Editorial: Will collaboration on sage grouse finally happen?

Nevada has every reason to feel like a slighted wallflower. We keep getting invited to the big sage grouse dance, but never get asked to dance.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney Adam Laxalt and others have complained bitterly that state and local input on how to protect the sage grouse population and still conduct economically productive endeavors on the land the birds occupy have been roundly and almost universally ignored by the federal land agencies.

A lawsuit filed by Laxalt on behalf of the state, several counties, a couple of mining firms and the owners of a ranch against the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management and others used a variant of the word “ignore” 22 times to describe how state and local objections to land use plans were received. In fact a motion filed by the state in that suit points out that after dismissing local input three top Interior Department officials met privately, after the public comment period was closed, with environmental groups to obtain their “buy-in” on a land use plan.

Sage grouse workshop session.

Sage grouse workshop session.

So, pardon us if we scoff at the cheery BLM press release from this past week under the headline: “Collaboration the key to Sage Grouse success.”

The press release announced the creation of Nevada-based working groups comprised of federal and state agencies and key stakeholders “to identify regulatory flexibility and improve communication and outreach between themselves and the public.”

The working groups resulted from a two-and-a-half day workshop in Reno in early December.

“A key part of the workshop was the emphasis on establishing and improving relationships between the agencies and stakeholders, “ said John Ruhs, state director for the BLM in Nevada. “We also spent time getting to know people as individuals as opposed to just identifying them by their interest or agency.”

He was further quoted as saying, “In the case of the amendments for the Greater sage grouse plans in Nevada, a collaborative network of local, state and federal partners is essential for protecting the sagebrush ecosystem while ensuring multiple uses.”

Though Ruhs has a reputation for being a straight shooter — he brokered a deal that allowed Battle Mountain district ranchers to temporarily continue grazing after permits had been denied — he does answer to the federal land bosses in Washington, from whence just two weeks ago came a proposal to ban mining on 10 million acres in the West — a quarter of that in Nevada alone and most of that in Elko County — to protect sage grouse.

Sandoval fired off a retort saying, “Today’s announcement does nothing to protect the greater sage-grouse, but does cripple the mining and exploration industry. It is an unfortunate end to our collaborative efforts with this administration. I am hopeful the new administration will consider the limited ecological benefits of this withdrawal.”

Now senior Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller called the ban an 11th-hour attack on the West by a lame duck president.

“Federal land grabs are never popular in Nevada and the latest one by the BLM is no different. A mining ban does little to help sage grouse and will devastate northern Nevada’s future economic competitiveness,” Heller said in a press release. “I will partner with the next administration to reverse this decision and to ensure the BLM focuses on the real threats to sage grouse, like wildfires, instead of locking up Nevadans’ public lands. Those are the types of efforts, rather than these harmful mining bans, that will benefit our environment while also allowing our economy to grow,” Nevadans can only hope that with the changes coming in Washington these working groups might actually be listened to.

National BLM Director Neil Kornze — a former aide to Nevada Sen. Harry “Lock Up the Land and Throw Away the Key” Reid — has announced he is stepping down on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump is inaugurated president.

Trump, meanwhile, has nominated Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who grew up in a logging town, to head the Interior Department.

That BLM press release announcing the working groups quotes JJ Goicoechea, chairman of the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, as saying, “While this process was just the beginning, there was a collective recognition of key issues to address and an overall feeling that if we don’t collaboratively work toward solutions, we will fail individually.”

Perhaps, with a different band in Washington playing a different tune, Nevada will finally get to dance.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: This little ‘Piggy’ is getting fat at the public trough

piggy

Back in the 1970s Wisconsin U.S. Sen. William Proxmire began handing out his monthly Golden Fleece Award, recognizing wasteful spending by government agencies, such as a $4 million advertising campaign by the Postal Service to encourage Americans to write more letters to each other.

After his retirement, along came Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, who published an annual “Wastebook” list of 100 wasteful government boondoggles and debacles, which one year criticized the IRS for allowing $17.5 million in tax deductions for business expenses at Nevada brothels, such as breast implants, costumes and “equipment.”

