Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Getting past the crises

While Gov. Jim Gibbons is ordering painful budget cuts to address the state's immediate fiscal problems, who in Nevada is examining the state's long-term health?

The stresses facing the state are obvious to anyone who relies on public services. Public schools are chronically crowded and Nevada's universities struggle to achieve academic greatness. Highways are congested and social services - especially to benefit children and the mentally ill - are stretched precariously thin.

Nevada is hurting today, and the long-term prognosis is, for now, equally somber.

Short of a proposed increase in the gaming tax - including a teachers initiative fiercely opposed by the gaming industry, which would prefer a broad-based business tax - there is little discussion about long-term fixes.

Are these crises always the norm, with solutions offered only in biennial, piecemeal ways?

Who is watching over Nevada's long-term health? Who, if anyone, is watching out for our future?

The Sun posed these questions to four civic leaders - two businessmen and two politicians.

The four talked with Assistant Managing Editor Tom Gorman of the Sun about Nevada's future, about how Gibbons needs to show leadership, the problems with bipartisan politics and the need for Nevadans to face the realities of our growth and current tax structure. The following is a transcript of their remarks, edited for space and clarity but not for content.

Bruce Woodbury: I was born here in 1944. It's been a great place to live and a great place to raise a family, contrary to what many popular conceptions are here and around the world. I think it's still a wonderful place. Otherwise why would so many people be moving here? That's part of our problem - we've grown so fast. I'm not necessarily a huge fan of the level of growth we've had; maybe that's why I moved to Boulder City in 1978. We do have some major challenges in terms of quality of life issues - especially lately in terms of neglected and abused children. I'm optimistic that we're going to resolve those challenges and preserve and improve the quality of life in Southern Nevada.

Don Snyder: I've been here 20 years, and we've been the fastest-growing state for 19 of those 20 years. I think that gets lost sometimes when we have to talk about what we need in terms of resources to deal with the challenges. But I'm also optimistic. One of the strengths of the community is our "can-do" spirit to deal with the type of challenges that are in front of us. No other place in America faces them.

Terry Lanni: I've been involved in Nevada since January of '77, and every year we've faced the same circumstances and challenges. You'll always have problems of lack of affordability for certain parts of the population. I think more people have to accept responsibility, frankly, than they have in the past.

Ruben Kihuen: I've been here since 1993 and recently read that we're going to hit 3 million by 2019. My particular concern is for education. Some classrooms in my district have 40 to 50 students and there are those little trailer classrooms in the parking lot. We have to come up with solutions. We also need to bring more cultural arts to Nevada. States or cities that develop cultural arts increase their tourism and revenue.

Woodbury: The solutions to our challenges don't just come from government. They never have and never will, particularly in this community.

It's going to take a public-private partnership to do most everything and to find solutions.

Snyder: When I came here 20 years ago as CEO of the largest commercial bank (First Interstate Bank of Nevada) in the state, one of the biggest challenges was recruiting talent. Even 20 years ago there was concern about us not having some of the things that people expect of a major community - education, transportation, culture. The type of people we're hiring today is different. They expect us to deal with some of these challenges, including having a cultural infrastructure. The $475 million performing arts center is a perfect example of a public sector-private sector partnership. We need to direct that same type of energy to the full set of challenges we face.

We're hearing the word "we" a lot. Who does that refer to? Because so far, the "we" haven't been stepping up to the plate.

Kihuen: I'm referring to state legislators. Our constituents are expecting us to come up with results. It's our responsibility, as well as the private sector, to come up with solutions.

Woodbury: I think it's we the people. The people of this community will step up to the plate if they're asked to do so in the right way, and there's appropriate leadership in the public and private sectors. There are some times when you have to take things to the people - when things aren't happening at the county or city or state level. That happened in 1986 when we went out and the people said, "Yes, we agree to tax ourselves for flood control." In 1990 and again in 2002 they said, "Yes, we agree to tax ourselves because the plan is fair and balanced and all the different sectors are participating for transportation." We've done the same thing with water and wastewater infrastructure improvements and for more police. Time after time the people have said, "Yes." If we - the private and public sectors - can come up with a quality of life package that the people would support, either in direct action by the Legislature or through an initiative petition that would have broad support in the resort industry and from developers, the industries that are directly related to transportation, and the teachers. I think it can be done, if people of goodwill agree to sit at the table, work it out and then take it to the people or the Legislature.

Snyder: I agree with what you're suggesting, Bruce. It gets to the heart of the issue. This is a money issue as much as anything. When you have the type of growth that we've had, we're financially challenged to create the infrastructure. There are some tough decisions to be made with regard to how we raise the money and spend it. There is an increasing need to look at the tax structure, the revenue structure of the state.

