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March 4, 2015

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Jon Ralston: Budget problem will get fixed, but larger issues remain

One week before the constitutionally mandated conclusion of the 76th session of the Legislature, a solution is at hand.

Unless the state Supreme Court detonates another legal bomb across the courtyard, Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Gang of 63 will negotiate a peaceful end to yet another fruitless session. Why fruitless?

Because the solution will be only about money, a number arbitrarily chosen as it always is to garner the necessary votes, with policy considerations left behind (or never even raised) in the Rush to Close. Once again, when lawmakers have returned home, the state’s unsustainable tax structure will remain in place (why do you think we have the country’s highest unemployment rate?), as Nevada gamers look to the Far East, the higher and lower education systems retain their cellar-dwelling positions, and options diminish with every myopic biennial exercise in futility.

We are here because of shortsighted Legislatures, governors and, yes, even the judicial branch. We are here because of rapacious special interests with no investment in the state’s education system and social safety net. And we are here because of an apathetic populace — I saw more energy and involvement in one session from college students than in a quarter-century from those who should be even more active.

The common metaphor for the end of sessions is a train wreck. But this locomotive has been chugging along for decades, a recurring Murder on the Nevada Express, where everyone is to blame and no one takes responsibility.

Although I find the legal issues surrounding last week’s state Supreme Court decision fascinating, I find the reaction depressing. What should have been a wake-up call (to stop grabbing at any available pot of money) is instead an excuse for the familiar maneuvering, politicking and posturing that characterizes every Legislature, especially in the final days.

In their zeal to frame their positions — Sandoval as a reluctant taxer, lawmakers as budget saviors — they forget most voters have the attention span of a 2-year-old. No one will remember next year — maybe not three months from now — how the session ended.

But as the Republicans gear up to try to take control of the Legislature in 2012 and the Democrats try to hold on to their power, they will brag about their various faux achievements to try to win the right to return here to do as little as possible. Again.

The problem with capital politics is the problem with politics in general: A world of gray is framed in absolutes to gain political advantage and rouse a slumbering electorate.

No new taxes. He’s killing education. Ad nauseam.

That is not to say that dedicated, smart people have not come through the doors of the Legislative Building to find broader prescriptions. But, mostly, legislative results are incremental, characterized by a singular lack of vision as lawmakers are blinded by their desire for re-election or blindfolded by their leaders. (Some of the many freshmen this year, like newborns, are just opening their eyes. And they cannot like what they see.)

So we have a familiar picture — a governor so desperate not to put taxes in his budget that he resorted to transparent gimmicks, and a Legislature so desperate to raise taxes that its leaders were willing to hide the ball for months.

Neither approach was helpful; in fact, each is destructive in its own way.

Thus, we will have the same result we have every other year, a cobbling together of unrelated parts to build a tax and budget monster that makes Frankenstein look attractive.

As this session comes to an end, the major special interests are expressing a familiar fear. Gaming, mining and Big Business are more afraid of a different kind of ballot royale next year — a raft of initiatives to tax them because people are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.

Generally, the business elite need not worry because labor and the teachers can be co-opted or they misplay their hands. And the chances of a well-funded, effective effort sprouting from the grass roots assumes someone would step up to seed the movement.

And so we are where we always are.

But that feeling will pass, too. One of the reasons I love covering Nevada politics is even if the names and problems don’t change, the unexpected still happens, the game itself is still fascinating. But after all these years, I would love to be surprised by a session that begins and ends with a governor and legislators standing together on the Capitol steps and declaring: “Enough is enough. This time we fix the problem once and for all.”

Despite my recurring cynicism, the day I stop believing that is possible is the day I look for another line of work.

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  1. Dear Jon: I need to understand what it is that makes our state tax code "unsustainable" and how it hurts employment. I also need to know what would be the solution to the tax code to help that employment. You seem reluctant to give an answer. As for the "big boys" going to Macao and other overseas ports, they would have done it anyway because that is what big corporations are doing. Remember, their lobyists are in control of the state legislator and the governor, not us. If they wanted to stay, they would have minipulated the state government and made it work for them to stay. They choose not to. This is about their world consciousness and corporate thought as their country, not about caring for local, state, and a country. They do not nor ever did care about the people of Nevada. If they did, they would have interfered and stop the mess from Wall Street. If the cared, we would not have this high of unemployment and have the worst schools in the nation for years; even before the crisis. Our biggest problem is we have a capitol city 400 miles away from the population to keep an eye on the problems. We have no say. It's too far away to fight. Out of sight; out of mind. That is the biggest reason for apathy. And the governor and others can 'kiss up' to whomever they choose.