A couple of years ago the folks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute picked up the cudgel and gave it a Nevada spin. “The Nevada Piglet Book” each year compiled a compendium of pork, profligacy, political proclivities and petty poltroonery.

Apparently the porker has grown, because this year’s recently published 28-page edition is titled, “The Nevada Piggy Book 2016.” Perhaps in a few years, at the current rate of state and local government growth in spending, it will be called “The Nevada Hog Book.”

One of this year’s new entries is a slap on the wrist for a $12.1 million, 3-mile demonstration bike path along the shores of Lake Tahoe, administered by the Tahoe Transportation District. Yes, that is more than $4 million per mile. You can build a four-lane divided highway for less than that.

The goal is to eventually build a bike path around the entire lake, which is more than 70 miles in circumference.

“The Highway Safety Research Center, housed within North Carolina’s UNC-Chapel Hill complex, estimates that constructing a bike path can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000 per mile. …” the authors of the Piggy Book note.

In another new entry, the NPRI publication takes aim at the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s penchant for purchasing more vehicles than it needs.

According to an audit, the agency in one recent year had 118 total pooled vehicles, but more than half — 64 — had been driven less than the required 8,400 miles in a year. Four vehicles had no recorded mileage at all.

“Reducing fleet size could result in annual savings of up to $244,000 and a one-time savings of up to $163,000 from disposal of excess vehicles,” NPRI quoted the audit as saying.

The bulk of the book was devoted to a perennial topic: overly generous public employee salaries and obscenely excessive retirement benefits.

The Piggy Book cited several examples of retirement benefits undreamed of in the private sector. One Nevada firefighter retired in his early 40s and immediately began drawing a $105,000 annual pension from the Nevada Public Employee Retirement System. Though he had worked only 20 years, he “purchased” five years of entitlement to qualify for a 25-year pension level.

That firefighter is currently working full-time at a California fire department and being paid more than $300,000 a year. If he lives to his mid-80s, his annual Nevada pension alone, after compounding up to 5 percent a year in cost of living adjustments, could exceed $500,000 a year, NPRI calculates.

A Nevada police officer, the book tells us, retired at age 38 and began drawing $110,000 a year in pension money. Considering his life expectancy and cost adjustments, his total taxpayer funded pension should exceed $13 million.

“Nevadans’ tax dollars should go to providing public services,” the authors argue. “They should not be funding million-dollar retirement benefits for people out to amass personal fortunes by exploiting the bad public-policy decisions of naïve, ignorant or tainted politicians.”

The book further notes that local government salaries for police, firefighters and corrections officers rank fourth highest in the nation when adjusted for cost of living, while the adjusted wages of average Nevadans rank 46th.

The trajectory is for things to get worse before they get better.

As state Controller Ron Knecht pointed out recently, over the past decade total state spending (and that does not include local government agencies) grew 55 percent, while Nevadan’s incomes grew only 27 percent.

The term for that is unsustainable.

NPRI concludes, “For the interest groups that have covertly taken up residence within the public trough, trimming government is manifestly verboten. They have come to believe that — regardless of the waste, fraud and abuse that routinely takes place — they can always squeeze a few more billion dollars from the naïve, hard-working taxpayers.”

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.
 pay

Public employee pension funding not likely to be addressed this session either

In 2008 the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce called on the Legislature to change public employee retirement benefits from the current direct benefit plan to a direct contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), because the expenditures were growing at an unsustainable pace.

In 2011 a report drafted for the Nevada Policy Research Institute by Andrew Biggs, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, concluded the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is vastly unfunded. Using market accounting standards instead of government standards, Biggs estimated PERS was not underfunded by $10 billion as PERS itself reported, but by more than $40 billion.

 

At the time, according Biggs, Nevadans should have been spending nearly $6 billion a year to fully cover the cost of pension — that was equal to the total state general fund budget for two years.

