Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006 | 7:28 a.m.
The conversation swirled around the meeting room at the Las Vegas Senior Center - the crime these days and more discounts for seniors at the buffets and would you believe these disrespectful kids? But one senior citizen had a gripe on which almost everyone could agree: "Seniors are overtaxed," said JoAnn Titus.
Many in the group of 50 or so, which meets every Wednesday, nodded their heads. Later, when the discussion turned to education, several explained that they had paid their fair share of taxes for schools over the years.
Any parent or educator listening in would have winced. They have children who need an education to compete with peers in California, but also China. But there are more and more seniors just like those at the senior center; they can't or won't pay more taxes for schools.
And it's likely going to get worse, right as the Clark County School District prepares to ask voters for school construction money in 2008.
Southern Nevada's demographics are changing, and the trend portends a potentially nasty conflict between old and young, white and nonwhite, in a battle for precious public funds.
Political scientists and demographers point to two simultaneous population booms: senior citizens and school aged children - and seniors are outpacing the young.
Stuck in the middle are workers who will have to support both groups.
Throw it all together and you have a potentially toxic political stew.
Attracted by low taxes
As anyone who's seen the billboards for "mature communities" can attest, Southern Nevada's population of retirees and Baby Boomers nearing retirement is growing rapidly. The number of senior citizens has more than doubled in 10 years, according to Claudia Collins, a professor for aging studies at UNR's Cooperative Extension in Las Vegas.
Nevada once had a young population, but the state is nearing the national median, according to the 2000 Census. Of all Nevada newcomers, nearly 25 percent are 55 and older, Collins said.
In a paper in The American Economic Review, the MIT economist James Poterba wrote that there's a growing body of empirical evidence that older voters are less likely than their younger counterparts to support taxes for schools.
Tony Rosenbaum, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Florida who studied the phenomenon there for 12 years, said Nevada's situation is "almost identical" to what happened in Florida. "Many local communities have had problems. There's a widespread perception among local governments that older people never saw a tax hike they liked."
The problem is made worse by the factors that draw people here. Collins said they come here for climate, for entertainment, for the go-anywhere airport.
And, for the low taxes.
Michael Green, a Nevada historian, noted that the state began advertising itself as a low-tax haven in the 1930s and, "That attitude has survived."
As a result, many of the aging newcomers are already anti-tax when they arrive, and they feel as if they paid enough in their home states.
What's Basic High School?
Even if the newcomers arrive willing to pay for education, they might become resistant to taxes because they grow to embrace the state's anti-tax atmosphere, said Phillip Longman, a fellow at the New America Foundation who's written extensively about aging populations.
"Nevada will change the migrants more than the migrants will change Nevada," Longman said.
Rosenbaum noted another problem: The transplants often have no history or identity with the community, and so feel less invested in schools or other institutions.
Back where they came from, say, Scranton, Pa., or Columbus, Ohio, they probably felt a visceral connection to the school whose football team they cheered every Friday night for 40 years, the school where their children went to prom and wore the cap and gown. Here, they ask themselves, "What's Basic High School?"
Transplants, who tend to be relatively wealthy and relatively healthy, are just part of the picture, Collins said. Of those seniors who spent much of their adult lives here and are now retiring, many worked in the service industries, at hotels and casinos, Collins said. They are economically marginal, and often can't afford higher taxes.
The Spanish question
Add to this economic hardship the poison of racial hatred, which dominated American politics for decades and could reappear as a potent political force given Nevada's demographic future. That future entails older residents asked to pay for the education of an increasingly diverse student body.
Among transplants and longtime Nevadans alike, the school district's emerging ethnic diversity could only heighten their resentment over taxes for schools.
Between 20 and 25 percent of Clark County students have limited English skills.
Robert Hudson, a Boston University scholar who has examined the politics of aging, said ethnicity could play an uncomfortable role here: "Absolutely it complicates things You have old whites and young Latinos, and that's a mixture for, well, you can imagine."
Indeed, at the senior center roundtable, resentment about illegal immigration was palpable.
Illegal immigrants "get a package deal," said Titus, who is not related to Dina Titus, the state senator running for governor. "They get a driver's license, they get welfare." (Congress made illegal immigrants ineligible for all welfare except emergency medical care in 1996, and in Nevada they can't get driver's licenses unless they use fraudulent means.)
The looming fight for public resources is more than just older Nevadans fighting school taxes. In fact, the dependency of young on old is by no means one-way.
The elderly consume a disproportionate share of the nation's health care expenditures, and it is young workers who subsidize that care through higher insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Barring health care reform, that situation will only worsen.
As Collins noted, "Retirees will create a huge drain on our economy in 10 to 15 years because they won't be so healthy and they won't be so wealthy."
And yet, there's little doubt where government priorities will lie. Seniors have great clout because they vote in great numbers.
In Sun City precincts, for instance, Collins noted that turnout is often nearly 90 percent. Nevada's turnout as a whole in the 2004 presidential race was about 55 percent.
By contrast, many Hispanic families with children in school aren't eligible to vote because they aren't citizens, and activists in Nevada have been frustrated at their inability to energize those who are citizens.
This is doubly frustrating for education advocates because Hispanics often tell pollsters education is a top issue for them.
Clark County School District's head of government affairs said he's confident about the 2008 school bond, given past success with voters - including senior voters - in the past. Bond measures passed in 1994 and 1996, and most recently one for $3.5 billion passed in 1998. There will be another in 2008, though it's not finalized, according to the district.
"The message I want to send," said Craig Kadlub, "is that we appreciate the concerns of folks with limited incomes, but I don't think you can walk away from the responsibility of providing for the next generation."
Schools or prison?
Some education advocates are growing frustrated with the emerging demographic battle.
"It frightens me when certain groups of people say they shouldn't have to pay for education, because if they don't pay for education, they'll have to pay for prisons," said Mary Jo Parise-Malloy, co-founder of Nevadans for Quality Education.
Then she offered a warning: "They might not feel like they're part of the community, but they are. When people start breaking into their homes, they'll know they're part of the community."
At other times, she sounded exhausted while scolding fellow citizens: "I don't understand how we got to the point where our society is so selfish and not willing to pay for education."
While perhaps understandable, Kadlub and Parise-Malloy strike the wrong tone, Rosenbaum said: "Local governments have learned to blunt this criticism that the older generation doesn't want to educate the younger generation. Get that out of your head because it will prejudice you."
He said it's important for school advocates to build bridges to the senior community well before it's time to start talking about a new school: "Reach out. Anticipate the problems before they arise."
Educating the elderly
Many education advocates have just that in mind and want to begin the hard work of persuading seniors sooner rather than later. One of them is Billy Vassiliadis, whose advertising firm R&R Partners has run the school bond campaigns in the past pro bono and will likely do the next one. He said the new demographic reality "concerns me on a personal level."
The next construction bond will rely heavily on his political acumen. He said seniors need to know that education funding is in their best interests, that a shortage of schools will lead to double sessions, which means high school kids cruising all day.
The schools also have to be sold, like the libraries, as a resource for everyone and not just a place for kids. Finally, he noted, "For every student, there's an extended family" of voters who can be courted.
Collins said she's optimistic, too, assuming the district and education advocates reach out. "Everybody sees these people moving in, and we market to them because they buy homes and furniture and entertainment, but they could be a gold mine of volunteers and service to the community.
"We have to make it easier for them to be part of the community."