The tax structure that was formed decades ago isn't going to take care of all the needs going forward.

There needs to be some undoing and doing with regard to how we get from here to there with regard to the tax structure. I do a lot of work with the Nevada Development Authority encouraging nongaming businesses to locate here. That's an important part of building our community. We have the benefit of always being a low-tax state when it comes to businesses, because of the role that gaming plays in this state.

We don't need to be a no-tax state to be able to attract businesses into Nevada, particularly here in Southern Nevada.

We do need good schools. We do need a transportation infrastructure that will handle 3 million people. We do need a cultural infrastructure and we need to find ways to build a revenue structure around the needs and around the current structure of our state and what it's going to be 20 years from now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. And that's going to take some tough conversations.

Lanni: There's a series of issues that face us. The one that really is endemic to determining the future is education. And if people are not participating in the cost of education, they're not going to believe in it. And that goes K-8 to secondary schools to the university. And I would present the belief, and it's anecdotal, but I believe that if you're not paying part of the bill, you're not going to care much about the educational system. A lot of people have moved from California, Arizona, other places and their kids have already gone through school, their grandkids are in school probably someplace else, so they don't focus on that K through 8, and they don't focus on the secondary. If you look at the university system, I've always believed, again anecdotally, that a true community doesn't become a world-class community unless it has a world-class university. And we don't have a world-class university either here or in Reno. And that's very sad for a state that's growing the way we are growing. Until the broader-based community says, "Hey, we've got equity in this, we've got investment in this," we're not going to demand as a community the quality of education at the primary level, the secondary level or the university level and postgraduate degrees, and that to me is endemic and very necessary for this community. And a lot of people just hide from any responsibility for that.

And if you're not paying for it, you're not going to care much about it.

Lanni: It's really what Bruce referred to as the public-private partnership. People coming to the table and saying, we have a need. We have to move in that direction. And if we really expect to have a properly educated populace, we're going to need to really focus on education.

Snyder: We're past the stage of just putting Band-Aids on the challenges, particularly in education. We have to draw together some of the really good minds that we have in the community and look strategically at the longer term - at how we do business, where we want to be 20 or 30 years from now, and what's our plan to get there. Otherwise, it's just going to be one Band-Aid after another. I think that we have some undoing of attitudes, looking at where we are and realizing on all these fronts we aren't where we need to be. We need a clear picture of where we want to be. Perhaps we have to undo some tax structure to get there. This is a very strategic process. Too often there is a short-term focus, much of it driven by political process.

People who are in two- or four-year campaigns for office have perhaps a shorter-term focus. But this really begs for more strategic, longer-term solutions. We have to get out of this pattern of just how we're going to get through the next biennium in terms of our revenue sources.

Who should help create public-private partnership to push for this discussion? Who should be at that table?

Snyder: In most cases it's important to be able to look to the governor for leadership. There's a real opportunity for our governor to demonstrate some leadership. But all of us need to come to the table without preconceived ideas or set answers as to how we're going to get to where we need to get. I'm a very conservative person. I'm not a tax-and-spend liberal. But I do think we can't come to the table with a "no tax" pledge without first understanding where we are, and more important, where we need to be long term. So I would encourage the governor to step back, look at his pledge to be responsible in terms of how we manage the fiscal affairs of the state, but say perhaps it's time for us all to come to the table with a little bit more open mind with regard to strategically where we need to get.

Woodbury: If we're talking about an overall solution to a wide variety of issues that really have to be done on the state level, it will take leadership from the governor.

He needs to say, "Let's find a way toward the future." But the governor has pledged no new taxes. So public sector and private sector leadership throughout the state, including legislators, local government leaders, business and labor, can come up with a package to take to the Legislature and to the voters. I don't necessarily believe in government by initiative petition. Here, perhaps, you do something legislatively, subject to a vote of the people. That would not violate the governor's pledge and I think something could be done if everyone were willing to get together.

Kihuen: The key is to get together. As Mr. Lanni mentioned, you have to sit at the table without preconceived ideas or ideology. You have to sit down, come up with a package. The leadership should come from the governor. The people entrusted him to be that leader. And I think he has a perfect opportunity here to take that leadership, sit down with the key leaders of the state, and come up with a package of ideas to solve these problems.

Lanni: You do need someone or some group to take charge. The governor's taken his position on taxes. I'm a supporter of the governor, but I don't agree with him on this particular subject. I would throw the gauntlet down to the Legislature. Why can't we bring Republican and Democratic members of the Assembly and the Senate together? We saw a movement by Sen. Bill Raggio about a month ago that maybe we need to look at other forms of taxation. That's a big movement for the senior leader of the Republican Party and the one chamber that it controls. I would love to see the two parties come together.

With all due respect to the governor, a two-thirds vote can change things.