“What people don’t realize,” Biggs said to a luncheon audience back then, “is your typical public sector pension plan is a lot more generous than what a typical person is going to get in the private sector. Let’s just take a person and run their wages through what they would get from PERS versus what they could get from a typical 401(k) plan combined with Social Security, because public employees here don’t participate in Social Security.

“They both pay the same amount on average. The total contribution is about the same, but the benefits for someone under PERS — for a full career employee — is somewhere around 50 percent higher.”

Lawmakers did nothing.

In 2012, Thom Reilly, director of the School of Social Work at San Diego State University and former Clark County manager, came out with his book, “Rethinking Public Sector Compensation: What Ever Happened to the Public Interest?”

“To no surprise,” Reilly said, “the premise of the book is: Because we have not managed it well, we have created a system that is not only unsustainable but creates serious challenges for service delivery and efficiency, is rife with conflict. Basically, it’s created in the public system an ethically troublesome personnel system.”

In the book, he writes, “Difficulty raising or generating taxes to cover these unfunded liabilities has already surfaced. In states and local jurisdictions, payments to cover these liabilities are crowding out revenues for parks, road repairs, schools, universities, and safety net programs for the poor and elderly.”

Lawmakers did nothing.

Also in 2012, Biggs and Jason Richwine reported in The Wall Street Journal that public employees don’t work as hard as those in the private sector — following on their previous discoveries that public employees are overpaid in general, and teachers in particular, and their pensions are far richer than those in the private sector and they can retire decades sooner — which was especially true in Nevada.

In 2014 a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute did the calculations and found Nevada’s public pensions are the richest in the nation — $64,000 a year or more than $1.3 million in lifetime benefits. That doesn’t include public-safety workers, such as firefighters and police, who can retire earlier and generally have higher salaries, especially in Nevada.

Lawmakers did nothing.

In a 2015 editorial in Battle Born Media newspapers called for pension reform. It backed Reno Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner’s Assembly Bill 190, which called for reforming PERS, which was costing at the time  nearly $15,000 per Nevadan per year and growing.

The changes Kirner proposed would have applied to state and local government workers hired after July 1, 2016, leaving unchanged the benefits promised to current employees and retirees. “The bill protects people that are in PERS today,” Kirner told reporters. “A promise made is a promise kept.”

AB190 would have introduced a hybrid — part defined benefit, part defined contribution. A defined contribution plan is similar to the 401(k) programs used primarily by the private sector.

Kirner’s bill also would have ended the practice of allowing government workers to purchase up to five years of retirement credit and retire at 70 percent of highest pay after only 25 years on the job.

The bill also tied the minimum retirement age for receiving full benefits to that allowed under Social Security, though police officers and firefighters would be able to retire with full benefits 10 years earlier.

Lawmakers did nothing.

This past summer NPRI published “Footprints: How NVPERS, step by step, made Nevada government employees some of the nation’s richest.”

Written by NPRI’s Director of Transparency Research Robert Fellner, the 36-page report warned that “should today’s international no-growth economy stumble into the deep financial crisis that many forecasters fear, NVPERS’ fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

The report detailed how NVPERS benefits have ratcheted up over the decades by virtue of incremental benefit increases, collective bargaining gains, earlier retirement age, allowing the purchase of years of service, padding base pay with add-ons such as callback, standby, holiday, shift differential, extra duty, hazard and longevity pay, and simple compound interest.

Fellner noted that local government employees have taken advantage of their collective bargaining union contracts and negotiated to have their employers actually pay the employees’ pension contribution, claiming this is done in lieu of a salary increase or in conjunction with a salary decrease — even though local government pay checks rank eighth highest in the nation.

This week Gov. Brian Sandoval delivered his State of the State speech. In it he said, “This session, my budget includes a four percent cost of living adjustment and increased funding for health benefits to recognize the shared sacrifice and dedication of our state employees.”

That means pensions will increase accordingly.

Sandoval said not one word about pensions.

The Las Vegas newspaper made note of that this morning in an editorial:

Also notable in the budget proposal is what’s missing.

