Lament for Nevada’s taxpayers

Nevada is a special state. A good place to live, work and raise a family. Unlike too many American states, she’s not hopelessly broken … yet. Her leaders, left and right, are close-knit and bound by a people who (despite the rhetoric of a few soreheads) are neither greedy nor unsophisticated.

We were a small Western state that grew up marching to its own drummer. Our individuality, live-and-let mentality and the willingness to risk zigging when everyone else counseled zagging created a world of spectacular opportunity in a state that is largely uninhabited. Today, even in this downturn, our economy suffers few rivals.

So when pressure groups and politicians beholden to special interests start agitating for “change” in the way Nevada works, it is something to which all should take special notice. Not to dismiss out of hand the proposed ideas (though too often they are ideas cribbed from other failing states), but to understand who wants the changes, why they want the changes and how the changes will “make Nevada better.”

Yesterday’s idea du jour was “growth doesn’t pay for growth.” Then, as the story line went, we were growing too fast for government. Therefore, we needed to raise taxes high and fast, which we did in 2003. It was the largest tax increase in the state’s history. The tax increase to end all tax increases. Funny thing, though: Even with that tax increase, coupled with a reduction in growth, big government advocates say Nevada services still didn’t keep up.

So the same cast of characters who brought us “growth doesn’t pay for growth” now bring us the new idea du jour — “rework Nevada’s tax structure.”

The idea, of course, is not to rework it so that citizens will pay less in taxes now that growth has slowed. The call to arms is to rework it so that tax receipts “reliably” escalate and government programs “reliably” expand no matter how fast or slow Nevada’s economy may advance.

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I add that these advocates for never-ending higher spending want program expansion without accountability. The fix is always in more money. Never in a rethink of program purpose or effectiveness.

And you know what? Even with that said, I’m still OK with hearing out those proposals, as I think are most Nevada taxpayers, who are as patient as they are long-suffering.

There are, no doubt, a lot of things Nevada could do if money were no object. But if advocates for higher taxes want me on board, they must articulate a vision for the use of the money that is clear in cost and accountable in goal. For example, if we’re going to pour hundreds of millions more dollars into the education hole in Nevada, I want to know what we’re buying. So far as I can tell, the increased spending in Nevada’s schools has not translated into better-educated children. But it has increased the school district’s payroll, which is directly tied to more union dues.

I don’t mean to pick on schools and make it sound as if nothing good happens in public education in Nevada. But if I’m wrong about the concept of Nevadans not getting the full bang for their tax buck with schools, I wish someone would set me straight. Every year we spend more, and every year student performance goes down.

We need to turn that around and, for me, I see no evidence that more money is the change agent.

This is a reasonable, middle-road approach. I’m afraid, however, that the special interests that want to overhaul our tax system, and then divvy up the proceeds, have no intention of linking higher taxes to measurable results.

Why?

Because the special interests that roam the halls of the Legislature and whisper in the ears of bought-and-paid-for office holders are focused on job expansion, not in rendering a service for the people of Nevada. Therefore, in this ongoing political power play, taxpayers become just a commodity to be restructured, scraped then squeezed.

And that old game is the constant lament of Nevada taxpayers. It may be time to change the game.

It may be time to just say, “No results, no money.”

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@review journal.com) is publisher of the Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media.

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