Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Same old numbers game won’t work in Session ’11

When I hear the ongoing, cacophonous debate over the size of the state budget deficit as Session ’11 looms, I can’t help but think of two words:

Who cares?

Size does not matter here. The emphasis by some on a simple math problem — is the deficit closer to $1.1 billion or $3 billion? — is not just unproductive; it’s counterproductive.

I understand why Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval is minimizing the deficit — he hopelessly boxed himself in with his no-new-taxes absolutism in the campaign and wants to use local governments to mask the severity of the problem. It’s also easier for the narrow minds at the Nevada Policy Research Institute to do basic arithmetic when advanced calculus is called for — NPRI has been operating in two dimensions for years when three-dimensional thinking is called for. And many on the left side of the political spectrum are not much better, accurately painting the magnitude of the problem but cravenly playing Alphonse to Sandoval’s Gaston — yes, it’s the governor’s budget but it’s the Gang of 63’s state, too.

It is perhaps asking too much to have an elevated dialogue about how the state spends and raises money in the run-up to what could be the most contentious session in decades, making 2003 and 1989 look like games of patty-cake. But when I see the focus on numbers as opposed to policies, I am sickeningly reminded of eight years ago, when lawmakers focused on what tax increase numbers they could not go above for arbitrary reasons (as if $836 million was a meaningful line in the sand!) and not the policies on either side of this complex math problem.

Never has there been a better time to focus on what the state’s priorities should be, how they should be funded and what should be excised. There are oeuvres to work from, drawing on the work of the Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission and a raft of tax studies that argue for expanding the base. But to reduce this to the hoary, binary game of “to tax or not to tax” diminishes the debate and keeps Nevada on its fiscal treadmill.

This becomes relevant — again — as evidence surfaces — again — of NPRI’s overweening hypocrisy, which is polluting the dialogue about as much as the Great Shrinking Revenue Debate between the governor and legislators is trivializing the task ahead.

It’s clear from what state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said this week on “Face to Face” that he believes the $1.1 billion number is not relevant. Instead, he thinks $2.7 billion is a more useful number because it shows the $1.6 billion in normally general fund appropriations funded with nonrecurring money (stimulus, sunsetted taxes) outside the general fund in Session ’09. (His math can be seen here:

Horsford is right. But his choice — and that of many of his ilk — is to do what he did on the program: Refer to the governor’s constitutional responsibility to produce a budget and then allow lawmakers react to it.

This is going to be The Count to 2 and 3 Session — the number of GOP votes needed to get to two-thirds in the Assembly and Senate, respectively, to pass taxes. And I have visions of 2003 dancing in my head, where plans sprung too late resulted in a cobbled-together grotesquerie of taxes that made little policy sense. And that was during a session when the governor wanted to raise revenue.

NPRI’s contribution to the debate is to chastise anyone in the media who dares to suggest that a number closer to $3 billion is reasonable to consider for the actual deficit, if you go back to what service levels were before the cuts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that entire gap can be bridged, but a pathway to solvency would be nice.

By sneering at “liberals” who use an $8.3 billion figure, which it calls “a lie,” the officious, know-it-alls at NPRI lecture about assumptions while being the only ones in the state who have proposed a new tax on certain services.

(NPRI is setting up a new Sue Government to Please Our Right-Wing Donors Center. First suit should be if government dares to pass a sales tax on services now. Headline I dream of: “NPRI sues state over NPRI-proposed tax.”)

“The other side needs to be that intellectually honest as well — then the productive discussions and disagreements can begin about what is and isn’t important in Nevada’s budget,” NPRI’s Victor Joecks blogged Wednesday about the deficit.

Yes, pot. It would be nice if the kettle talked about inefficiencies and waste and cuts. But until both sides get off the numbers game, all I can say is:

Who cares?

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