Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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Jon Ralston: Budget problem will get fixed, but larger issues remain

One week before the constitutionally mandated conclusion of the 76th session of the Legislature, a solution is at hand.

Unless the state Supreme Court detonates another legal bomb across the courtyard, Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Gang of 63 will negotiate a peaceful end to yet another fruitless session. Why fruitless?

Because the solution will be only about money, a number arbitrarily chosen as it always is to garner the necessary votes, with policy considerations left behind (or never even raised) in the Rush to Close. Once again, when lawmakers have returned home, the state’s unsustainable tax structure will remain in place (why do you think we have the country’s highest unemployment rate?), as Nevada gamers look to the Far East, the higher and lower education systems retain their cellar-dwelling positions, and options diminish with every myopic biennial exercise in futility.

We are here because of shortsighted Legislatures, governors and, yes, even the judicial branch. We are here because of rapacious special interests with no investment in the state’s education system and social safety net. And we are here because of an apathetic populace — I saw more energy and involvement in one session from college students than in a quarter-century from those who should be even more active.

The common metaphor for the end of sessions is a train wreck. But this locomotive has been chugging along for decades, a recurring Murder on the Nevada Express, where everyone is to blame and no one takes responsibility.

Although I find the legal issues surrounding last week’s state Supreme Court decision fascinating, I find the reaction depressing. What should have been a wake-up call (to stop grabbing at any available pot of money) is instead an excuse for the familiar maneuvering, politicking and posturing that characterizes every Legislature, especially in the final days.

In their zeal to frame their positions — Sandoval as a reluctant taxer, lawmakers as budget saviors — they forget most voters have the attention span of a 2-year-old. No one will remember next year — maybe not three months from now — how the session ended.

But as the Republicans gear up to try to take control of the Legislature in 2012 and the Democrats try to hold on to their power, they will brag about their various faux achievements to try to win the right to return here to do as little as possible. Again.

The problem with capital politics is the problem with politics in general: A world of gray is framed in absolutes to gain political advantage and rouse a slumbering electorate.

No new taxes. He’s killing education. Ad nauseam.

That is not to say that dedicated, smart people have not come through the doors of the Legislative Building to find broader prescriptions. But, mostly, legislative results are incremental, characterized by a singular lack of vision as lawmakers are blinded by their desire for re-election or blindfolded by their leaders. (Some of the many freshmen this year, like newborns, are just opening their eyes. And they cannot like what they see.)

So we have a familiar picture — a governor so desperate not to put taxes in his budget that he resorted to transparent gimmicks, and a Legislature so desperate to raise taxes that its leaders were willing to hide the ball for months.

Neither approach was helpful; in fact, each is destructive in its own way.

Thus, we will have the same result we have every other year, a cobbling together of unrelated parts to build a tax and budget monster that makes Frankenstein look attractive.

As this session comes to an end, the major special interests are expressing a familiar fear. Gaming, mining and Big Business are more afraid of a different kind of ballot royale next year — a raft of initiatives to tax them because people are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.

Generally, the business elite need not worry because labor and the teachers can be co-opted or they misplay their hands. And the chances of a well-funded, effective effort sprouting from the grass roots assumes someone would step up to seed the movement.

And so we are where we always are.

But that feeling will pass, too. One of the reasons I love covering Nevada politics is even if the names and problems don’t change, the unexpected still happens, the game itself is still fascinating. But after all these years, I would love to be surprised by a session that begins and ends with a governor and legislators standing together on the Capitol steps and declaring: “Enough is enough. This time we fix the problem once and for all.”

Despite my recurring cynicism, the day I stop believing that is possible is the day I look for another line of work.

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