  2. Grant Sawyer Government Building on Washington & LV Blvd. Almost every legislative committee meeting is teleconferenced there and students, teachers, businesses and community members have been packing the place to have their say for months now.

    "I saw more energy and involvement in one session from college students than in a quarter-century from those who should be even more active."
    As Jon points out, it's been mostly students this session and will probably be mostly students next session.

  3. It is good to know the students are interested and paying attention and I am glad to see tv at the meetings. But, the tv has no match for in your face, live conversations and knowing the backroom deals. If more seniors would get involved, maybe, a better life would evolve. As for us workers here in Nevada, we have no voice except the ballot box(I vote). Most of us are looking for work or working more for less or gone. As for starting business, we "have to have a lawyer" and they want it easy with too much money up front. This gov't makes it hard to start and get ahead. I know, I am working on a new business. But, I have to go to CA to get started. It doesn't work here. When the state governor says he wants to attract business here, he's lying. And as for the lawyers here, they are lazy and all for themselves. They DO NOT THINK about the client. There is alot of distrust here in Las Vegas among everyone. I pray the students win. They are the only real future for Las Vegas and our only hope.

  4. yes Rock -- unions are the only problem in this country. businesses pillaging the country had absolutely nothing to do with how we got into this mess. yep --- it was the unions.

    you ought to get a new shtick --- you bore many of us with your narrow, and might I add inaccurate, point of view.

    or --- if you're that opposed to unions move to Wisconsin and see the power of the union in action.

  5. MINING has controlled the amount that they have been taxed for over 100 years here in Nevada! MINING can deduct just about EVERYTHING except breathing, and are barely taxed. The NEVADA STATE LAWMAKERS, GOVERNOR, LEGISLATURE has REFUSED to begin any kind of meaningful TAX STRUCTURE REFORM for decades!

    There's your trouble, at least part of it: sustainable INCOME/REVENUE.

    The other issue, of course, has been the massive, uncontrolled growth, uncontrolled immigration, corruption, nepotism, and all the things that seem to dog Nevada and hinder it from being as rich as it really is (as least in gold, silver, rare earth minerals, and other minerals).

    Nevada has more people than it has jobs.
    Nevada now has more homes and commercial building than it can sustain environmentally and economically.
    Nevada has more 2nd language immigrants than English speaking people.
    Nevada has more companies/businesses owned by foreign and out of state principals than businesses owned by state residents.

    Nevada no longer has a majority of citizens that are "Battle Born," but now have a majority of residents "beaten down, and broken."

    It is NO SURPRISE that career politicians end yet another Nevada State Legislative Session failing to resolve the deep problem of TAX REFORM. Why do they want to jeopardize their reelection? Most of the voters in Nevada have pretty much given up on their government, stopped fighting. That is most evident in the lack of concern and more comments in the news media comments forum (Ely News being the exception-what happened there?).

    Jon Ralston said it this time. Thanks.

  6. Linda,

    If you don't feel you can start a business here you are in for major surprises in the Great State of California.

    Once you get through with the mountains of paper work and the need for attorneys there, you will find the taxes in that state will put you out of business anyway.

    Good luck to you in what ever you try to do but don't blame the state because you can not get the job done.

  7. 'Lacking Enthusiasm'

    "Apathy is the glove into which evil slips it's hand"

    Bodie Thoene

    Mr. Ralston, after reading your article I could only conjure up the image of a man standing in the middle of a dense foggy forest, shouting out a blood-curdling scream as he watch a love one (education system) being ravished and devoured by the political system (with 1/5 being an apathetic populace).

    You state..."We are here because of shortsighted Legislatures, governors and, yes, even the judicial branch. We are here because of rapacious special interests with no investment in the state's education system and social safety net. And we are here because of an apathetic populace- of all of those you list I blame the 'apathetic populace the most.

    The dismantling of the education system and social safety net didn't just start in recent administrations, it has been goining on for a long, long time. I remember sitting in my Constitutional Law professor's office at UNLV in the early 70's and he said to me, "that there was a conspiracy to keep the masses uneducated in Nevada because you don't need an educated work force to count beyond twenty-one".

    An educated populace would possess the skills of 'critical thinking' and therefore they would gain the ability to do 'root cause analysis' to understand the condition of being oblivious.

    All is not lost Mr. Ralston, the college students were the ones in the 60's and 70's that awakened an apathetic populace- remember? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Won't you please come to Chicago" or "Tin Slodiers and Nixon coming, We'er finally on our own; How can you run when you know"?

    Let us pray, all is not lost!

  8. @ RingofFire: I'm really getting tired of people repeating the lie that 47% of Americans pay no taxes. While 47% pay no federal income tax, EVERYONE pays taxes, and people with lower incomes pay a higher percentage of their incomes in taxes - ALL TAXES - than do the wealthiest.

