For the Nevada Appeal
As the end of the 2011 Nevada Legislature approaches, our elected representatives have yet to decide how to close a huge state budget deficit. Although many lawmakers talk about “doing more with less,” I think they should try to do less better.
Las Vegas Sun political columnist Jon Ralston described the budget situation accurately last weekend when he wrote that “there’s not enough time to fully vet the most dramatic, substantive restructuring of the state’s tax system in history – and we haven’t even seen the actual legislation yet.”
This is par for the course, however, because lawmakers usually wait until the last few days of each legislative session before addressing budgetary issues. This year is no different except that the stakes are higher.
Liberal Democrats, who control both houses of the State Legislature, usually want to resolve budgetary issues by throwing more taxpayer dollars at them while fiscally conservative Republicans are adhering to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s “no new taxes” pledge. So where is former state senator Bill Raggio, R-Reno, when we really need him? Unfortunately, there’s no one in the Legislature who understands the budget, or knows how to fund public education, as well as he does.
Short-sighted Republicans punished Raggio for supporting U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over right-wing Tea Partier Sharron Angle in last year’s mid-term election, and now they’re paying the price for the leadership vacuum they created. Let’s face it, Raggio was just too moderate – too much of a deal-maker – for his party’s ideological purists.
As for the Legislature’s Democratic “leadership,” it’s virtually non-existent. Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a pair of Las Vegas Democrats, have dilly-dallied for months over taxes and spending. Ralston asserts that “the very taxes they (the Democrats) want to keep alive – sales and payroll taxes – are the same ones they argue are inimical to the state’s long-term fiscal health.” Go figure!
One of the ideas being tossing around is a sales tax on services, which is strongly advocated by my economically gifted friend Bob Thomas. Although professionals would complain, they’d simply pass along extra costs to customers and patients.
Since public education accounts for more than half of the state’s general fund spending, let’s examine how the Legislature is handling education. Although Gov. Sandoval has presented some interesting educational reform proposals, Democrats are extremely reluctant to challenge the powerful Nevada State Education Association, which defends teacher tenure and other impediments to real educational reform.
Sandoval has been listening to former Washington, D.C. School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, who advocates public funding for private schools.
“Giving parents choice in the form of charter schools and private scholarships forces districts to improve to keep their students,” she wrote recently. Competition is the key but the NSEA thinks that’s a dirty word. Nevertheless, why doesn’t the Legislature take a serious look at Ms. Rhee’s imaginative proposals and put students first, as she does? Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer to that question.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, first covered the Legislature in 1962.