The debate on the floor of the state Senate on Tuesday was something to behold: Democrats lamenting Republicans could not be induced to raise taxes for the sake of the state’s schoolchildren, Republicans lamenting that Democrats simply didn’t appreciate the money Gov. Brian Sandoval has put toward education in his budget.
It was state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson — a veteran of the Assembly in his first session as a senator — who called it: The debates held in Carson City on education funding are always the same, and nothing ever changes.
But amidst the blame, shame, anger and frustration, we can find a few truths. Here they are:
1. This was inevitable. Republicans are generally against new and higher taxes. (The exceptions are the sunset taxes built into Sandoval’s budget, and a mining tax increase favored by six of the 10 Republicans in the state Senate, but not many others.) But payroll taxes? Admission-to-movies taxes? A 2 percent business margins tax? The GOP hates that stuff. And it wasn’t as if they were coy about it; Republicans said from the beginning they were willing to talk, but wouldn’t budge on certain things.
So why the surprise and outrage when Republicans declared the 11th hour payroll tax increase introduced and later withdrawn by Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas to be “dead on arrival”? That should have surprised no one. While Democrats said they would talk about taxes from Day Two of the session — and those talks did happen — just talking about something doesn’t mean the other side will go for it. And instead of a comprehensive plan of tax reform, all the Democrats really put on the table was an increase in an existing tax, and extending another existing tax to places nobody really wanted to go.
Frustration is understandable. Surprise is not. Even I saw this coming, and I’m really not that smart.
2. These were bad ideas. With all due respect to the Democrats, their tax ideas were bad. They were regressive, unpopular and politically toxic. They failed to address the long-standing problems in Nevada’s tax code. And there was no practical way they were going to earn the necessary votes to get through the Legislature, let alone stand up to a gubernatorial veto.
Not only that, they made the Democratic Party — supposedly the party of the regular person, the little guy — look like the party of screwing the little guy. Taxing people for going to the movies? For going to the gym? For going to NASCAR races? Where was the effort to tax the companies that own the movie theaters, that own the gyms and that own NASCAR? Instead of that, we got a Democratic-backed attempt to give tax breaks to Hollywood for filming movies in Nevada!
And increasing the payroll tax, in the state with the nation’s highest unemployment? A tax that was actually favored by the business community over an income tax, because it’s “predictable” and “controllable.” Why? Because businesses can lay off workers or, in the alternative, not hire workers in the first place in order to not pay the tax. What message does that send to workers searching for employment? Or to the state’s political establishment, where the payroll tax is usually the first to be nominated for abolishment if an alternate revenue source could ever be found?
Meanwhile, the Legislature ignored the Nevada State Education Association’s 2 percent business margins tax, proposed by initiative and the subject of a vigorous court fight to get before lawmakers. It will appear on the 2014 ballot for voters to decide.
Also ignored: The perennial bill by Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, which would have imposed a 4.5 percent business income tax. That idea has been ignored by the Legislature since at least 2003, when then-Gov. Kenny Guinn recommended it.
And, while not immediate, the Republican-backed effort to impose a tax on the mining industry — assuming Senate Joint Resolution 15 is approved by the Legislature this year and by voters in 2014 — was an opportunity missed. Republicans were frank about their intent — they wanted to use the mining tax to kill the NSEA tax on the 2014 ballot, by proposing it as an either-or alternative question. But it was still in the mix, and still disregarded.
3. Sandoval’s budget is better, but not enough. So said state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, during the Senate debate Tuesday. The governor claims he’s augmented the state’s education budget by nearly $500 million, more than any of his predecessors. And indeed, he has increased the budget, and earmarked money for certain specific programs, such as pre-kindergarten programs and English Language Learners. (Some of the increase, however, is also the natural growth of these programs.)
But Democrats had much grander visions: They want full-day kindergarten programs, free to all parents, in all schools in the state. They want even more money for ELL programs, especially in Clark County, where students who struggle with English hobble instruction. They want more aggressive class-size reduction. Their price tag: At least $310 million.
Now, it’s a value judgment as to whether the Democratic priorities are worthwhile. Some argue that early education programs and smaller class sizes have no real effect on student educational achievement, and are not worth the cost. Others believe they are worthwhile, but too expensive and not worth risking a tax increase. But if you’re of the view — as I am — that these programs do help, that they are worth it and that education is the most critical economic development program we have, then you can understand Democratic frustration.
Sandoval should be praised for what he’s done; it’s not nothing and it’s an acknowledgement that education is a priority for everybody. But it’s not as much as we should — and could — be spending to do the things that we need to do to make Nevada’s schools better.
4. Shooting the hostage. In 2003, Democrats reasoned that if they linked the education budget and the tax plan, Republicans would be in a corner. There was no way the GOP would ever vote down a tax plan if it meant closing down schools!
