A tax is a tax, no matter who raises it

No New Taxes has always been more of a bumper sticker than an actual political philosophy, and its elevation to the status of holy writ among Republicans has tied many party members in knots that even the sharpest knife can't sever.

But if that's your thing -- as it is Gov. Brian Sandoval's -- then at the very least, you should be honest about it.

From the start, however, Sandoval has shaded the reality of Nevada's budget situation with short-sighted gimmicks that attempt to cover a basic truth: Nobody wants to balance Nevada's budget with just the money the state has to spend.

And now, the consequences are starting to show.

Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins broached the subject this week, when he suggested a property tax increase may be necessary to maintain county services. He suggested increasing the rate by 6 cents or 7 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"At some point we're not providing the services we're supposed to," Collins said, according to the Review-Journal's Scott Wyland. "The jails are overcrowded. Social services are leaving people out on the street, and they're dying."

Collins and the rest of his colleagues passed a budget that includes 82 layoffs, pushing the total number of workers lost to 446 since the recession started. It was necessary in part because Sandoval's budget takes property tax money and diverts it to higher education, as well as forces the county to take on services previously underwritten by the state.

All of which raises an important question: If somebody else has to raise taxes as a direct result of the governor's budget, doesn't that still count as a tax increase? If a tax increase is passed by the county -- which is far from certain -- it may be Collins' finger on the green button, but it was Sandoval who forced his hand in the first place. And if that's so, then isn't Sandoval's no-tax rhetoric utterly dishonest?

From the start, the governor has acknowledged that building his budget based only on the money the Economic Forum said would come in during the next two years was impossible -- the governor and his aides have acknowledged that the level of cuts would have been too deep.

But Sandoval, who was running at the time against no-tax Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons (in the primary) and no-tax Democrat Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid (in the general), had promised the voters he would not raise taxes, or fees, or extend taxes set to expire.

The problem is obvious: Where to get new money into the budget without raising taxes? This led to a host of bad ideas, from asking mining companies to "pre-pay" taxes that will come due in the future to borrowing against anticipated insurance tax revenue. Among the worst ideas is stealing bond reserve funds from local school districts.

But an adult conversation on the subject -- when the budget runs short, what combination of reasonable cuts and reasonable taxes will fix the problem? -- is impossible, since Sandoval has already taken taxes off the table. All that's left to him are gimmicks and tricks.

But reality has a nasty habit of creeping in, and the reality is this: The money taxpayers save in Sandoval's budget, they will have to pay elsewhere.

To be sure, the governor's pen won't stain a tax bill, but somebody, somewhere will have to do the dirty work. And just because that person isn't named Sandoval doesn't make it any less his fault if it happens.

No new taxes always sounds good, and it's easier than being honest. But leadership is about leveling with people and it's about damn time we did that.


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