Editorial: State budget could use some belt tightening

The members of the Nevada Economic Forum met earlier this month and came up with a forecast for how much the total state general fund revenues will be for the next two years.

The Economic Forum was created by lawmakers in 1993. It is responsible for providing forecasts of revenues for each upcoming biennial budget period. The figures are binding on the governor and the Legislature in crafting a budget, so they don’t wildly overestimate potential revenue and cause a budget crisis when funds come up short.

The forum members reported that the past two-year’s revenues turned out to be $8.244 billion and the coming two-year period should generate 7.2 percent more funds or $8.835 billion, after application of all applicable tax credits, of which there are a number.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Brain Sandoval has already drafted a budget for the next biennium, which will be handed over to incoming Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the majority Democratic lawmakers, who take office in January. Of course, they all appear to anticipate spending every last dime of that $591 million windfall even though current inflation is running only 2.5 percent.

Much of the anticipated money is being targeted for expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare and various education spending schemes.

After the Economic Forum issued its forecast, Sisolak gave a statement to the press saying, “I am encouraged by how the state is performing. I look forward to reviewing the final forecast released by the Economic Forum and creating a roadmap to implement the priorities that matter to Nevadans. I am committed to building a bright future for our state and that starts with building a budget that funds the initiatives that will get us there.”

May we be so brazen as to suggest that taxpayers might appreciate an “initiative” that lets them keep a bit more of their paychecks. Or at the very least pour more of that anticipated-but-not-guaranteed revenue into the rainy day savings account for that time in the future when the outlook is not so rosy, because everyone knows that once government spends a certain amount of money it expects to continue to do so in perpetuity.

For the record, from 2011 to 2017 the state general fund budget grew by 32.3 percent, while inflation amounted to 7.9 percent.

Though we know we are whistling in the Democratic wind, we also suggest that the burdensome commerce tax passed in 2015 as part of Sandoval’s $1.5 billion tax hike be repealed. The tax was imposed even though the voters in November 2014 rejected a commerce tax at the ballot box by 79 percent to 21 percent. The commerce tax is expected to generate only $445 million in the coming biennium and could be covered by that extra $591 million in the projection.

Every Nevada business must file a commerce tax form with the state, even if the business owes no tax. For many, compliance costs exceed the taxes owed. That is a hidden tax on the state economy and retards job growth.

Lawmakers should think about the burden on taxpayers as well as the beneficiaries of their customarily spendthrift ways.

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.

Election analysis goes astray

Yes, the election was all about the unions turning out for Democrats in Clark County en masse. Yes, Trump overshadowed all the statewide Nevada races.

But can you believe the last graphs of the front page story in the morning paper?:

But many agree that to compete with Democrats, Republicans need to do better at being more positive and inclusive, with tighter focuses on more traditional fiscal conservative issues like job creation and wage growth as opposed to social issues.

That kind of messaging became the hallmark of outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s eight years in office, and Sandoval’s popularity with both parties remains high as he prepares to hand the office off to Sisolak.

(Republican political consultant Greg) Ferraro said Sandoval’s style should be emulated by Republicans if they want to match his political triumphs.

Sandoval was popular with both parties? The “Republican” governor who pushed through in 2015 the biggest tax hike in history, a tax hike that included a commerce tax, which had been rejected by 79 percent of voters just months earlier? We’re not sure how popular he was with his own party, much less Democrats.

Emulate Sandoval, who did not endorse his own party’s candidate for governor, probably because he had advocated repealing the commerce tax? Sandoval who was AWOL at most Republican functions?

Who are the many who agree? What social issues? The Republicans in the statewide races were almost exclusively about job creation and wage growth through fewer regulations and lower taxes.

Bottom line: It was all about the liberal union turnout in the urban areas. Republicans may have talked about avoiding Californication, but it is too late. It is here and now.

(Footnote: Recently the morning paper posted a breaking news story online on a Friday afternoon but did not get around to printing it until Monday. The story mentioned above appeared in print on the front page, but searches online turned up nothing. Right hand, meet the left hand. It showed up online just before 10 a.m.)

The late posted online version adds an additional paragraph:

“I think Republicans would be wise to look at the success of the Sandoval brand going forward, which was a message of inclusion, either bipartisan or nonpartisan or both, and practical not political,” Ferraro said. “One that appeals to Nevadans in a message of Nevada first.”

