The check is in the mail

What single act makes governments seem downright benevolent? Cutting a check directly to the taxpayer.

It doesn’t matter that the proceeds from that check might have come out of your own wallet and are merely being returned. When you get that money back, it’s as though Santa Claus made a special trip to deliver an out-of-season stocking stuffer.

Politicians know this. That’s why they’ll fight to keep handing out goodies — and why their recipients are loyal footsoldiers in preserving programs that project compassion and redistribute wealth.

Witness the predictable reactions to a SAGE Commission recommendation to transfer the state’s Senior Citizens Property Tax Rebate Program to Nevada’s counties.

The program refunds up to $500 in property tax payments to elderly residents with low incomes and limited assets. It costs the state only $5.9 million per year, a drop in the bucket considering the state’s next two-year budget could total about $5.9 billion.

However, every dollar counts this year because Gov. Jim Gibbons is preparing a spending plan that imposes significant cuts in the state’s operating expenses. The state doesn’t rely on or collect property taxes in the first place — counties do — so the SAGE recommendation makes sense.

But Nevada’s counties have been so busy handing out huge pay raises to their workers over the years — and in Clark County’s case, writing eight-figure checks to settle lawsuits and bail out poorly managed departments — that they’re crying poverty.

“We already have a hiring freeze in place on nonpublic safety positions … and other cost-cutting measures have been implemented,” Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said.

Besides, scores of elderly Nevadans depend on their checks — on getting their money back — to make ends meet. In a Sunday Review-Journal report, one Reno couple called the program a gift from God, saying “that check allows us to pay our doctor bills and buy medicine.”

“This is critically necessary for these people. To take it away from them is a tax increase that I won’t support,” said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.

To declare that ending a rebate program constitutes a tax increase is interesting logic, even though no one’s suggesting that the program be discontinued.

The more practical solution is to reduce tax rates, rather than require people to pay, route the money through the treasury at some expense, then return it to the sender. But assessing different property tax rates on different homes, based on the owners’ incomes and assets, might pose constitutional problems.

And as the Reno couple’s delight clearly shows, there’s nothing quite like getting a check in the mail.

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