Brother, Can You Spare a Dime... or Maybe a Couple Hundred Million Dimes?

by Ralph Heller, NPRI Senior Research Fellow

The unexpected thumping defeat of a $196 million Washoe County school bond measure in September left education officials and newspaper editorial writers scratching their heads, trying to figure out what had really happened. With more than a dozen funding issues on ballots in one corner or another of Nevada in November, to say nothing of 16 statewide ballot questions, an analysis of September’s election fiasco in Washoe County is worth a few moments’ scrutiny and reflection.

First off, school authorities outsmarted themselves in their attempt to circumvent a truly broad representation of public sentiment. Fearing a huge "No" vote in November as an unusually large number of voters head to the polls to cast their votes for president, school authorities scheduled the bond for the September primary ballot, a move that backfired as Washoe County residents made clear their disapproval of officialdom’s attempt to manipulate the vote.

But beyond this there remains increasing challenges for school districts and others about to ask the public for more money. A dozen or more such measures are on ballots this year in Churchill, Clark, Eureka, Mineral, Nye, Storey and Washoe counties, and in Carson City. But before taking a look at some of these measures, let’s examine more closely a few of the factors that led to such a resounding rejection of the school bond measure in Washoe County.

 

"Motor Voter Registration" and

Other Nonsense

One of the biggest surprises emerging from the Washoe County vote was the incredibly low voter turnout despite a presumed high level of public interest in the ballot question, and one of the culprits contributing increasingly to low voter turnouts is government’s determination to make registering to vote so easy and convenient it becomes almost meaningless.

The reason dozens of states have resisted such ideas as "Motor Voter Registration" is because it enhances voter registration among those least motivated to vote, resulting in unusually low voter turnouts. Having done everything but deliver ballots to each house pre-marked "Yes" on the school bond measure, Washoe County’s dominant newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, was shocked at a voter turnout of only 38 percent.

Yet it was the Gazette-Journal that had rammed such things as "Motor Voter Registration" down the throats of a skeptical public in the first place, utterly unconcerned over the fact that by making voter registration so easy it would be signing up to vote thousands of people across Nevada who would never actually get to the polls on election day.

No less worrisome for Nevada officials should be the fact that "Motor Voter" registrants and others for whom voter registration has been made too easy are generally less well informed on public issues than the rest of the electorate. They are less likely to read a daily paper, far less likely to involve themselves in debate over public issues, and therefore obviously predisposed to vote "No" on virtually all ballot questions involving more money for government or higher taxes.

 

Government Sabotaging Itself

Even as government and the press continue to undermine the democratic process by reaching out for the votes of the least concerned citizens, they continue also to deprive the public of the information and detailed accountability to which all voters and taxpayers are entitled.

For example, several legislative sessions ago Carson City began its hard push for smaller classes in the lower grades in school systems throughout the state, but has anyone seen even a shred of evidence to indicate that smaller classes result in improved academic performance? Too often voters deprived of the detailed, specific information to which voters believe they are entitled, increasingly vote "No," a completely understandable response to unresponsive government.

Too often frustrated at the absence of straight answers to understandable questions, frustrated voters use the only weapon at their disposal to register their unhappiness and frustration - the ballot.

A rundown of revenue measures on various county ballots this year can’t help but raise questions about where Nevada tax revenue has gone. Why should it be necessary for people who already bear the 12th highest "per capita tax burden" among the 50 states to cough up yet more money?

 

This Year’s "Hit Parade" of

Those Who Want More Money

An alphabetical roster of those who want more cash this year begins with Carson City where a resolution on the ballot asks for the permission of voters to request the Nevada Legislature to authorize a sales tax increase of one quarter of one percent to fund the "acquisition, development and maintenance of parks, open space, trails and recreation facilities." Conspicuously missing from information provided the public is the fact that Nevada is one of only 23 states to permit the levying of county sales taxes on top of state sales taxes in the first place.

 Also on the general election ballot in Carson City is a $48.5 million school bond issue to build and equip a new high school and new middle school, to "enhance technology at all schools" and to acquire and improve "school sites and buildings."

There are two such questions in Churchill County this year, too. One question asks voters to authorize the levying of an "ad valorem" tax to continue funding "necessary programs, services and equipment for the Churchill Community Hospital," and the second ballot request asks voters to approve a tax of two cents per $100 of assessed valuation

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for four years beginning in 1997 to continue funding "necessary facilities and services" for the Churchill County Senior Center.