“Even after overcoming the effects of the recession,” noted a 2016 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “states face financial pressures that will shape budgets now and for years to come. A major issue for a number of states is how to cope with an accumulation of unfunded public pension and health-care liabilities.”

Yet the governor’s budget contains no plan to reform the state retirement system or to address its massive unfunded liability, one of the highest in the country, per capita.

Perhaps a few lawmakers will pick up the cause. But if inertia on this looming issue remains the preferred course of action among those in Carson City, there soon will come a time when there won’t be enough money in the entire state to dig taxpayers out of the abyss.

If you are making book on what the lawmakers will do, just note the history of shrugging off this looming crisis.

 

Billions for billionaires, pittance for parents

If the Titanic had only hit the tip of the iceberg it might still be afloat today.

Tuesday evening Gov. Brian Sandoval delivered his State of the State speech to lawmakers and outlined his proposed budget for 2017-19, which would grow from $7.3 billion from this past biennium to $8.1 billion in the next, about 10 percent.

But the fact of the matter is that is just his general fund budget, the part under which taxes pay for expenditures. If you add in all the expenses covered by fees and fund transfers and federal slop the total budget for the coming two years is really $26.1 billion, up from $23.5 billion, an 11 percent increase.

Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (RGJ photo)

Fully 44 percent of that is spent on Health and Human Services, which includes Medicaid, which is largely covered by federal funds for now.

One of the most closely watched aspects of Sandoval’s smorgasborg of increased funding for everything from a veterans home to state parks was his plan to dollop out $60 million to fund education savings accounts. According onenewspaper account, that be $25 million the first year and $35 million the second — enough for 4,800 students at first and then 6,700, even though more than 8,000 have already applied.

Another account reports the governor is considering means testing for determining who gets the education saving accounts — something the new Democratic majority has been demanding.

When Sandoval announced his funding proposal for ESAs, Republicans applauded and Democrats sat on their hands, prompting the governor to quip, “I know it would be a split house on that one.”

The governor had his chance to fund education savings accounts in the special session in which lawmakers doled out $750 million for a new football stadium in Las Vegas, but he failed to put that on the agenda.

Nevada continues to dole out billions for billionaires and pittance for parents.

 

ObamaCare repeal will not result in people dying in the streets

The Congressional Budget Office is out today with its doom and gloom projections of what would happen if ObamaCare is repealed:

The number of people who are uninsured would increase by 18 million in the first new plan year following enactment of the bill. Later, after the elimination of the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility and of subsidies for insurance purchased through the ACA marketplaces, that number would increase to 27 million, and then to 32 million in 2026.

B Premiums in the nongroup market (for individual policies purchased through the marketplaces or directly from insurers) would increase by 20 percent to 25 percent—relative to projections under current law—in the first new plan year following enactment. The increase would reach about 50 percent in the year following the elimination of the Medicaid expansion and the marketplace subsidies, and premiums would about double by 2026.

One problem with this is that it is based on a law proposed a year ago that would repeal mandates and penalties under the law, but would leave in place so-called insurance market reforms, such as barring insurers from varying premiums based on an individual’s health care costs, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions and requiring coverage of things like maternity care.

The CBO itself noted: “The number of people without health insurance would be smaller if, in addition to the changes in H.R. 3762, the insurance market reforms mentioned above were also repealed. In that case, the increase in the number of uninsured people would be about 21 million in the year following the elimination of the Medicaid expansion and marketplace subsidies; that figure would rise to about 23 million in 2026.”
Another problem with the projection is that CBO projections about ObamaCare have been remarkably inaccurate.
For example, the CBO 2010 projection of ObamaCare enrollment in 2016 overshot the mark by 120 percent, according to Forbes, and the CBO projected the Medicaid expansion would be much smaller and less expensive than it really is.
Cato’s Michael Tanner notes that ObamaCare’s health insurance coverage expansion was mostly due to Medicaid expansion and not through subsidies for private insurance.
Having insurance doesn’t necessarily mean having health care.
“There is ample evidence to suggest that Medicaid provides little if any benefit,” Tanner writes. “One notable experiment in Oregon found no improvements in health outcomes from Medicaid enrollment. But regardless, repeal of ObamaCare is unlikely to have any short-term impact on Medicaid.”
Tanner concludes:

The only workable answer is to take otherwise uninsurable people out of the traditional insurance market altogether and subsidize their coverage separately.

