Saturday, February 08, 2003

Let the debate begin: Left-liberal political consultant and union activist Andrew Barbano squares off against Lorenzo Fertitta of Station Casinos and the Nevada Resort Association in this pro/con we published yesterday, asking whether the state should close its budget deficit by simply raising the gross gaming tax by 4 percentage points, or roughly two-thirds, and abandon other tax increases. Fertitta's argument is pretty much boilerplate (though it does cover the gamers' talking points), and the Barbano piece is fairly breathless, but it's a useful and digestible summary of each side's views.

There are dozens of reasons to oppose the current tax-and-spend orgy now under way in Carson City, but two in particular stick in my craw: 1) The complete absence of any attempt to impose accountability on state agences, public employees, or anyone else who cashes the taxpayers' checks (mentioned in the WSJ citation below); and 2) The gamers' consistent refusal to make a principled stand against high taxes and instead attempt to shove the burden onto others. The tax-and-spend scheme was concocted by a handful of insiders, led by the gamers' point man, Mandalay Resorts Vice President and longtime Democratic political fixer Mike Sloan (who was the most visible member of Guinn's tax force), and as long as the deal is constructed so that casinos don't have to pay most of the bills for this statist bacchanalia, these guys could care less who has to clean up afterward.

I'm not quite ready to concede and make a clumsy Bob Knight analogy -- if tax increases are inevitable, let's make sure the bad guys get hurt most -- but it's tempting.

Friday, February 07, 2003

Prime-time dissing: The lead editorial in today's Wall Street Journal (not yet available online for free) recounts the odd role reversal in state capitals, with a number of Democratic governors looking to cut taxes and hold the line on spending, while Republican chief executives are falling all over themselves to satiate the spending classes. Here's the clincher:

But the prize for sticking it to taxpayers goes to GOP Governor Kenny Guinn of Nevada. He told legislators last month that if they opposed his plan for nearly $1 billion in new taxes they would be guilty of "political cowardice." Mr. Guinn, a former university president, thinks merely doubling the annual business license tax of $100 per employee would be "too little." As a fast-growing state, Nevada has real needs but among them is a complete reorganization of state government before taxes are raised. Rather than tackle that tough job, Governor Guinn is scapegoating his critics.

Ouch. And amen.

Update: The WSJ editorial is now posted on the American Legislative Exchange Council's Web site.

Spahn and Sain and pray for rain: The drought may be the underreported story of 2003. Its consequences affect much more than the Southwest, which has been buffered for several years by the ability to use lakes Mead and Powell to store Colorado River water and runoff from the minuscule rain and snow we've experienced. The Imperial Valley meltdown has gotten some ink in recent weeks, but that's deflected attention from the bigger story.

It seems that the current El Nino may not provide the relief everyone had hoped for. In a sobering meeting with Review-Journal editors on Wednesday, Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy noted that the jet stream had split, directing rain north and south of its usual destinations and leaving "a doughnut" over the Southwest. So what the Arizona Republic calls the worst drought in 1,400 years shows no sign of abating. (Get the Republic's full coverage here.

Mulroy said that, unless California, Nevada and Arizona have an extremely wet February and March -- or are drenched next winter -- the drought will all-but-scuttle the deals her district has made that would have locked up water supplies for the Las Vegas area for the next 50 years. By January 2005, building permits may be denied; homeowners may not be allowed to install or replace grass in their lawns; and even such tourist attractions as the Bellagio fountains (made famous most recently in the new version of Oceans Eleven) may be shut off. This would be a huge blow to Las Vegas.

While market forces will play a small role in the measures the district is implementing to combat the drought -- water rates will go up -- and a major educational effort to encourage residents to replace their grass with drought-resistant landscaping is under way, a lot of the new initiatives will be of the command-and-control variety: tougher penalties (fines and citations) for people who water outdoors during the hottest portions of the day. Mulroy confessed that the worst violators of these rules are government agencies (particularly the Clark County School District), who face little disincentive from running the sprinklers wide open at 2 p.m. on a 110-degree day. If the agencies get fined, they just pass the costs along to taxpayers. I suggested incarcerating the offenders and their bosses. She laughed ... after pausing a moment. Hmmm.

Per-capita, Las Vegans use 35 percent more water than residents of Phoenix ... and most of that "excess" is the result of runoff from lawn-watering that runs down the streets. "For some reason," she said, "people who move to Phoenix have embraced living in the desert, but people who move to Las Vegas haven't."

My thoughts on that: 1) The Sonora Desert is quite pretty; the Mojave is butt-ugly, and people want their surroundings to look nice; and 2) I haven't checked the statistics, but it's my gut feeling that a disproportionate share of Las Vegas transplants come from California, where people are accustomed to lawns that are artificially irrigated. I'm guessing Phoenix draws transplants from more diverse surroundings (some of those snowbird must be Cubs fans?) who had their lawns watered by Mother Nature and are perfectly comfortable adopting a different style of landscaping once they began living in a place where it rarely rains.

