blank.gif (51 bytes) Second Thoughts
Spinning Legislative
Wheels All Over Again?

by Ralph Heller, NPRI Senior Research Fellow

he new year begins not only where the old year left off, but in many ways Nevada starts the new year pretty much as it started last year and the year before that. For example, Nevada continues to have behind bars a larger percentage of its population than the percentage of residents presently behind bars in communist China. But the only rumors circulating concerning some change in Nevada law call for making it easier to arrest people for not wearing seat belts.

Similarly, Nevada taxpayers continue to bear one of the most onerous per capita tax burdens to be found among the 50 states, a situation that is not merely unchanged in a decade but one which has gotten worse. But has anyone heard any talk about a possible tax cut?

The classic example of utterly unreflective thought and political posturing is what has transpired since February, 1982 when the federal government solemnly promised to provide a safe place to bury nuclear waste by February 1, 1998. The war over Yucca Mountain simply goes on and on while 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel have continued to pile up at 72 nuclear power plants in 34 states.

But note how few Nevada public officials have made a serious effort to propose an alternative to burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and without an alternative plan the waste will inevitably end up here. It’s either that, or leave thousands of tons of nuclear waste at 72 different sites in 34 states which in a world of international animosities and terrorists would constitute an unacceptable security risk for us—and for the world.

Similarly, we find ourselves each year spending more and more on higher education with few questions asked, while each UNR and UNLV graduating class finds more and more graduates flipping hamburgers or waiting on tables. Yet not every state legislature and university system is as averse as ours to undertaking a bit of research to see what education dollars are actually buying these days.

Not long ago the University of Texas at Austin released a study of what has happened to higher education costs since 1940. For example, tuition at Yale University has risen from $450 to $23,780, and the University of Connecticut where tuition was free as recently as 1970 now has a tuition fee of $4,158.

A tenured professor who earned $4,300 for teaching nine months in 1940 now makes $79,300 and even incidental costs have soared skyward; a ticket to the Rose Bowl that used to cost $4.40 now costs $110. Yet is there anyone who would argue that today’s college graduates are more learned, better scholars or more literate than graduates of a half century ago?

This seems to be what both the Congress and state legislatures do best—spinning wheels. And worse, as in Nevada, taxpayers are expected to pay more and more simply to enable government to tread water. During his tenure in office Gov. Bob Miller and his legislative co-conspirators raised the state gasoline tax 33 percent, the special diesel fuel tax 35 percent, the insurance premiums tax (which exists in only six states) 16 percent, the motor vehicle registration tax more than 50 percent, the property transfer tax almost 20 percent and the cigarette tax 75 percent—just to mention a few of the last decade’s increases.

Even so, legislators found this tidal wave of additional tax dollars inadequate so they dreamed up some brand new taxes like the 6 percent car rental tax, a new business tax of $25 quarterly for each full-time employee and such imaginative money makers as a new excise tax of a dollar per tire on automobile tires.

The beneficiaries of all this taxation were mostly government and its employees. During the early 1990s the administrative cost of government in Nevada rose by more than 6 percent a year compared to increases of between 1 and 2 percent in most states. And Nevada ended up with one of the highest paid government work forces in the nation.

Meanwhile, the proverbial "little guys"—the people not yet behind bars for not wearing seat belts but nonetheless struggling with their tax burdens—have very little to show for the state’s huge increases in spending. What we know about those proverbial "little guys" today is that Nevada’s job market is soft, especially in northern Nevada, and that the number of declared personal bankruptcies in the state increased 18 percent from 1997 to 1998.

It probably is not necessary for the Nevada Legislature to cut back as spectacularly as Fidel Castro did last year when he decreed that schoolboys’ slacks would be replaced with shorts to cut costs. But it is decidedly time for the Legislature to stop spinning wheels long enough to belatedly assess how its constituents are really faring when compared to their counterparts in other states. NJ

Ralph Heller is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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