Deal on the state budget

As the scheduled session of the biennial Nevada Legislature clanks toward the finish line, gushing smoke like the survivor of a relatively injury-free demolition derby, many in the media succumb to the temptation to sort personalities and programs into “winners” and “losers.”

Gov. Jim Gibbons had sought $60 million to convert 100 public schools into “empowerment schools.” But he got only $10 million to fund an additional 29, statewide: Gibbons the loser.

The governor said he’d veto any budget that bumped the state’s modified business tax from 0.63 percent to 0.65 percent. Tax-hungry Democrats — after squawking a bit about schools not opening come fall — blinked and folded: Gibbons the winner.

Democrats had proposed expanding all-day kindergarten to all 340 schools that currently have any kindergarten at all, at a cost approaching $100 million. They’ll get 63 additional schools for $15 million. Who gets the winner’s check mark there?

The problem with this kind of scorekeeping is that it pretends politicians who win “only” 13 percent spending hikes for their favored programs are “losers,” while those who score 17 percent increases for their favored bureaucrats are “winners” — regardless of whether there’s any indication the supposed targets of all that additional spending actually benefit from it. (There are solid statistics, for instance, that “all-day kindergarten” is of short-term academic benefit for kids struggling to learn English, but of no appreciable long-term academic benefit to any child when measured six or eight years later.)

The fact is — all shuffle-step rhetoric about “spending cuts” and vital state operations “left on the butcher’s block” aside — it’s about as hard to predict the real victors in this every-other-year ritual as it is to bet a contest between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

The winners, every time, are Nevada’s government employees and the public sector; the real losers are the taxpayers who foot the skyrocketing bill.

The special pleaders can compare Nevada’s social service and schooling expenditures to those of some hillside Latin American barrio with sewage running down the streets to their hearts’ content; Nevada teacher pay is in fact about average for the nation — 26th out of the 50 states — and that ranking jumps to 16th if you include teachers’ 10 percent retirement bonus. If too much of that goes to older teachers and not enough to new recruits and real “merit pay,” talk to the unions.

Over the past 13 years, no state government has grown faster than Nevada’s. General fund spending has tripled since 1994, from $1.023 billion to more than $3 billion this fiscal year — dwarfing these last-minute squabbles over $4.5 million here and $15 million there.

Yes, our population has grown, as well. But not by that much.

When lawmakers finally lock down their spending plan for the coming two years, Nevada’s budget will be set to grow an additional 16 percent, to an estimated $3.4 billion in 2009 — not counting $400 million in surplus revenue targeted to “one-shot” construction projects.

The bureaucrats should be dancing in conga lines in Carson City. No need to ask them who “won.”

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