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October 22, 2014

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Jon Ralston knows better, but still hopes against hope that the small-thinking governor and Legislature can come up with answers to Nevada’s big problems

Someone recently lamented during a conversation about the Legislature that there are too many "small thinkers" in Carson City for a state with such big problems.

The harshness of that assessment aside, this longtime observer was referring to the mind-numbingly familiar avoidance behavior exhibited by the Gang of 63, the frequency of which occurs in inverse proportion to the number of days remaining in a session.

This is the time we start to hear capital sound bites such as "it's for the kids" or "no new taxes" to answer major public policy conundrums. This year we have a governor insistent on ensuring he can declare victory this summer by keeping his no-tax pledge and having his budget nearly intact - thus clutching onto the only constituency, the hard right, that still believes in him. And we have an opposition party that seems riven by the goal of passing expensive programs (all-day kindergarten, transportation funding) and the fear of being unelected come November 2008.

If this seems Lilliputian to you, it is. And, yet, it is a giant mistake for the Carson City crowd to ignore the very difficult, complex answers to some large questions they will have to answer in the session's final weeks. To wit:

No one likes to cut budgets, even conservative Republicans. One of the dirty little secrets of the legislative process is that all you have to do is change assumptions to make room for more.

Some of this trickery was eliminated with the creation of the Economic Forum, an appointed group of experts that will make the final projections May 1. But even if those meetings were seances to contact the ghosts of Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith, no one has a high enough IQ to accurately predict revenue over a 24-month period - witness the recent nine-figure surpluses.

But even with the constraints of the forum, governors can make adjustments, as Gibbons has done with certain assumptions about a dropping Medicaid caseload. I expect legislative analysts, concerned that those inferences are either cooked or rosy, will come up with a different number.

The answer, as always, will lie in between. But just as in 2003, when the difference between supporting $811 million or $833 million in taxes epitomized thinking small, so, too, is this spectacularly not the point. It's not about the right number; it's about the right policy.

Speaking of which

There are as many ideas floating around the capital as there are inadequate roads in Southern Nevada. It's 2003 all over again with three dozen-plus taxes being considered and interest groups scrambling to protect their bottom lines.

The governor now seems interested in diverting room taxes to help pay for transportation projects. That, coincidentally, will energize the gaming industry, with the exception of Gondolier Numero Uno Sheldon Adelson, who wouldn't mind siphoning money from the dreaded convention authority.

Even if that happens, though, this is yet another example of small thinking. As one lawmaker put it, "What will that pay for - one lane on a road?"

My guess is that you will, a la 2003, see some complicated matrix of taxes and fees proposed that will be very difficult to get through the state Senate. But if it does, with a veto-proof majority, Gov. Gibbons will become Gov. Irrelevant.

The spending cap that the budget is flush against this cycle will be a tremendous barrier come 2009. No one wants to talk about the consequences of a burgeoning prison population and bursting education enrollments. They don't want to touch it this time but they will have no choice in two years. Fundamental decisions about how to fund growth in these and other areas can be put off only so long - and only shortsighted thinkers believe otherwise.

Maybe it's like the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But every session, I remain hopeful that leaders will emerge and that even if there are too many small minds in Carson City, big things can still happen.

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