Ignoring highways

With an agreement on education spending in place, the Nevada Legislature has lost its best excuse for ignoring the state’s highway construction needs.

However, the long hours required to reach the accord on the K-12 budget have left some lawmakers burned out worse than a high school senior. Although they have five days left until adjournment, legislators appear unwilling to put in the work for their final exam — the one that will decide their grade for the entire session.

The taxes that support the state’s highway trust aren’t bringing in nearly enough revenue to pay for needed improvements to Southern Nevada’s major freeways. Without billions of dollars worth of projects, already-terrible traffic congestion will worsen, sinking the Las Vegas Valley’s quality of life and economy in the process. Interstate 15 is in particularly sorry shape, gridlocked at all hours by regional commercial traffic, hotel and casino workers and visitors to the Las Vegas Strip.

At a minimum, the Legislature needs to identify enough revenue to cover bonds that would allow the Nevada Department of Transportation to begin some projects right away. A couple of proposals currently before lawmakers, including one from Gov. Jim Gibbons that doesn’t increase any taxes, would do just that.

The matter should have been the Legislature’s highest priority this session. Although there’s still time for lawmakers to come up with a solution, Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, said Tuesday that he’s ready to punt the highway funding issue to the November 2008 ballot in the form of a ballot question seeking tax increases.

“That probably is the best way to go since the governor won’t allow us to raise taxes,” Mr. Atkinson said.

Of course, state lawmakers can, in fact, increase taxes without the governor’s support. Tax increases require two-thirds approval in both the Assembly and the Senate, the same margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto. Clark County has more than enough lawmakers in each house to impose its will by voting as a regional bloc.

The Assembly Transportation Committee needs leadership in the final days of the 2007 session, not acquiescence. Highway funding proposals that address Southern Nevada’s overwhelmed highways immediately are still in play. Lawmakers have plenty of time to negotiate details, hold hearings and put these ideas to votes. A ballot question should be the last resort.

The state and local governments are awash in revenue growth. A portion of some of these streams — especially the room tax and sales taxes on vehicle sales — should be diverted to the highway trust.

The clock is ticking for Clark County’s lawmakers. This is one test they should not fail.

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