Las Vegas Sun

October 26, 2016

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State has upper hand in budget turf war

Local governments have voters on their side, which means little

As they prepare for the 2011 Legislature, local governments look like they’re going into a gunfight with a pretty dull knife.

Counties and cities are bracing for the likelihood that state government will take more of their tax revenue to bridge its budget deficit.

Their primary weapon of defense? An advisory ballot question approved by voters in November.

Looking for leverage with generally unsympathetic legislators, counties turned to voters, asking whether the state should obtain local governments’ permission before taking their money or transferring responsibility for services to local governments.

The measure passed by wide margins, 55 percent statewide (54 percent in Clark County) and got the majority in all but one county, Nye, which has had a series of local government scandals.

“We think the results are hopefully an indication of the local citizens’ desire to have their locally elected governing body have a say in the use of local resources,” said Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties.

But the initiative isn’t landing with the force advocates had hoped.

State officials view the results skeptically, saying voters were only given half the story.

The ballot measure ignored the environment in which the governor-elect and lawmakers will make their tough fiscal decisions — projected state revenue falls billions of dollars short of what’s needed to maintain current services. It also oversimplified the options available to the state, they said.

More than one legislator privately laughed at the measure’s wording. Others became upset at the way the question was presented.

Dale Erquiaga, senior adviser to Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, said the ballot question “has weight because it’s a vote of the people. But it didn’t ask the other question: ‘Do you want your taxes raised?’ It’s only half an answer, in our opinion.”

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and chairwoman of the Government Affairs Committee, agreed that the question didn’t offer a complete picture of the choices confronting lawmakers.

“I always listen to voters, but at the same time, you should ask if we should do away with a service” instead of taking local government money, she said. “If constituents were asked to choose, maybe their answers would have been different.”

Since 2008, when the state began facing large budget deficits, lawmakers and the governor have taken $283 million from local governments, primarily Clark and Washoe counties, according to the Association of Counties.

Sandoval and legislators appear poised to return to that well next year.

Kirkpatrick said Nevadans don’t care whether a state, county or city provides a government service.

The state needs governments at all levels to come together and figure out how to deliver services in the most efficient way, she said, adding it’s an idea that local governments haven’t taken seriously.

Before the 2009 session, Kirkpatrick met with some local government officials. “I said, ‘We all need to work together, to try to figure out what works.’ They all thought it was an idle threat,” Kirkpatrick said.

Now they know better.

Take this example, from the 2009 session: The governor proposed taking a portion of Clark and Washoe counties’ property taxes. Lawmakers were considering that when Clark County suggested the state take a different fund, one for buildings and parks.

Lawmakers thanked local officials for their idea, and decided to take both pots of money.

That angered local leaders. But the question was how to fight back, especially considering local governments are publicly battling state lawmakers, who have ultimate authority over cities’ and counties’ finances.

In California, cities and counties banded together to pass a constitutional amendment that would force the state to keep its hands off local money.

Nevada local governments went a more moderate route: a nonbinding advisory question that only asks the state to get permission.

Fontaine said local leaders understand the tough position legislators and the governor-elect are in. Local governments just want to have input, Fontaine said.

“We weren’t always invited to have a seat at the table,” he said.

He called the ballot question a “cautious approach” and noted that the group has not been beating its chest about winning voters’ approval.

“We don’t want to start a war with the Legislature or governor-elect,” he said. “We understand they can do what they want.”

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