We want roads, so we've got to pay taxes

As usual, it was Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown who was the voice of reason.

The commission heard about 2½ hours of debate Tuesday on whether to increase the fuel tax in the county by about 3 cents per year over the next three years. Most the speakers were labor and business groups that would benefit from spending tax money, but some were tea party types who insisted taxes are bad and government shouldn’t try to create jobs.

“I feel this is exactly what government is about,” Brown said at the end of the debate. After public safety, quality, well-maintained infrastructure is something all residents want, Brown said. And while no one likes taxes, voters are more inclined to support them if they can see up front how much the tax will cost, what it will pay for and when those projects will be completed, he added.

This tax meets all three criteria.

The Regional Transportation Commission proffered an estimate that shows the average driver would pay $16.35 next year, $33.64 in 2015 and $51.95 in 2016 under the increased tax. That money would be used to pay off bonds that will fund an eight-page list of projects around the valley costing nearly $700 million.

And in November 2016, voters will get a chance to continue raising the tax to pay for additional projects, or to end future tax increases.

Brown compared the vote on Tuesday to actions taken in the 1980s to create the Regional Transportation Commission or to pass sales tax increases that built valley roads such as the beltway. In retrospect, those decisions seem like no-brainers, but they were controversial at the time.

And surely this one was, too: Several people objected, saying they were taxed too much, couldn’t afford the increase, and bashing government waste and prevailing wage laws. Some said government doesn’t create jobs, which is manifestly untrue: Government created jobs to build the Hoover Dam, say, without which Las Vegas would not exist. And government will create the jobs designing and building $700 million worth of infrastructure projects in the next few years.

But this isn’t Keynesian economics — people paid to dig holes and then fill them in.

These are useful, necessary projects that will lower commute times for motorists, help business more easily move goods through the valley and generally improve the often-frustrating process of getting around town. As Commissioner Mary Beth Scow said, we will have tangible public assets that benefit the community when we’re done.

Only Commissioner Steve Sisolak dissented from the vote, questioning county staff about language in state law that didn’t match wording in the county’s ordinance. (Lawmakers in Carson City dodged the issue, passing a law that gives the county the authority to raise the tax.)

Sisolak, who reportedly is entertaining a bid to challenge Gov. Brian Sandoval’s re-election next year, thundered against the state for not giving Clark County its fair share of transportation dollars. Taxpayers here subsidize other counties, some of which haven’t even bothered to avail themselves of state-authorized local fuel taxes.

Obviously, Sisolak is right — Clark County doesn’t get its fair share. And surely, this is a quality political issue — running against Sandoval by accusing him of being the “Governor of Reno” isn’t a bad political strategy.

But on Tuesday, we were talking about raising the fuel tax in Clark County and using that money exclusively for Clark County projects. The fair share issue, potent though it may be, was beyond the county’s power to address. Commissioners were asked to do something about local road-building, and Sisolak ended up saying no. Being anti-tax may or may not help him on the campaign trail against the popular Sandoval, but on Tuesday, being anti-tax meant being anti-road building, too. And while Sandoval didn’t endorse raising the tax, at least he didn’t stand in the way of doing so.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.