Thursday, January 16, 2003

TUNAGE TIME: Shamelessly following Jesse Walker, I'll also pay tribute to the music awards shows I'll never watch by naming my favorite CD purchases of 2002. I actually didn't buy that much last year, so I'll limit my selections to five:

1. John Fogerty, Blue Moon Swamp (1997)

Best and most consistent Creedence album to date. Fogerty's voice is as moving as ever, and his guitar work is stellar. JF's also impossible to pigeonhole stylistically -- "Southern Streamline" has been getting airplay on my satellite dish's "New Country" channel.

2. Kid Ramos, Greasy Kid's Stuff (2001)

The Fabulous T-Birds' axe man puts out another awesome solo album ... this time with the help of six terrific harmonica players, including Rod Piazza (in a rare performance away from his Mighty Flyers), Charley Musselwhite, the always hysterical Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and my man James Harman, pride of Anniston, Ala., who played our wedding reception. (True.) West Coast blues doesn't get any better than this.

3. Buddy Miller, Midnight and Lonesome (2002)

When last I was in beautiful Cambria, California, the best damn radio station on the planet, KOTR-FM (The Mighty Otter), was playing this to death. I caught him at the Birchmere in suburban D.C. in 1996 as part of the eclectic (to say the least) Hightone Records Roadhouse Revival Tour, with Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Dave Alvin, Dale Watson, and the hilarious-but-disturbing Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. Buddy held his own there, and if you're into tasty, twangy singer-songwriter stuff with again some great git-tar work, check it out.

4. Rick Holmstrom, Hydraulic Groove (2002)

The most original modern blues guitarist since Freddy King, Holmstrom steps outside the blues box and adds funk-style sampling, overdubs and reverse tape effects to traditional jump and boogie grooves. It's odd but riveting -- and a great way for the former Mighty Flyers axe man to chart his own course. It has a great beat and is easy to dance to. I give it an 88.
5. The Blasters, Trouble Bound (2002).
A live set from last year's reunion tour, featuring the original line-up. Phil Alvin's voice is a bit gimpy early on, but he and the band soon start cooking. As the All-Music Guide puts it, imagine a rock-n-roll band completely conversant with every 20th century American music style who acted as if time stopped around 1963. These guys were the best of the L.A.-based roots/punk bands of the early '80s -- including Los Lobos -- and they haven't lost a thing.

RIIIIIGHT... Kenny Guinn's position du jour on the budget: He may propose "temporary taxes" to close the deficit. The smart money says they'll be scheduled to sunset at approximately the end of time.

In other news, I got word from a well-placed source that our state's chief executive was not at all amused with this editorial, which I wrote, in which Guinn did not compare favorably with the newly elected Democratic governor of neighboring Arizona, Janet Napolitano. Oh well. You call 'em the way you see 'em.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH: At long last, a realistic overview of the so-called state government budget crisis in USA Today. Here's the key point:

Spending by state and local governments has grown nationwide without interruption for decades, in good times and bad times alike. It has not fallen since 1944, and it has grown faster than the rate of inflation every year since 1982. The rate of spending growth is down slightly from the late 1990s, but governments remain one of the healthiest parts of the economy. They are growing at a time when corporate profits and cash flow are declining.

State and local governments also have been doing more hiring than firing since the economy weakened. States employed about 31,000 more workers in December than a year earlier, an increase of 0.6%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Local governments employed 189,000 more workers, up 1.4%. Both are historic highs. By contrast, the private work force shrank by 467,000, a decrease of 0.4%.

Meantime, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn reneged on a request he made in November for residents to propose spending cuts. Guinn rejected a proposal by Republican lawmakers to cut $479 million in state spending, saying the recommendations came "too late" for him to alter the budget he hasn't yet presented to the Legislature.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

IMAGE PROBLEM: The National Football League prohibits the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from purchasing ads during the Super Bowl. Seems the league doesn't want to promote gambling. Mayor Oscar Goodman's reaction was priceless. Citing a several recent incidents involving current and former pro football players convicted of committing violent crimes, Goodman said:

"As far as I'm concerned, (Commissioner Paul) Tagliabue has the most deviant athletes in professional sports."

Goodman also noted that NFL has no qualms about selling time to beer companies that produce ads featuring women who are much more scantily clad than any in LV's ads. The city's ad campaign, produced by the same crew that has done the "This is SportsCenter" series for ESPN, debuts today. Can't wait to see 'em.

Monday, January 13, 2003

WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN THOSE CLASSROOMS, COOKING METH? Gov. Kenny Guinn, on resistance to tax increases:
"Business people can't afford to have our schools in disarray. They can't afford to have the Clark County School District, which is the economic engine of this state, shut down because they have to cut $220 million out of their budget. It will affect every business person."

TOUCHING A NERVE AMONG THE INTELLECTUALLY CHALLENGED: The response (via e-mail and fax) to my column and the paper's coverage of the budget crunch was mildly favorable, with a couple of exceptions, including this one from a reader who shall remain anonymous:

Mr. Henderson,

Your story has some glaring errors in it that are a common thread in [Publisher] Sherman Frederick's rambling raves about state employees and the Public Employees Retirement System. Taxpayers; state employees are taxpayers. City and county employees are taxpayers. State employees have money deducted from every pay check, or are paid at a lower rate (the so called employer paid scheme) to subsidise contributions to the PERS system. City and County employees, do not. I have pointed out these errors to Sherman Frederick on two occasions and obviously I am being ignored. Print the truth, its [sic] going to come to public notice eventually as the truth always does.

I replied:

Thanks for your response. The column said, "the lion's share of public employees in Nevada ... don't pay a dime out of pocket for PERS." That is accurate. Approximately 10 percent of PERS' funding comes from employee payroll deductions, yes, from those employed by state government. But most Nevada public employees are teachers and public-safety personnel, who get a free ride. The rest comes from the treasury, plain and simple. Every other state requires employees -- including teachers and cops -- to take a payroll deduction to cover a part of the retirement system's costs. Nevada doesn't. Again, that is in the column.

As for the fact that public employees pay taxes, so what? They take more from the treasury than they put in. Here's a proposition: Exempt public employees from all state taxes if they agree to work without salaries or retirement benefits. How many would accept that offer?

He soon fired this back:

BULLSHIT, you should be ashamed of your self. You echo the statements of your boss. The only way to have equity in taxation in Nevada is to tax corporations (including casinos) on the gross profits. You take the weak way out and go after the pay and benefits of people who risk their lives to protect the people of Nevada. Shame on you.

Not much more to be said there, other than I hope this guy isn't teaching economics or political science in the public schools.

It reminds me of the e-mail letter to the editor we got a week or so ago (which I unfortunately trashed) from someone who has a state government address suffix which said something to the effect of:

You are evil and your newspaper should burn in hell.

Well, thanks for contributing to the civility of the debate.

More from that other paper: The Sun's stumping for tax increases was so relentless that I passed right by this encomium for legalized theft by Sun columnist Erin Neff. This excerpt is a gem:

When Gov. Kenny Guinn issues his State of the State address next week, it should not just be about why more than $1 billion in new taxes are needed, it should be proof irrefutable that failing to grow up will have a bigger price tag.

Lawmakers, not lobbyists and not anti-tax Libertarians hiding behind an editorial page, should make the choices for Nevada. That's why they were elected, and that's why we entrust them with the state's future.

Clearly, the state's political establishment is shaking in its boots, fearful that "anti-tax Libertarians hiding behind an editorial page" (the cowardly bastards!), not to mention those residents (and lawmakers) who retain a bit of fiscal sanity, will deny the welfare state its tribute.

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.)