If there’s a worse way to supplement Clark County police budgets than the More Cops sales tax approach, we’d be hard-pressed to find it.
That’s the unavoidable impression that emerged Tuesday, as the Clark County Commission debated a plan to increase the sales tax rate in Clark County by 0.15 cents to hire more officers. This is one step removed from holding a bake sale, but with an aftertaste of bile, not chocolate.
But this is what it’s come to because of the unwillingness of local governments in the early part of the last decade to devote more money to police. Former Sheriff Bill Young was forced to invent a creative way to finance the hiring of more cops, and the sales tax was the answer.
Leave aside that it’s the most regressive tax there is. Leave aside that during a recession, when spending plummets, it’s unstable. Leave aside the fact that the Legislature decided to parcel out the pennies like a parsimonious parent doling out an allowance with a gimlet eye on an undeserving child. And leave aside that state lawmakers — never willing to relinquish authority to local governments — left the hard vote for the County Commission.
I’ll bet Sheriff Doug Gillespie never imagined when he started a career in law enforcement that he’d have to beg for dollars like a high school class hawking a car wash to pay for the senior prom.
But that’s the Nevada way: Half-assed, irresponsible and not nearly good enough.
It was hard enough to get the Legislature to agree to authorize additional sales taxes. After the public voted in 2004 in favor of a non-binding measure to raise the sales tax rate by a half-cent, the 2005 Legislature gave its approval for half of that, a quarter-cent. Las Vegas police officials sat out the recession but returned to Carson City this year to ask for the other quarter-cent. Lawmakers instead authorized .15 cents, which would increase the county’s sales tax rate to 8.25 percent.
But now, the Clark County Commission needs to muster a two-thirds majority (at least five of seven commissioners) to approve it. And that might be harder than it looks.
For one, Commissioner Steve Sisolak doesn’t like taxes. “You know I am philosophically opposed to raising taxes, but I keep trying to keep an open mind,” he said at Tuesday’s hearing.
Really? What’s his philosophical stance on getting a cop to swiftly respond to a hot robbery call?
You know who else doesn’t like taxes? Everybody! But you know what? They’re how we pay for civilization, and one of the most basic jobs of government is protecting people from criminal predators. The more cops there are, the sooner they’re able to answer those critical calls.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani wondered aloud if the commission should authorize less than the .15 cents contemplated in the law, to see if the department spends the new money properly. So we’d be approving, what, .075 cents? Or maybe 0.0375? Either the department can be trusted to spend funds properly or it can’t. If not, we should probably be more concerned with the nearly $320 million the county spends annually for the department’s general fund than a fraction of a cent in sales taxes. Besides, the law requires police to report how they spend the money to multiple agencies.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the opposition to raising the tax is that there are some real issues. County budgets are stretched thin, and obligations are myriad: University Medical Center, foster child care, fire protection and maintaining the municipal infrastructure that nobody even thinks about until it breaks. Making sure every cent is spent wisely is essential.
It’s not the commission’s fault, after all, that Nevada has suffered more than any other place during the recession, or that there’s not enough money to fully fund the competing programs under their purview. The state’s broken tax system can’t be laid at their feet, either.
But it’s not the fault of police, either. And — whether they like it or not — commissioners need to approve this tax. Because a bake sale just isn’t going to cut it.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.