What the hell does that mean?

Newspaper column: This big piggy goes oink, oink, oink

The libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute has published this year’s edition of its popular “The Nevada Piggy Book” — a collection of anecdotes illustrating the tendencies of state and local governments to lavishly overspend our money on inefficient and even counterproductive endeavors.

The introduction reaches the dismal conclusion that waste is endemic to government. While you and I watch our spending closely, not so with bureaucracies. “In fact, when agencies blow through their budgets, odds actually increase that politicians, in years to follow, will award them ever larger sums of tax dollars!” NPRI relates.

Take for example the decision by the Nevada Department of Transportation to award a bid of $529,000 to construct federally-approved fencing along a 37-mile stretch of U.S. 95 north of Las Vegas to keep endangered Mojave Desert Tortoises from crossing the highway and too frequently meeting their demise beneath the wheels of speeding vehicles.

But when the project was completed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the fencing failed to meet federal standards — which called for the tortoise fencing to be at least two feet above the ground and one foot below. Some sections of the fence were no more than 8 inches above the ground and as little as 4 inches deep.

The 28-page Piggy Book reported, “Nevada taxpayers alone were forced to cover the $736,000 required to remove the existing, inadequate fencing and replace it with new fencing in line with federal regulations.”

But that’s just the beginning of this tale of waste and woe. NPRI relates that a 2017 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis said that “tortoises that haven’t adjusted to the fencing pace along them, and sometimes overheat and die.” So much for saving tortoises from becoming roadkill.

Fencing wasn’t the only problem.

It turns out, according to the Piggy Book, that a series of culverts under the highway — intended to be tortoise passages and costing $320,000 — had faulty drainage that resulted in, you guessed it, more tortoise deaths.

“Like the tortoise fencing, these culverts will also need to be reengineered and replaced,” NPRI recounts. “As of this writing, it is unclear how much all these repairs will cost, but it seems likely that state — not federal — taxpayers will be responsible for paying the bill.”

Then there is the issue of the state shelling out overtime to unionized prison correctional officers. It turns out overtime is not calculated the same way in government as in the private sector where one must work more than 40 hours to earn overtime pay.

For some government workers overtime is calculated using time “paid” instead of time worked. Paid leave — such as vacation or sick days — count toward overtime eligibility. “In other words, even if an employee took vacation time for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, they would still be eligible to receive overtime if they ended up working Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” NPRI explains.

For example, corrections officer Jimmy Jones received $117,551 in overtime pay on top of his $56,720 salary in one year, while corrections officer Stewart Boyer was paid $74,560 in overtime on top of his $33,496 base salary.

“In total, 19 state correctional officers received OT pay that exceeded their base salary, while 135 received OT pay that was at least 50 percent of their regular salary,” NPRI’s analysis found.

That’s just two examples.

“The examples in this book might be merely the tip of a government-spending iceberg in Nevada — but they are powerful reminders of how important it is for the public to see what, exactly, government is doing with all those never-ending tax increases,” the Piggy Book concludes. “Many of the very same government agencies that are routinely found to be wasting tax dollars also go to great lengths to keep the public in the dark when it comes to spending.”

NPRI describes itself as a non-partisan, free-market think tank that promotes public-policy ideas consistent with the principles of free enterprise, individual liberty and limited, accountable and constitutional government. If only the people we elect to represent us in Carson City and our local governing bodies would pay attention, we might have a little less waste and get to keep more of our money.

The Nevada Piggy Book can be found online at: https://www.npri.org.

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.

Editorial: Passage of Question 5 will do more harm than good

Question 5 — the Automatic Voter Registration Initiative — on the November ballot is a pointless and costly endeavor likely to do more harm than good.

The proposal would require the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to automatically send personal information to the registrar of voters so a person can be registered to vote when receiving a driver’s license or making a license change, unless the person affirmatively declines in writing.

It is pointless because the DMV already sends information to the registrar of voters if a person agrees. All Question 5 does is change the system from an “opt in” to an “opt out.” It is a distinction without a discernible difference.

The backers of the initiative argue this will make it more convenient to exercise the right to vote and even save money.