But they neglected to consider the fact that Republicans would do exactly that — and they did. For one regular and two special sessions, a bloc of implacable Republicans in the Assembly voted no again and again, thwarting Democratic hopes, sparking a Supreme Court lawsuit and bringing the schools to the brink of closure at the start of a new budget year. It was only the incredible pressure to find a constitutional resolution that led one of those Assembly Republicans to break, vote for a tax plan and end the standoff.
The unlearned lesson of history: Using schools, teachers and schoolchildren as human crowbars in an attempt to pry open the tight fists of Republicans and induce them to vote for taxes absent any other consideration simply does not work. Democrats can try to shame, blame and otherwise impugn Republicans for taking an anti-tax stand, but that will not change the equation. The fact that Democrats keeping trying it without success is a big part of the futility that often attends the Nevada Legislature.
5. Endgame games. During the Senate debate Tuesday, Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, brutally castigated his Democratic counterparts for a lack of leadership. “I have a tremendous amount of affection for the majority leader [Denis],” Roberson said. “This is not leadership. This is making yourself feel better. You can do better than this.”
Added Roberson: “Learn how to lead and not be afraid of the consequences.”
Set aside for a moment the fact that Denis and the rest of his caucus — including vulnerable members such as state Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas — can be tarred with the brush of proposing taxes, which took some measure of political courage. And set aside that the consequence-free strategy of Roberson has left people on both sides of the aisle regarding him with distrust.
Let’s play out Roberson’s remark and see how it ends, shall we?
Let’s say the Democrats from the start declared Sandoval’s budget was wholly inadequate as regards education, and that it simply would not stand. Instead of waiting until session’s end to propose a tax plan, Democrats proposed a business income tax of the type that’s been recommended for Nevada for decades. And they did it in Assembly Bill 2, on Day 2 of the session.
From now on, Democrats said, big business in this state will no longer get away without paying taxes on their revenues. They’ll pay the same taxes they pay in California, and Oregon, and Idaho, Utah and Arizona. That means big retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart; car dealers with national franchises; home builders; and yes, casinos and mining companies, will pay. It’s only fair, and it will be done in conjunction with a school improvement package designed to get us on the road to the best schools in the country.
And the Republicans would have responded to this bold demonstration of true leadership by….
…immediately condemning Democrats as tax-and-spenders, never satisfied with the delicious, tiny cupcakes of cash generously bestowed upon education by a beneficent governor. They’d denounce Democrats as always willing to ruin Nevada’s economy with a job-killing tax that will kill jobs and murder jobs and stab jobs right in the face with the sharp edge of taxation, thus killing them. Also, it kills jobs.
And the endgame would have been different … how? There would still have been a two-thirds stalemate, there would still be a veto threat. Democrats could have stuck to their principles, argued for the tax with great passion, defeated the mostly weak arguments mounted against it and still ended up having to kill it and accept the governor’s recommendation. Showing leadership would have changed things … how exactly?
Leadership is not “doing the thing that I suggested at the exclusion of all other ideas.” Leadership is getting closer to what you want by negotiating with people who have unlike ideas, and maybe making hard choices in order to make things better overall. That process didn’t happen this session. And that’s a shame.
6. So what now? After her bill to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry their guns on the campuses of the Nevada System of Higher Education failed, Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, declared she was going to do her best to elect more Republicans so her law’s chances would improve in the next session. She’s hardly alone in her thinking: Republicans and Democrats alike are already scheming about how to use the votes, floor statements and strategy of the other side against them in next year’s elections.
If everybody thinks alike, passing laws would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?
The only problem is, the system is geared toward having opposition. There are plenty of safe Republican and Democratic seats, with just a few up for grabs each election. That means working with the other side is inevitable. That means compromise is necessary. That means trying to ram bills through using shame as a tactic only leads to gridlock. Ditto for playing defense and saying no to everything while demanding unreasonable concessions on wholly unrelated subjects. That’s not democracy. That’s a stalemate.
And yes, stalemating works. Voters on the left will hail their conquering heroes, praising them for fighting the good fight against those damn dirty Republicans who hate children and victims of gun violence. Voters on the right will praise their side for blocking those dirty socialist Democrats trying to suck all the private wealth into the government maw. And only a few will notice that hardly anything got done, that the ribbon on Nevada’s flag should be edited from “Battle Born” to say “Status Quo.”
And guess what? Unless something serious changes, it will happen again. I know, because it has happened again. The 2013 session follows the script written in 2011, and in 2003. The faces change. The voices change. But they’re saying the exact same thing. And nothing ever really changes.
“All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.” That’s fine as a tagline for a scripted sci-fi TV show. It’s awful as a state motto.