This may be done through the expansion and subsidy of state high-risk pools, much the way states handle auto insurance for high-risk drivers. Or sick individuals may be taken out of the insurance system altogether, with their health care paid for through a reformed Medicaid program.

However these changes play out, it’s important to realize that no one is going to have their health insurance suddenly snatched away. Some people may have to get their health care in different ways, and some, who can afford it, may have to pay more.

But the predictions that replacing ObamaCare will mean uninsured Americans dropping dead in the street are worth little more than fake news.

Don’t buy the vision of people dying in the streets.

Ramirez cartoon

Ramirez cartoon

The hoax that keeps on spinning and spinning and spinning

“The hanging of Remus Reid.”

Sometimes all the dithering and cogitation about fake news and spinning the news seems like one really long mobius strip. No matter how you turn it, it has only one side, and that side keeps coming back to the beginning. Or is it the end? But there is no end.

Take the contemplative piece out of The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., this weekend. A guest columnist illustrates the art of news spin by recounting a tale about Nevada’s lovable ex-Sen. Harry Reid’s gene pool.

According to the columnist, who credits a North Carolinian blogger for the tale, a genealogist discovered that the former Senate majority leader had a great-great-uncle by the name of Remus Reid, who in the 1800s was hanged as a horse thief. (Sorry, the full story disappeared behind a pay wall this morning.)

But the writer makes the point that the same set of facts can be told in different ways to reach a different conclusion — saying that, when asked about the infamous uncle, Reid’s office replied with something like this:

“Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

I say the quote is like this, because I refuse to pay the dollar to see the story again, but the above quote is from a 2009 blog post from the Las Vegas newspaper, and numerous other sources from that time period.

While this current iteration makes a nice point about spinning the facts, it is all the more telling, because it is based on a total fabrication — a hoax, a humbug, a canard.

As I recounted in a follow-up blog:

When the e-mail claiming some genealogist had discovered Nevada Sen. Harry Reid had a great-uncle named Remus who was hanged in Montana in 1889 as a horse thief and train robber came in over the electronic transom on Monday, I checked it out on the usual hoax-busting Web sites, fired off what I hoped was a humorous blog posting, and went back to my day job of saving mankind from its customary predilection to gullibility and assorted tomfoolery.

The same photo was used to claim the hanged man was a relative of numerous other politicians, including Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and the George Bushes. But who’d you rather have fall from the family tree? A horse thief or a politician?

These things never seem to die. They just keep spinning and spinning and spinning.

Shouldn’t the name Uncle Remus be a hint?

 

 

 

 

In search of missing stories in the newspaper

rj

Photo shows Kihuen flanked by some anonymous has-been politician and the headline is about his Mexico roots, but the story is MIA.

For want of a budget a proofreader was lost. For want of a proofreader a story was lost. For want of a story a newspaper’s credibility was lost.

I suspect there is some guy in the pressroom of the Las Vegas newspaper who should be getting a congratulatory pat on the back this morning.

The newspaper that landed in some driveways today had a front page story listed as jumping to page 22, but instead concluded on page 19. It was corrected somewhere along the way because the online replica of the printed paper corrected the error.

Even more egregious though was the Nevada cover story with a headline about and a photo of new Rep. Ruben Kihuen, but the story beneath was one about Gov. Brian Sandoval’s letter expressing concern about ObamaCare legislation that had appeared on the front page on Saturday. Someone eventually fixed that, too.

Once upon a time, someone would have been tasked to read proofs of the pages before the presses rolled, though, I admit, there were a number of times some alert and conscientious pressman saved our bacon.