Tuesday, December 31, 2002

A SOMEWHAT LENGTHY CIVICS LESSON, NEVADA-STYLE: One myth about my adopted hometown that's difficult to dispel is that Las Vegas -- let alone Nevada -- is some sort of freewheeling, libertarian paradise. Please.

For one thing, more than 80 percent of the state's land mass is controlled by the federal government, and nearly 10 percent more is either state or county property. Even 90 percent of Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, is public land. That's one reason desolate, sparsely populated Nevada is one of the most urbanized states in America: What little land is in private hands is crammed with tract houses.

Gambling-inspired tourism may be the prime engine of economic activity. And prostitution is legal in 15 of the state's 17 counties ... though, notably, not in Clark (Las Vegas) or Washoe (Reno) counties. Gambling-related taxes provide roughly 40 percent of state revenues. But Nevada's sin industries aren't exactly entrepreneurial enterprises. They're tightly regulated and state-scrutinized.

As my friend and colleague Vin Suprynowicz says, if "gaming" were legal in Nevada, then you should be able to take your backgammon board downtown, plop it on the felt at Binion's Horseshoe, and play to your heart's content. Just try that one. In actuality, it would probably be easier to build and operate a coal-fired electric power plant abutting the San Francisco Bay than it would be to open a gambling hall in Nevada ... unless you have connections and lots of cash.

But I digress. Public employees dominate the political process here. Nearly half the members of the Legislature are either public employees or the spouses of government workers, and their influence shows: The salaries of Nevada state workers rank No. 8 in the nation ... and the average government employee's wage is 25 percent higher than the average pay of a private sector worker. That said, the public employees union will ask for a 4 percent raise each year for the next two years in the 2003 legislative session. The National Education Association reports that, after making a cost-of-living adjustment, Nevada teacher pay is the nation's ninth-best ... though the schools here are lousy. And that NEA survey fails to account for the absence of a state income tax here, which allows teachers to pocket even more of their pay. (Another myth we heard before moving here was that the schools were really good. In fact, the schools are new, because the booming population has led so many to be built over the past few years, but by just about every national standardized measure, we're sucking hind tit 'round here.) Still, that hasn't prevented teachers from whining that they're underpaid at every opportunity. Here's a small sample of letters the RJ received when a free-lance columnist did some research about instructors' salaries. Guess whining by teachers offers another example of how we're like every place else.

Nevada is fast becoming a state with a caste system: People who don't work for the government may soon be second-class citizens.

Oddly enough, a single opinion by the state's attorney general three decades ago turned the state's political system on its ear. Article 3 of the Nevada constitution establishes a clear separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, stating that "no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any functions, appertaining to either of the others, except in the cases expressly directed or permitted in this constitution." Until 1971, that clause was interpreted by state courts to mean that public employees (who work for the executive branch) could not serve in the Legislature unless they resigned from their government jobs. (Nebraska similarly bans public employees from its legislature.) But AG Bob List, who later became governor, ruled that the prohibition did not apply to local governments, so a public school teacher was seated in the Legislature. And the floodgates were opened.

Anyway, the political environment here is anything but freedom-loving. That's evidenced in part by the total absence of a robust alternative to the public schools (and a schooling system which ranked 45th in the Manhattan Institute's most recent Education Freedom Index, due to its lackluster charter school law and the failure of school reforms to make progress in the Legislature). In addition, our nominally Republican governor, Kenny Guinn, who campaigned on his success in holding the line on tax increases, won re-election with 68 percent of the vote and then stated he had a mandate to jam through a record, $1.4 billion tax increase -- a tax hike that would amount to roughly 30 percent of the state's general fund. Guinn, a genuinely nice guy and accessible fellow, is a lifelong bureaucrat who's completely captive of the public employees ... as is just about everyone else in the state.

Long story short, if you're looking for some lightly regulated, leave-us-alone state in which to relocate, I dunno, try Idaho or Montana. Nevada sure ain't the place.

BTW, Happy New Year, everyone.

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