Sunday, January 12, 2003

A BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE STATE: It's not hyperbole, folks. My column in today's R-J focuses on one of the key issues that will cast a pall over this spring's legislative session: The inordinate influence public employees have on the political process in Nevada. It's not a trivial matter, and indeed, as the column says, my adopted home state is fast evolving into a caste system, with government workers guaranteed higher wages, better benefits and a superior retirement system, and everyone else relegated to second-class status. That's what Nevada faces in the upcoming legislative session. Whether the Silver State will defend its longstanding tradition as a haven from high taxes and initiative-stifling welfare policies or if the forces who want to make Nevada indistinguishable from the regulatory dystopia of California (or merely another garden variety, high tax state like Arizona) will prevail.

As this story from Saturday points out, Nevada's budget crisis is being driven by higher spending as much as any revenue shortfall. (Today's editorials, including this one by me, also make that point.) Gov. Kenny Guinn will seek to raise taxes by more per capita than California's Gray Davis without demanding spending cuts of a similar magnitude.

Fortunately, the R-J is on the case, launching a five-part series on the budget crisis. The link should be updated with new stories daily. The initial installment offers a quick, readable history of anti-tax sentiment in the state -- did you know the territory's admission to the union was delayed because of resistance to mining taxes?

It's clear the state is approaching a crossroads. Not the one ubiquitous UNLV history professor Hal Rothman alludes to in the news story -- that Nevada faces the choice between being a "banana republic" and entering the 21st century. (Why is that anyone who advocates expanding legalized theft by raising taxes thinks he's a champion of civilization and those who wish to preserve individual rights are Neanderthals? But I digress.) Instead, Kenny Guinn could pull a Pete Wilson on us, repudiate the state's anti-tax traditions, and send Nevada on a path that will lead to its eventual ruin, as Wilson did a dozen years ago.

Anyway, it wouldn't surprise me if Review-Journal employees were greeted Monday by a pack of bureaucrats wielding pitchforks and torches, thanks to the editiorials, my column, and this column by Editor Tom Mitchell, who says it's ridiculous to use increases in the Consumer Price Index as justfication for across-the-board COLAs for public employees. If the cost of the basket of goodies which comprises the CPI goes up by $500, give everybody a $500 raise; don't peg it to the percentage relationship between $500 and the lowest-paid state worker's salary and boost everyone else proportionately. Monday should be a fun day.

BTW, I have nothing personal against any public employees outside Nevada. Back in North Carolina, my three sisters are government workers: One's a municipal tax collector, one's a social worker, and the third is a teacher (and not far from retirement). But in NC, as in every state other than Nevada, public employees feel at least some of our pain. In all but 12 states, public employees get ripped off by Social Security, just like the rest of us. And as this feature I wrote in 2001 explains, in every other state, public employees take a payroll deduction to pay a portion of their retirement pensions. Not here. It's the only state in which most public workers don't pay a dime for the retirement program. So godspeed, public employees. Just don't move here.

It may be no surprise that the R-J's editorial perspective is not widely shared in opinion circles in the rest of the state. Our so-called rival paper, the Las Vegas Sun (kept alive only because it's in a Joint Operating Agreement with the R-J; otherwise it would have folded year ago), has salivated for higher taxes early and often. In part, that's because the dilletante real estate heir who edits the paper, FOB Brian Greenspun, served on the task force on tax increases Guinn created last year. Greenspun has used columns and editorials to try to push Nevada right into high-tax nirvana.

Oh, and to occasionally throw hissy fits at us, as here, where Brian said the R-J was "blinded by greed" because we argued that individuals should be allowed to keep more of what they earned. That resulted in a fun batch of letters. Whatever.

The real problem with Greenspun is that he's conflicted out the wazoo. His family business is a major investor in Green Valley Ranch Station Casino, one of the spiffiest new off-strip properties, and the Sun continually publishes favorable reviews of restaurants and other venues inside the casino without disclosing the conflict. Plus, during the task force proceedings, Greenspun strongly suggested that real estate developers should be exempted from the major new tax that's under consideration, a gross receipts tax on businesses. Greenspun mentions his task force membership when he pens columns about the topic, but the paper's editorials fail to mention the conflict. Fortunately, the constitution requires each house of the Legislature to give a two-thirds majority vote to any tax increases, so perhaps the Guinn/Greenspun alliance can be thwarted. (Actually, I like Kenny. The problem is he's spent most of his adult life either as a government bureaucrat or in the management of the gas utility. He's not an entrepreneur by any stretch. He was the gaming industry's handpicked candidate in 1998 and now he's merely doing its bidding and accommodating his patrons in the public-employee unions.)

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