Democrats are very close to that in the Assembly right now, and with the proper leadership, with Bill Raggio and maybe others on the Republican side, we might be able to deal with this by bringing everyone to the table. There should be a permanent rule that there should never be a personal income tax. But if you're a mining executive or a health care executive or a retail executive or automobile dealer, and you have kids who go to school here, shouldn't you help pay for that? The Legislature's the answer, getting Republicans and Democrats together. If not, I don't think we're going to be successful in dealing with this. Ten years from now we'll be facing the same problems.

Kihuen: Sometimes in the Legislature, just because you're from the opposite party, the other party is not willing to listen to you. It's as simple as that. So bipartisanship is key. You sit down with Bill Raggio.

You sit down with Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, you go to your key leaders and you sit down at the same table and you say, "Look, let's put the party politics aside and let's come up with a solution." Sit the governor with us, and come up with a solution.

Snyder: When I first came to the state 20 years ago, it was hard to tell the D's from the R's, or the R's from the D's. I think over the years there's been a movement away from that, a really strong bipartisan approach to governing the state, and it reflects what's going on in the rest of the country. We're still not as divisive or partisan as the rest of the country. This is an opportunity - and perhaps this issue is the right trigger for that opportunity to get back to doing what's right for the state. It's not a D or an R issue, it's what's right for the state. The first leadership opportunity is in the governor's office. If he doesn't take it, the fallback is the Legislature. That's where the bipartisan approach to dealing with this very, very important and very strategic issue needs to end up. But we need the governor to exercise leadership.

Snyder: That's why it's important for the governor to step up.

Snyder: I have not on this particular issue. But this is a real opportunity for him to do that - to convene a group of people from the public sector and the private sector who have broad perspective and insight and can help sort through these issues. They are not easy things to sort through and the solutions are going to be the result of good, objective conversation. There are a lot of individual efforts under way - at the Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Development Authority, and certainly among the teachers. There are lots of individual efforts to forge some direction. But at some point there needs to be something that brings those groups together. The more we can form a consensus as to where we want to be in the longer term, the easier it's going to be to get everybody on the same road. But if you get people going down their own road too far, it's harder to bring them back. So now is the time for the governor to step forward.

Woodbury: Based on the conversations I had during the last session, the Republican majority in the state Senate is not going to get out on a limb for some kind of restructuring or broad-based approach to these money issues if the governor is not onboard. And so that's why I think we have to be realistic. The governor needs to be involved. But the only way he's going to be involved is without violating his no-tax pledge. We have to respect that. That doesn't mean that everything is done by initiative petition. You can do it legislatively. The governor brings people to the table and shows leadership, and hears from everyone. They come up with a package and I think, frankly, you are going to have to make it subject to a vote of the people. It is the only way the governor will participate. And if it's a good enough package, the people will support it. It can be done.

Kihuen: So again, it goes back to seating everybody at the table, understanding that, look, if the governor doesn't want to increase taxes, then come up with a different solution, something with public-private-sector partnership.

And it's about bipartisanship. We just have to put our ideologies aside and sit down at the table and come up with a solution that's needed.

Lanni: The governor has other people he listens to, maybe more than he does us. I expect to have a conversation with the governor, but I have not to date. I do agree with Bruce and with Ruben, that it would be very, very helpful if we could have the governor take the leadership here. And he might, in my view, if we could get Speaker Buckley and Majority Leader Raggio together, because they are both reasonable people. If you could bring these two people together to bring their groups of people together, I think we'd have a fighting chance here. I'd love to get a broader base in the business community, people more willing to step up, maybe some people at the Nevada Development Authority. I don't think the local chamber of commerce will ever do that, because they have their own points of view on this subject and they don't want any tax, period.

This is going to be difficult, but not impossible. It's going to take a leader, and maybe two or three leaders. There's the governor, Buckley and Raggio.

Snyder: A problem of this magnitude, with the need for a strategic solution, requires broad-based leadership. And because of what gaming provides, we have a perfect opportunity to do something here that other states haven't done, to continue the type of growth and prosperity that we've had here, but more broad-based and on a more sustainable basis. This dialogue is coming at an incredibly important time. I applaud what we're doing here today in terms of having this conversation, but there's a lot to be done. And it's going to take some strong leadership and probably some broad-based leadership.

Snyder: I don't think that group exists. The leadership doesn't exist to bring at least the individual groups that are out there having these types of basic conversations. That leadership does need to come.

Kihuen: We've got to think long term, so I think it's got to be a group that has a long-term plan, not just something immediate that will get us through the biennium. I think with this group you've already started the conversation, the dialogue. People will read this and see there is something being talked about to address these challenges.

Sun reporter Mary Manning transcribed this manuscript.

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