Budget lessons

Thursday's meeting of the Interim Finance Committee provided an instructive preview of the funding gridlock taxpayers can expect in the 2011 Legislature.

Confronted with a new $4.2 million shortfall in the Millennium Scholarship fund, lawmakers did nothing to address it. They pointed fingers and tossed around a handful of bad ideas to preserve the program. Then Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, vowed to hold another meeting within a few weeks and bail out the scholarships -- again -- "so those students and their families who are expecting scholarships will get them."

During a February special session, lawmakers diverted unclaimed property funds from the scholarships to the general fund to help balance the budget, then declared the scholarships solvent through 2014. However, settlement money from the tobacco industry -- the funding source that was supposed to cover the scholarship costs forever -- has plunged like the rest of the state's revenues.

Lawmakers could make that shortfall go away by simply cutting the amount given to scholarship recipients. Students who graduate from Nevada high schools with at least a 3.25 grade-point average are supposed to receive up to $10,000 over four years for college, provided they attend one of Nevada's public colleges or universities.

But the politicians just can't pull the trigger on any cuts, no matter how bad the economy gets -- not even one that turns a $10,000 giveaway into, say, a $9,000 giveaway. Or raising the qualification standards for the scholarships.

Democrats rail against Republicans for opposing tax increases to balance the state's budget, but their ideology is just as inflexible. They can't bring themselves to cut $4.2 million from a general fund that runs through roughly $3 billion a year.

This is why conservative lawmakers oppose tax increases in the first place. Once new government programs are put in place, they are impossible to get rid of. And the costs just keep going up and up and up, requiring more tax increases to pay for them.

Raising taxes again in 2011 to sustain an unsustainable state government only ensures that lawmakers will be pushing the same rock up the same hill again in 2013.