    There's no income tax in Nevada. Do you mean, therefore, to suggest that nobody in Nevada pays taxes?

    And the number of people not paying income tax says more about the state of the economy than it does about the people themselves. With unemployment where it is, we can deduce that about 35% of Americans are working, but still don't earn enough to pay income tax. Now ask yourself this: Would those people rather be earning eough to pay income tax, or are they happy to be the working poor? Would YOU switch places with them?

    Those 35% pay Medicare taxes, but probably can't afford to see a doctor themselves. Those 35% pay the same amount of gas tax as you do, but are probably driving around in a 1992 Corolla.

    And you want us to believe that that 35% of Americans are the problem?

    Give me a freakin' break.

  9. Jon, you continuously point out the faults with our tax state's tax policy.

    It is time for you to share your brillance with the public. How would you change the tax and spend structure?

  10. JohnF,

    You also forget to mention that many of those 47% get back more then they pay to the Federal government each year. Earned income credit. Some to the tune of $1000's of dollars. To make up for those "other" taxes you talk about them paying.

    If you are going to get upset about the numbers, be sure to use all the numbers. ;-) Not just the ones that fit your views.

    Just because someone makes more money does not mean they need to pay the way for all those that don't.

  11. Australia has mining and 5% unemployment along with more taxes and more regulation. The libertarian loons are stuck in the ditch. The areas in the world that are the most resilient and the most livable are high tax, high regulation and high education.

    The low tax crap is for simpletons like Sandoval who gets his ideas from nutty think tanks. The State of Nevada was built on government tax and spend.

    The transcontinental Railroad Act, the Mining Act, the Nuclear and military programs, the Interstate Highway system, them Hoover Dam and so on. Without government tax and spend and regulation (gaming control) the state would be nothing.

    The casino crowd took the profits of low gaming tax Nevada and went to China. The talk radio blowhards and corporate bootlickers have wrecked Nevada with their np new taxes nonsense.

  12. I have a question that I have asked several times and even once to County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, which he has failed to even acknowledge that he received the email. Why should the county loose thousands and thousands and maybe even millions of dollars a year letting AMR and Medi-West transport those who need to be taken to the hospital.
    Here the county is talking about cutting more than 30 million dollars out of the county budget, and possibly laying off an additional 400 county employees. Yet the District Attorney's office is refusing to trim their budget anymore. There are cities, both bigger and smaller than Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Clark County, and Henderson put together that transport those that call the fire department for Emergency Medical help. The City of Lincoln, Nebraska terminated its contract a few years ago with a private ambulance firm and the program paid for itself within two years. The program adds an additional Million plus dollars a year to the city budget.
    I know earlier this year my girlfriend's father had to be taken to the hospital and the Clark County Fire Department was on the scene for at least ten minutes before AMR arrived. AMR sent her father a bill for almost a thousand dollars of which his insurance covered 850 dollars and AMR is going after her father for an additional 150 dollars that they say is due, even though he is on Social Security and gets around 800 dollars a month.
    In 2010 the County Fire Department responded to 104,882 medical calls. Now assuming the County Fire Department transported 90,000 of those who called for Emergency Medical Services and they billed the insurance companies for those calls and the insurance companies paid 850 of the almost a thousand dollars that AMR charged my girlfriends father, the county could have added an additional 76.5 million dollars to the budget. And if the county would have billed 500 dollars an addition 45 million dollars could have been added.
    So my question is why is Commissioner Sisolak afraid to answer the email about this, well I have two thoughts on that one he is too busy going after everybody and making county employees look like bumbling idiots or AMR and Medi-West contributed to his campaign and he does not want to lose their contribution's. But what can we expect from a man who sued the County and won 25 million dollars because he wanted to build something too close and too tall to the airport.
    Maybe now the commissioner will answer my question.

  13. @ VegasLee: In order to qualify for the earned income tax credit, you have to be working, first of all, and you have to be earning leass than $13,450 (if you're single).

    Again, would you like to switch places with those people?

    Also, again, federal income tax is not the only federal tax we pay. Imagine you're a single person who just made $12,000 last year. How much of that went to Medicare taxes? Now imagine you're a single person with a $12,000 job and you get sick. Is the $400 you received from the EITC going to cover your doctor bill? Is the $400 you received from the EITC going to cover the amount you paid to Medicare for a bunch of senior citizens, most of whom are far better off than you?

    Ah, yes. Life with the EITC is a beautiful thing. I think I'll start living on $14,000 so I can qualify! I think I'll use the $400 to buy a Porsche.