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|THE STATE OF THE STATE
Incoming Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons did a competent job presenting his general fund budget for the next two fiscal years in his “State of the State” address in Carson City Monday evening -- though those waiting for an inspiring orator to move beyond the traditional “laundry list” of proposed expenditures and paint a new vision for a glowing, free-market future may have wondered if they’d tuned to the proper channel.
The governor proposed nearly $7 billion in general fund spending -- a hike of nearly 18 percent over the budget approved in 2005. He bragged that’s some $158 million below the statutory state spending cap -- without mentioning that means it’s also some $150 million smaller than the “right-up-to-the-line” recommended budget which outgoing Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn handed him a few weeks ago.
Gov. Gibbons kept his campaign promise not to propose any new taxes -- he even proposed rolling back the state payroll tax (by a smidgen, from 0.65 to 0.62 percent) and eliminating the silly and discriminatory per-branch bank excise tax, for a total savings to business owners of $34 million.
But those figures -- the $34 million tax reduction and the $150 million overall reduction in the two-year Guinn budget -- are mighty small sips from a $7 billion straw. Anyone looking for Mr. Gibbons’ promised “radical” changes in Nevada’s approach to funding state education, or to state budgeting in general, must have been left scratching their heads.
Since those on the left were going to ridicule the governor for this supposedly “conservative” budget, anyway, one wonders why the governor so consistently stopped short of proposing anything firm enough to give his own side some ammunition in the (presumed) legislative battles to come -- or even some red meat to chew on.
Mr. Gibbons said we need to “develop more affordable housing in Nevada.” Fine. Did he then use his bully pulpit to expose the way that term has become a disingenuous euphemism for labyrinthine tax subsidies and the bludgeoning of overregulated private-sector banks? Did he call for relaxing or passing exemptions to existing zoning codes, thus allowing developers to erect housing that really would cost less to build and buy?
No. Instead the governor used the term in precisely its prevailing sense, saying we must “satisfy the housing needs” of nurses and tax-funded teachers -- as though such entry-level bureaucrats really constitute the lifetime “poor” -- by selling tax-exempt bonds and twisting the arms of home-builders into overcharging everyone else so certain (government-selected) designees can pay less to move into houses which are no more “affordable” to build than any others.
Mr. Gibbons said the low level of educational attainment by Nevada’s students is simply not tolerable. Good. He says the answer is “empowerment,” both of parents and school administrators. Indeed it is. Parents will be “empowered with school choice for their children,” he announced.
Great. But where were the specifics on how Nevada parents will be able to take the tax money that would otherwise be spent locking their children into a low-performing government school, and instead use those funds in the form of vouchers or tax credits to send them to competing private schools?
There were no specifics, which means that particular battle with the Democrat-dominated Assembly may never even be joined. Limited “public school choice” is hardly a radical change, governor.
Teachers will be “rewarded for results in student achievement,” Mr. Gibbons said.
Really? Does he have a plan to circumvent union foot-dragging on bonuses or merit pay for teachers whose kids can be shown to have done better? I hope so.
“You don’t sell a vaccine by telling them how much the shot is going to hurt,” was the Monday evening comment of one prominent member of the governor’s transition team, who retains hope that the governor really means to substantially increase the percentage of their budgets over which individual school principals have discretion.
The problem is, an absence of specifics gives the impression that the governor’s side in the debate over teacher merit pay has folded its tents and slipped away in the night, before the battle can even be joined. A “bold new approach” means hammering away at some specifics, governor -- putting the defenders of the failed status quo on the defensive, erecting a shining city of hope whose rhetorical parapets are at least a challenge for the other side to storm.
And then there was the downright bad: Instead of raising the bar to reward only the academically gifted, the governor proposes beefing up the oversubscribed state Millennium scholarships (which were intended to be funded only with tobacco settlement money, until the predictable grade inflation kicked in) with unclaimed property funds. We’ll see how far those go. And he sided with municipal officials who have shamefully misused their powers of eminent domain -- and against the Nevada citizens who overwhelmingly embraced those remaining parts of the “PISTOL” eminent domain reform initiative on which the state Supreme Court allowed them to vote -- by calling on the Legislature to enact a watered-down constitutional amendment in hopes of short-circuiting final approval of “Question 2,” two years hence.
Heaven forfend our local cities and counties might face “delays” or inconvenience in seizing private property for their corporate buddies under false pretenses!
On other major issues, Gov. Gibbons punted. Water? He wants a “state water inventory.” That should guarantee no action on a crucial front for a few more years. Private toll roads? He’ll settle for a “panel to study public-private initiatives.”
Wow. Maybe they’ll even produce a “written report.”
Democrats bluster and squawk that state government is now in the hands of some “far-right conservative.” Yet in the end, Nevada will still spend $3.6 billion of a $7 billion budget on unrelieved monopoly state schooling (down from 54 percent of the state budget to 53 percent, Ms. Buckley intones, failing to mention that the schooling expenditure thus grows by 15.76 percent), and another $2 billion on other welfare programs.
About the best thing one can say about this State of the State address, in the end, is that it was not delivered by either Mr. Gibbons’ electoral opponent of two months ago -- state Sen. Dina Titus -- or by Democratic Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. Both Democrats have made it clear that if they have their way they would balloon this budget to include mandatory all-day kindergarten for every Nevada 5-year-old (Gov. Gibbons prefers to merely “study” the existing pilot program), while Ms. Buckley added in her pre-taped, schoolmarmish “Democratic response” following the address that she opposes Gov. Gibbons plan to develop a coal liquefaction plant in this state, since (in her words) “We aren’t a coal-producing state.”
Good gracious. By that logic, since Nevada produces no cars or trucks but has plenty of horses and burros, we hate to think how state employees would be required to get around under a future “Governor Buckley.”
Instead of vowing to improve Las Vegas highways, would we be hiring men with shovels to sweep up after the (proudly domestic) livestock?
Gov. Gibbons made no serious gaffes Monday night. He was calm and competent. But -- as with Nevada’s mostly pathetic “Millennium scholars” -- is it too much to ask that the bar be set a little higher than that?