Nevada: Where punting a political football is the default

I want to be angry with the Washoe County commissioners who are lining up to kick the schools tax question to the ballot.

But it’s not their fault – at least not all of their fault.

The story here – and it should not be forgotten when Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Gang of 63 brag about their education records next year – is that thee who punted first, punted worst, creating a political football of the worst kind so they could claim to be for something they doomed to failure.

This is a microcosm of government in Nevada – nay, too many places, including Washington, DC – where self-perpetuation is paramount, where bad deeds are cloaked as good ones and where politicians hope to fool the public long enough to get re-elected.

Assembly Bill 46 took a state responsibility – schools – and turned it into a local responsibility in Washoe County while awarding said responsibility to a government that has nothing to do with education. Why did Sandoval and the gang do this? Because they can.

The supremacy of the state over the locals, the ability to pass so-called enabling legislation by these 64 Pontius Pilates is the story here that should resonate, the one that should cause political carnage. Why?

Because if you can fool enough of the people some of the time, you can survive in politics. And that’s all these brave souls want to do: survive.

So as kids have to learn in unsavory, and perhaps unsafe, environments, as teachers have to deal with paltry funding exacerbated by uncomfortable conditions, the Gang of 64 can assert with faux bravado: Well, we tried to do the right thing.

No they didn’t. They took a critical need and dumped it on a board with four conservative Republicans, needing at least three of them to join Kitty Jung in voting for this. And now as the Reno Gazette-Journal reported, they appear poised to put it on the ballot, compounding one abdication of responsibility with another.

It didn’t have to be this way, except the governor made it so with his no new taxes pledge that forced critical changes in an original version of the measure that mandated the imposition of a quarter percent sales tax increase and a 5 cents per $100 of assessed value property tax increase.

The principle sounds reasonable, right? This was equity anyhow, some in Washoe argued, because Clark County had long had other revenue streams for schools. And for an average $8 a month for a family to fix schools, some as old as a half-century, it was well worth it.

Business was on board. Labor was on board. A disparate group of folks in northern Nevada had joined to help pay for a manifest, important need.

Then the 2013 Legislature happened.

The original version contained mandatory language – i.e. the taxes “shall” be imposed. Then, at a hearing in February, concerns were raised about circumventing the two-thirds majority requirement and consideration was given to allowing the school board to pass a resolution to impose the taxes.

And the governor? From the Las Vegas Sun:

“The Governor has deep concerns about precedent setting legislation which would give school districts the ability to increase sales and property taxes without a vote by the people,” his office said in a statement about the bill.

He added that he’s concerned about the state of the schools in Washoe County.

For they are all concerned men.

The final version of AB46, which passed overwhelmingly, had two significant changes to accommodate Gov. No New Taxes and ensure the implanted spines were artificially stiffened in the Legislative Building: Permissive language was substituted – “may” for “shall” – and a two-thirds requirement was imposed on the obviously unfriendly Washoe County Commission.

This is leadership in Nevada, folks.

I feel some sympathy for the commissioners, who surely are frustrated and angry at the Carson City invertebrates who talked a good game and then played a cynical one. Yes, they should still do the right thing – and many community leaders have been urging them to do so publicly and privately. But what do they lose by putting a tax on the ballot and playing the “let the people decide” card?

News flash: Those people “decided” when they elected the commissioners to show leadership, just as they did when they pulled the lever for the governor and state lawmakers. And they also have decided they are anti-tax, thanks to rhetoric from the highest-ranking elected officials that stokes those no-way-no-how fires, and allows ballot questions to go down.

So here we are. Groups such as the Nevada Policy Research Institute and Americans for Prosperity have raised issues about whether such an enabled tax would even be legal, which has given the commissioners more cover. And if that weren’t enough, the Reno Gazette-Journal, in marvel of serpentine logic, editorialized that the money was badly needed but this was the wrong way to go about it and the state should do its job. In 2015!

So I’m not surprised that the commissioners, put in an untenable position, are poised to mimic their lords from Carson City and punt. But if there is a worse place to look for role models, I can’t think of it.


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