On the ballot in giant Clark County is the huge school bond question everyone has been reading about, more than four times the size of the school bond issue that failed in Washoe County, plus two questions seeking authorization to levy an additional "ad valorem" tax to finance the hiring of additional police officers for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. One of the questions will be on the ballots of voters living in the unincorporated parts of Clark County, and a second, identical question will be on the ballots of Las Vegas voters.

In Eureka County the Board of County Commissioners on behalf of the county School District is seeking permission to levy an "ad valorem" property tax for capital projects for 10 years beginning July 1, 1997, at a rate to be determined each year by the School District Board of Trustees but not to exceed 15 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Proceeds of the higher tax would be deposited in the School District’s capital projects fund.

The trustees of the Mineral County School District are asking county voters to approve the issuance of up to $6 million in general obligation bonds for "purposes but not limited to" acquiring sites and building new schools, repairing roofs, upgrading electrical systems, removing asbestos, remodeling classrooms and updating the high school science laboratory, in other words, $6 million to be used as Mineral County school trustees see fit.

Also in Mineral County county commissioners are seeking authorization to levy a tax of six cents per $100 of assessed valuation for eight fiscal years to assist in the funding of the Mineral County "Care and Share" programs in Hawthorne and Mina. Mineral County has been collecting a four-cent tax to help finance these programs and voter approval of this ballot question would reinstate the four-cent tax and increase it by two cents.

In spacious Nye County not only will county voters be deciding an additional tax of two cents per $100 of assessed valuation to maintain the county’s historical museums, but voters are also being asked to approve a question previously approved by the voters of Pahrump that would permit the Pahrump Community Hospital District to raise additional tax revenue from all county voters for the construction of a permanent county health care facility. The tax would be an additional twenty cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Meanwhile and also in Nye County, the Town Board of the Unincorporated Town of Tonopah is asking voter approval to levy an additional "ad valorem" tax exceeding the limit imposed by NRS 354.59811 for the purpose of maintaining the town’s parks and recreation programs for the next 12 years, the Board of Trustees of the Pahrump Community Library District are seeking authorization to issue bonds in an amount not to exceed $1.5 million to finance the construction of a 15,000 square ft. library building in Pahrump, and the Beatty Library District Board of Trustees is seeking voter authorization of a tax increase for the purpose of "paying for the salaries, personnel benefits, materials, equipment and supplies, and capital improvements necessary to maintain the District’s library facility and services."

Also in Nye County, the Town Board of Round Mountain went to the voters this year for authorization for a tax increase to help finance the Round Mountain town budget.

Colorful and historic Storey County, scarcely willing to be left out, also wants more money. The Storey County School Board trustees are seeking voter authorization to issue up to $8 million in general obligation bonds for purposes "including but not limited to" acquiring sites and constructing new school facilities and improving older school facilities.

And finally, Washoe County, not content with the unambiguous, thumping defeat of its $196 million school bond question in September, is asking November voters to approve $19 million in bonds to finance expansion of the Washoe County Jail and updating of the communications equipment presently used by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department and the Reno Police Department.

 

How Will Voters Respond?

Note that the specific wording for the official explanation of these bond requests includes phrases like "including but not limited to," references voters often interpret as asking for permission to write a blank check.

It is also well to remember that in addition to all these county and local ballot questions involving money, there are no fewer than 16 additional statewide ballot questions, one of which is likely to maximize voter turnout among those who have had their fill of tax increases. That so-called "Gibbons Tax Initiative," which would henceforth require a two-thirds vote of the Nevada Legislature to raise any tax or fee, is likely to be supported by over three-quarters of all state voters, just as it was the first time it appeared on the ballot.

Doubtless some of the measures on ballots this year have merit while others do not, but lost in the flurry of paperwork is the central fact that the citizens of Nevada already suffer under the 12th highest "per capita tax burden" among the 50 states, now adding up to $1,680 per year for every man, woman and infant in the state. That is $20 more "per capita" than the $1,660 "per capita tax burden" in California, believe it or not.

Some of Nevada’s cities, counties and school districts are doubtless somewhat under-funded, but this isn’t because Nevada taxpayers aren’t generous enough. State government in Nevada now gets 67.2 percent of all tax and fee revenue collected in the state, the 16th highest such percentage among the 50 states.

Nevada's long term answer to its city and county financial challenges shouldn't be to raise already high taxes even higher, but to restructure its tax structure so that the tax spoils are shared more equitably among our various state, county and local governments.

Really, shouldn’t the 12th highest "per capita tax burden" in the United States be high enough?

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