Nevada voters must think long-term


It's a rotten time to ask voters for money.

It's also a rotten time for them to say no.

Most people probably believe the key vote in November will be the one for president of the United States. But for Las Vegans, several ballot questions may prove more crucial to the community's long-term future.

The national economy is in sorry shape, probably worse than we originally thought. The real estate bust is the primary culprit, and the effects are evident in few places more than Las Vegas.

As a result, local businesses, governments and families are pruning expenses, taking measures to ride out the storm. They aren't in a generous mood.

Yet the November ballot is likely to contain questions aimed at raising money for schools and other needs, and other questions designed to curtail public spending. How will voters approach these issues?

Their recession-infused first instinct, no doubt, will be to vote against anything that costs them money. The timing isn't right, they'll reason. Maybe later.

But if at least some of the money-related questions are rejected, Las Vegas could be in a world of hurt.

Topping the list is the Clark County school construction bond, which would raise $9.5 billion to build 73 schools and renovate many others over 10 years. This should be a slam dunk, considering the bond issue can be achieved by maintaining, not increasing, the current property tax going to schools.

But you never know, because the flip side of the argument is that by defeating the bond question, property taxes could go down. A tax cut is going to look attractive to a lot of voters.

The more pressing issue, though, is that Clark County continues to grow and more schools will be needed. The school district has about 310,000 students today, and officials predict the district will have a student enrollment of 473,000 by 2018.

Without those 73 new schools, the school district would be in dire shape a few years from now. It would have to deal with a range of problems, from crowded classes to more year-round schedules and double sessions. Student performance likely would suffer, triggering conflicts with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, not to mention being a bad thing for the community and the country.

And by the way, the conventional wisdom that our local schools do a lousy job of teaching students is not supported by the facts. Among the nation's 10 largest school systems, Clark County was the only one that met all the No Child Left Behind benchmarks for 2006-07. That's a considerable achievement for any urban school district, and it's especially noteworthy for Clark County, where per-pupil spending is far below the national average.

Who among us wants to see a reversal of fortunes? I well remember those trying days in the 1990s when some local schools were forced to hold double sessions, with half the kids going to class at dawn and half of them attending into the evening. Also, under double sessions, the kids receive fewer hours of instruction. That's not something we want to repeat.

The school construction bond likely will be joined on the November ballot by a measure to raise the gaming tax. The state teachers union wants to raise the levy on casinos by 3 percentage points, from 6.75 percent to 9.75 percent, with the additional revenue -- at least $250 million per year -- going to public education.

Although there's no question Nevada desperately needs to spend more money on education, this initiative is flawed, because it singles out a single industry to shoulder the tax burden, while other industries get a free pass. But the question is likely to be popular with voters, since the casino companies would get soaked, not individual taxpayers.

With this question, Nevadans who support public education -- I hesitantly estimate it's a healthy majority of us -- may decide that even though the initiative unfairly singles out one industry, it may be the only realistic way to secure a funding boost for the state's schools.

After all, time after time the Nevada Legislature has faced the issue of broadening the state's tax base, and each time it has blinked. It hasn't helped recently to have a governor whose proud legacy will be to not raise taxes even as he takes all of us down with the ship. With a giant leadership void in Carson City, voters may feel the need to take matters into their own hands.

The November ballot also may contain a measure emanating from the other end of the political spectrum that, if approved, actually could be more harmful to our state's long-term future than the dreaded failure of the school bond.

This measure would require all future initiatives that raise taxes to pass with a two-thirds supermajority vote to become law. This is an obvious scheme to make it next to impossible to raise taxes in Nevada, essentially empowering the tyranny of the minority.

Alas, despite its shortsighted nature, this measure is likely to garner considerable public support. If it passes, it could jeopardize Nevada's ability to meet the demands of growth for decades.

In addition to the November ballot, the 2009 state Legislature is guaranteed to be faced with demands to raise taxes to fund highway construction and to expand police forces in Clark County. Both needs are clear and present, putting Gov. Jim Gibbons in a self-inflicted tight spot.

The presidential election is important and historic. Who these days isn't looking forward to a dramatic change in the White House?

But for Las Vegans, the November election is momentous for other reasons as well. The faltering economy is likely to play a substantial role in the outcome, but I urge voters to keep their eyes on the big picture and the long term. The economy will recover in a year or two, and Las Vegas will return to its normal state of breakneck population and tourism growth. We must recognize a rare opportunity to get ahead of the curve a little bit, to lift our schools and other civic responsibilities to a higher standard.

If we don't do it now, we'll risk falling further behind than we already are.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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