Like Willie Sutton, lawmakers eventually will go where the money is


This week's special legislative session promises all the drama of a professional wrestling match. There will be posturing and grandstanding, all right. But whatever deal is struck to cover a state revenue shortfall of $342 million will be staged to the last punch and wail. The whole thing is being scripted in secret meetings in Carson City.

Gov. Jim Gibbons provided a rough outline of the plan Friday. The state will borrow about half the money it needs, its inability to repay the debt notwithstanding. Lawmakers have managed to find an additional $77 million in "nonessential funds," which would seem to indicate they shouldn't have budgeted the money in the first place. Some as-yet unspecified cuts and a couple of nifty accounting tricks will provide a fiscal bridge to February and the start of the 2009 regular session.

At that point, the Legislature will begin trolling for some serious money, not only to weather the fiscal year that ends June 30, but to improve the state's gloomy revenue prospects for 2009-11.

This will be real political theater -- and it's already playing out across Nevada.

Legislators have long coveted the riches and revenue stability of local governments. The state's general fund relies heavily on sales and gaming tax collections, which have dropped off much worse than the property tax revenues that prop up cities and counties.

County and municipal boards foolishly splurged on their unionized workers during the boom years, allowing personnel costs to grow even faster than skyrocketing revenues. Now that the state's economy is in tatters, this unsustainable spending finally has caught up to the elected officials and public employees who've been living the high life.

Last week, the Clark County Commission and the city councils of Las Vegas, Henderson, Reno and Sparks dedicated a portion of their regular meetings to their budget problems. Las Vegas officials want their workers to accept smaller pay raises or face layoffs. Henderson is canceling projects and offering buyouts to older employees. The Reno council approved $7.7 million in cuts and could start laying off workers as early as this week. Sparks is considering 4 percent across-the-board pay cuts.

Local government officials hope that if they squeal loudly enough, the Legislature will see fit to spare their substantial coffers and instead stick it to Nevada businesses. You know, the ones that are expected to shed 48,000 jobs next year.

"This is deep. This is really deep. It's really a new experience for us to be cutting this amount," Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson said Tuesday about a number of spending reductions. "Times are difficult and are going to become, in all likelihood, more difficult. ... We cannot be the bank to which the state government looks to balance its budget. I recognize they have a responsibility, but we and they service the same people."

Lawmakers aren't feeling his pain. The Legislature has had to drain the state's $267 million rainy day fund and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending since late 2007. A quick survey of local and county governments shows balance sheets the state clearly envies.

-- Clark County's $1.4 billion general fund is 1.2 percent bigger than last year's spending plan.

-- North Las Vegas spending increased by 7.4 percent this year to $214.2 million.

-- Henderson, despite its "deep" cuts, still has a $240 million general fund that is about 1 percent bigger than last year's.

-- The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which is funded jointly by the city and Clark County outside their respective general funds, has a $549.2 million operating budget that is 6.38 percent larger than last year's.

-- The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has an even bigger bull's eye on its budget after the Nevada Policy Research Institute uncovered loose oversight of the tourism agency's room-tax revenues, outlined in a pair of Review-Journal reports last week. Its current general fund is $218.8 million, 2 percent bigger than last year's.

-- The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District has a $57.8 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, a 5 percent increase over last year.

-- The cities of Las Vegas and Reno and Washoe County aren't quite as flush. The freshly trimmed Las Vegas budget is down 3.5 percent from fiscal year 2008 to $536.2 million; Reno's has shrunk 10.8 percent to $427.6 million; and Washoe County's is down 3.3 percent to $345.5 million.

Legislative leaders are mum for the moment as to whether they'll redirect local government property tax streams to bolster public schools, the university system, welfare programs and public safety. But Gibson's comments reflect the political tension that is already building.

Counties and cities, which are just beginning budget preparations for fiscal year 2009-10, are bracing for a fight to keep their cash flow. The never-gracious employee unions recognize the stakes and are getting in line, kicking and screaming, to renegotiate reduced raises. They know that if they don't fall on their swords with their bosses, the state might make sure there's nothing left at the bargaining table but pink slips.

The average taxpayer isn't going to notice a thing, regardless of how this Kabuki plays out. But all the performing can trick Joe Six-Pack into thinking that governments are hurting worse than he is.

Not hardly. Despite more than a year of decreases in expected revenue, total government spending in Nevada hasn't actually decreased. Rather, elected officials are shrieking about a drastic reduction in spending increases.

Even the Clark County School District operating budget, which has been cut down to $2.23 billion, is still 2 percent bigger than last year's budget of $2.15 billion.

In October, government employment grew 3.6 percent statewide, adding 5,800 jobs, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Public-sector employment increased 5.7 percent in Las Vegas, according to the state.

There is still plenty of tax money pouring into Nevada governments. It's just not going to the right places. It's not being allocated wisely. In some cases, it is being wasted. How can anyone conclude otherwise when governments are making so-called "cuts" even as spending is up and public employees are getting pay raises of between 4 and 9 percent?

In a contracting economy with no population growth, we supposedly need tax increases? And without them, we need to lay off school librarians this summer so local government bureaucrats can continue to make more than $100,000 per year? We can't check on the welfare of foster kids because firefighters have to be paid $250,000 per year?

No, what we need is better prioritization. And if it takes a state money grab to help accomplish that, so be it.

Glenn Cook is a Review-Journal editorial writer. E-mail him at gcook@reviewjournal.com.

 

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