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It’s all tax money: State-county settlement ignores larger issues

When one government sues another, taxpayers can’t win. No matter the outcome, the public gets stuck with the bill. So pardon us for not being too excited about an apparent settlement agreement between Clark County and the state of Nevada.

The dispute dates back to 2009, when the Legislature swiped more than $100 million from the county to balance the state’s 2009-11 budget. Lawmakers pulled a similar trick in a 2010 special session, leading Gov. Brian Sandoval to attempt to copy the approach in 2011. That spring, however, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the state’s 2010 seizure of $62 million in Clark County Clean Water Coalition funds was illegal because the revenue hadn’t been used for the reason it was collected: to build a wastewater treatment project. When the court ordered that money returned, the county was emboldened to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s 2009 money grab, as well.

State officials were justifiably concerned about the prospect of a court ordering them to write a check to the county for $102.5 million. Such a judgment would have made the work of the 2013 Legislature that much more challenging.

To avoid that scenario, the state agreed to adjust its Medicaid funding formula, which will save the county $16 million through June 30. The state also promised to pay $35 million toward the county’s $50 million airport connector improvements, including a new flyover bridge from the southbound connector to the eastbound Las Vegas Beltway.

“This was a difficult negotiation, but in the end I believe we reached an agreement that benefits the County, the State and ultimately our taxpayers,” County Manager Don Burnette said in a statement in response to last week’s deal.

From the average person’s perspective, whether a tax dollar goes to the county or the state matters little. By the end of each year, every citizen has handed over a huge pile of money to government. It’s not too much to ask that it be spent efficiently, based on priorities.

State lawmakers swiped money from local governments a few years ago because, especially in Southern Nevada, local governments weren’t spending money responsibly. The priority was creating the best-paid municipal workforce in the country, not creating the most efficient, productive government in America.

So, with this settlement, county taxpayers will see their money shift from one entity to another. And the tax structure that created the problem in the first place – making local governments a higher funding priority than schools and the state – remains intact.

The solution isn’t for lawmakers to empty the accounts of other public entities. It’s for lawmakers to reset existing taxes so money goes where it’s most needed, to reform collective bargaining, to encourage school choice, eliminate prevailing wages and reform public-sector retirement benefits to reduce long-term, unfunded liabilities.

That would save money. That would make a difference to struggling taxpayers and businesses. Last week’s settlement agreement does neither.

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