Cut spending! But not mine

So Nevada may have to close some college campuses, and even may have to shrink the size of its Legislature, all as a way of tightening its belt in tough fiscal times.

And, don’t you just know it, two of the colleges that may be closed are located in rural and Northern Nevada, the very same place that will be hit hardest if the state subtracts members from the Legislature.

You know rural and Northern Nevada. Where lots of Republican lawmakers live.

This isn’t, by the way, a way for Southern Nevada to finally exercise its rightful dominance over the sparsely populated rest of the state (would that it was!). Instead, it’s a nifty way for Democrats to get Republicans to tie themselves into rhetorical pretzels.

Republicans dislike taxes and big government. But when the consequences of an anti-tax, government-shrinking philosophy hit home, that changes things.

It’s easy to say Nevada has to tighten its fiscal belt, get its house in order and cut back on spending. But how popular will that idea — or its proponent — be when the Nevada System of Higher Education closes Western Nevada College’s far-flung campuses, or Great Basin College in Elko and its related centers? What will those rural lawmakers tell their constituents when they demand to know why their only chance at a degree or technical training just closed up shop? “If you want a degree, move to Las Vegas”? No, they should probably go with, “Um, no new taxes?”

But how could a rural or Northern Republican argue against closing schools? By saying they didn’t want those particular budget cuts? Or that big government isn’t always bad?

That’s exactly why the Board of Regents is talking about closing schools (along with Nevada State College in Henderson and the Desert Research Institute). It’s not likely to happen, but isn’t it a kick knowing that it could, and which schools just might be on the chopping block if it does?

The same is true for state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford’s idea to lose some of the 63 members of the Legislature.

Such a move wouldn’t save that much — about $55,000 for salary, transportation and other expenses per lawmaker. But the specter of losing members is already haunting the Republican-rich rurals. Because districts have to be roughly equal in population, the upcoming redistricting plan is likely going to make rural districts larger, while Southern districts will get smaller and more numerous. But if the number of lawmakers is cut, the North and rural Nevada would lose even more clout.

Horsford says he’s not advocating the move, but that it should at least be on the table. In the meantime, it’s a nifty way to get Republicans arguing in favor of government, even expanding the size of the Legislature. Because this idea comes from the same folks who rail against the size of government the rest of the time, the irony is thick.

And it’s not just the number of lawmakers: Horsford notes that urban counties — that’s Clark and Washoe — subsidize government programs in rural areas, where lawmakers decry taxes, bloated budgets and government spending. It’s not just a political ploy to press them on the point.

“My question is, why should we continue to subsidize you?” Horsford asks. And when he does, he gets silence in reply.

It’s easy to hate government in the abstract, the vague, disassociated idea of lazy bureaucrats sleeping at their desks, or sitting around thinking up stupid new regulations to yoke well-meaning entrepreneurs.

It’s much tougher when you realize that government is a community college, a savvy state senator or the only mental health program for hundreds of miles. And it’s not a bad idea to make that point to government haters every now and again.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at (702) 387-5296 or at ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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