My buddy in the blogosphere Geitner Simmons has been tracking the effects of the drought in his backyard of Nebraska and elsewhere. His stuff's worth checking out. Stay tuned.



Thursday, February 06, 2003

Feedback welcome: As you may have noticed, I've added a comment link. Let me know if you have trouble with it ... and all comments will be valued! Unless, of course, they tick me off ...

Another reason Dick Vitale should never be allowed near a microphone: Last night's broadcast of the Carolina-Duke basketball game. The contest itself should enter the pantheon of great battles in this rivalry, with a clearly overmatched Tar Heel team outplaying Duke for 35 minutes before finally running out of gas (and failing to figure out a surprising Duke match-up zone). The Heels were more short-handed than usual, with leading scorer Rashad McCants playing only 8 minutes. Why? He's been in Coach Matt Doherty's doghouse lately for failing to play defense, and that's the line we got from Vitale and Mike Patrick ... platitudes like, "He's fighting himself ... He's not handling his new role, coming off the bench, well ..."

None of this was relevant, as this story points out: McCants has suffered from back problems, and "spent much of the second half flat on his back in front of the Carolina bench being stretched out by the training staff." Perhaps Vitale couldn't spot that from his nosebleed perch inside Cameron. But ESPN had Jay Bilas there as a sideline reporter, for crying out loud. Was he AWOL? ARRRGGHH!!

Vitale certainly loves basketball, but he rarely comments on the game that's in progress ... the game he's allegedly supposed to call; that's why he's the worst analyst in sports.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President: Ronald Reagan turns 92 today. So will my father, May 15. I won't be in North Carolina for the big day, but will go there for a visit (to help my in-laws celebrate their 50th anniversary) in a couple of weeks.

Addendum: Here's a tribute to Reagan by my good friend Steve Hayward, whose political biography of Reagan (this will link you to the first volume) is a great read.

Kim Jong-Il, meet, Mr. Ceausescu: The source (freerepublic.com) may not be reliable, but a Japanese news agency is reporting a pending collapse of the Communist regime in North Korea. A report the news agency obtained -- which it claims is an internal document circulated among Communist Party officials -- says such Western influences as haircuts, short skirts, and popular songs are undermining the party's thought-control and indoctrination, and that a renewed effort at re-education is needed to prevent social "unrest." North Koreans are even seeing fortune tellers, rather than meditating on party dogma. The story could be bogus, but it would help explain Pyongyang's bellicose postures toward the civilized world.

Via Instapundit.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Coming soon, to a legislature near you: Higher taxes. Well, you probably already knew that. But part of the ammunition sticky-fingered politicians and interest groups will load up on will be provided by this survey from Governing magazine on the tax systems in all 50 states. Governing, published by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats, blames state budget woes on -- get this -- dysfunctional tax systems. As UPI put it, "inadequate and unfair tax systems" have left treasuries "starved for cash." Silly me. I thought the cause was the decade-long spending orgy of the '90s, in which tax revenues (adjusted for inflation and population growth) surged by 48 percent.

Anyway, the Governing study, incorporating the kleptocracy's spin, is making the rounds in newspapers across the country. A Google News search unearths such stories from Mississippi, Kansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Alabama, Washington, plus (I'm getting tired of posting the hot links) Nebraska, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and, of course, Nevada, which ranked last in the nation.

The authors of the Governing survey concede that there's no truly objective way to rate tax structures, but if you actually look at the state-by-state analyses, the bias of the study is obvious: Notwithstanding the structure of the tax code, or whether it's most reliant on sales, income or mineral taxes, any state which has procedures in place that limit the ability of legislatures to increase rates or impose new taxes is guaranteed to get bad marks. (And if the state allows citizen initiatives to alter or repeal tax increases, stand in the corner! Bad citizens! Bad!)

As this editorial (written by me) points out, Colorado, one of the few states which isn't in fiscal meltdown, scores almost as poorly as Nevada; the analysis specifically cites that state's Taxpayer Bill of Rights as the reason. Nevada is dinged because "there is a deeply rooted anti-tax ethos in the state" and "Nevada's political procedures" (primarily the requirement that any tax increase get a two-thirds majority vote in both legislative houses) make "reforms" (aka raising taxes) difficult.

So as lawmakers start waving around this study as justification for ever-higher taxes, consider its source ... and its authors' attitudes about the rights of individuals to attempt to keep more of what they earn.

In case you've been wondering ... I haven't had much time to post the past few days, and not much worthwhile to say about the Columbia disaster, though this posting from Jesse Walker on Reason's Hit and Run is sobering.