The most important thing governments do is also probably the most boring. Lawmakers must take thousands of budget line items, calculate how much they have to spend, and figure out how much to give every program and government employee. As long as you aren’t the feds, who can literally print money and don’t have to balance the books, governments can’t (well, aren’t supposed to) spend more than they have. It’s a hard job under any circumstances.
It’s harder when you don’t pay attention to the math, the law, or some political realities on the ground.
The easiest/laziest way to balance the budget is to give everyone what they want, and then raise taxes to cover what you wouldn’t otherwise have had. This is awfully tempting, if large portions of your political support come from public employee unions (or private unions who rely heavily on government construction contracts) who benefit from such carelessness with public money. But it is a terrible way to grow an economy, attract or retain private capital into the state, or incentivize bureaucrats to be careful stewards of limited public resources. It’s the reason Nevadans voted to amend the constitution to prevent tax increases without at least 2/3rds majority vote in each legislative house.
The thing with temptation, whether it’s too much booze, carbs, or cards, is that it almost always hurts you in the end. No matter how many times you get suckered into just hiking taxes, it never, ever, ever is enough. Mysteriously, price tags on major project skyrocket, costs overrun, projections were “missed,” and it’s the same old crisis two years down the road. Anyone who tries to put the brakes on this ridiculous cycle is smeared as “hating kids,” of course, because ad hominem is easier than arithmetic.
Oh, sure, there are politicians who try (or pretend) to push back a little. But when would-be budget hawks hit the campaign trial, they talk about “cutting wasteful spending” and then get super vague. If they identify any particular program, they generally stumble on to something that wouldn’t generate any real savings. Whatever “waste” they point to never amounts to much, even if a real dollar figure can be conjured up.
So then when it’s crunch time, and budgets have to be closed and balanced, someone always tries to push a tax hike, and then hide that it’s a tax hike. Even worse, real waste, fraud, and abuse are ignored, or tut-tutted at in a way which everyone understands is more or less tacit approval.
Most of the time, the overspending is hard to see, because it’s just bloat on otherwise good and necessary spending, like for new schools. And the arguments for new taxes can be seductive – and sometimes they even have merit.
But this year everyone in this cycle of money wasting got sloppy and lazy. And that means real opportunity for those who care about the taxpayers.
With less than two weeks to go in the session, AB538 was proposed, which would raise taxes beyond that which were previously authorized by statutes. Even though it “only” extends what was due to sunset this year, no intellectually honest person can say this isn’t an attempt to legislatively “create or raise” revenue, which our Constitution says requires a 2/3rds vote to pass. Senate Republicans are rightly holding together and threatening to sue if the measure passes. They would win, too, if the judge hearing it follows the law, and that could put the entire budget into disarray. It was a stupid tactic over what was actually a relatively small addition to the budget – just $96 million over two years.
$48 million a year is nothing to sneeze at. But there are other ways that don’t invite constitutional crises or lawsuits.
Fortunately for all of us, Republicans called the bluff (which shows the power even a small minority can have when they stay focused and principled). Shockingly, when raising taxes wasn’t an option, it turns out there was a quarter billion dollars more to be found in the budget. Amazing how that works, even if some of those savings include hostage-taking nonsense like cutting school safety funding. But there are many more millions to free up, with far less sacrifice.
The same day as the illegal tax hike was proposed, legislators were told that two new medical instruction buildings being built on Southern Nevada college campuses would exceed their initial cost estimates from just two years ago by 138 percent and 87 percent, respectively. Together, just those two buildings’ cost overruns over two years was $72 million. Just two buildings!!!
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Washoe County, when advocates of new taxes were pointing out the real need for new facilities, we were told new elementary and middle schools would cost $23 and $55 million respectively. Once the good-hearted, children-loving people approved the tax hike? Just two years later, those costs were estimated at $34 and $85 million.
The original costs were already outrageous. Our local charter school is K-8, has a capacity of a little under 1,000 kids, and cost less than $17 million to build (with, in our experience, a substantial improvement in the quality of education over WCSD). Why does our newest traditional elementary school, which only will house 750 kids and was built on donated land, cost more than twice that? Why does the newest middle school (capacity 1,400) cost $73 million (for now)? And when you look at Washoe County’s building schedule and start doing the math, well, that’s a lot of extra millions that seem to be being over spent, even without the inevitable “unexpected” cost overruns.
There is no non-corrupt explanation for these costs. None. And yet other than complain briefly in front of the cameras, political leadership did nothing, which can only encourage more of the same.
Balancing the budget is challenging, but it turns out that approving the initial budget is the easy part. What’s harder is making sure contractors or construction unions aren’t taking undue advantage of the people’s righteous desire to properly fund education. It takes real leadership to identify these sort of problems in advance, hold the people accountable responsible, and take real steps to keep future costs reasonable.
If Governor Sisolak really cares about paying teachers what they’re worth, and giving them the raises that are due, there’s plenty of money out there to be found. That goes for our local school board members, too. But it takes diligence, leadership, and the will to risk political capital to make sure public money is actually going where lawmakers and the general public expect it to go. And it takes us voters to stop being so gullible.
If not, well, prepare for more “crisis”-induced tax hike proposals, right on schedule, this time in 2021.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at email@example.com.