“Voting is a fundamental right,” the argument for passage reads. “It is our most important way to guarantee our rights and freedoms — and it’s a responsibility to be taken seriously by both the people and the government. Yet our outdated voter registration process makes it unnecessarily difficult for eligible Nevada citizens to have their voices heard and leaves our registration system vulnerable to errors. … It will reduce the risk of fraud and lower costs.”

In fact, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the initiative during the 2017 legislative session, saying, “it extinguishes a fundamental, individual choice — the right of eligible voters to decide for themselves whether they desire to apply to register to vote — forfeiting this basic decision to state government. … the core freedom of deciding whether one wishes to initiate voter registration belongs to the individual, not the government.”

His veto message also said the change “would create an unnecessary risk that people who are not qualified voters may unintentionally apply to vote, subjecting them to possible criminal prosecution, fines, and other legal action.”

As for lowering cost, the fiscal note for Question 5 says it would cost $221,000 to implement and more than $50,000 annually to maintain.

As for reducing errors, the California DMV, which has a similar automatic voter registration system, recently reported it sent 23,000 erroneous voter registrations.

The argument against passage of Question 5 points out, “The proposed ‘Opt Out’ system shifts the responsibility of registering to vote from the individual to the government. Nevada residents who do not want to be registered will have to affirmatively ‘Opt Out’ or have their names and addresses automatically added to voter rolls and become public information.”

It also notes there is no evidence this change would increase voter turnout.

There is no evidence this measure will accomplish anything other than increased opportunities for errors. We shouldn’t try to drag motorists kicking and screaming into the voting booth.

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: School district tries to obliterate public records law

The Clark County School District has filed a legal action with the state Supreme Court that, if successful, could render the state’s strong public records law nearly meaningless and deprive the citizens in every jurisdiction in the state access to public records that enable them to keep an eye on the actions of public officials.

The brief filed earlier this month appeals a judge’s decision to award attorney fees and court costs to the Las Vegas newspaper after it prevailed in district court in its demand for public records about an investigation into a school trustee accused of discriminating against school district employees — clearly the sort of information to which voters should be privy. The school district’s brief itself calls the matter “of statewide public importance.”

The district takes the absurd position that the Nevada Public Records Act of 1993  which states, “The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law …” — is self-contradictory because what is clearly stated in one paragraph is negated three paragraphs later. 

In one section the law states, “If the requester prevails, the requester is entitled to recover his or her costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in the proceeding from the governmental entity whose officer has custody of the book or record.” This is to ensure that citizens are not driven into bankruptcy in fighting a public agency with endless access to taxpayer money and can be made whole in order to fight again another day. Once the court says something is a public record, it is a public record and should have been freely accessed all along, but for the intransigence of some usually nameless bureaucrat.

The district cites another section of law that reads, “A public officer or employee who acts in good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose information and the employer of the public officer or employee are immune from liability for damages, either to the requester or to the person whom the information concerns.”

Clearly this was intended to protect employees and employers from liability for such things as harm to public reputation or release of trade secrets. Who is to say what is good or bad faith?

The district brief repeatedly calls on the court to construe “legislative intent,” yet the very cites from legislative records clearly show the legislators intended to grant costs to public records requestors who prevail in court, and immunity from damages was another topic entirely.

The brief quotes from legislative minutes from May 3, 1993, describing comments by then Nevada Press Association Executive Director Ande Engleman, who was clearly not a legislator, answering a question from Assembly Subcommittee on Government Affairs Chairman Rick Bennett as to whether taxpayers should cover the costs of “frivolous” suits. 

The minutes show Engleman responding, “Court costs and attorneys’ fees were granted only when it was a denial of what was clearly a public record [bad faith]. Therefore, she did not think there would be frivolous lawsuits.” The district attorneys helpfully bold-faced and italicized and added the “bad faith” in brackets, even though her remarks indicated there would be no costs awarded if the suit failed.

The brief for some inexplicable reason failed to include lawmaker Bennett’s “legislative intent” in the very next paragraph, “If an agency head truly withheld a record which should have been public, Mr. Bennett said he hoped the court would penalize the agency in some way by making them pay the costs.” Now that is legislative intent.

The school system’s attorneys repeatedly argue lawmakers intended the “good faith” immunity clause to negate the clear language that attorney fees and court case are to be awarded if a record was wrongly withheld — an absurdity. 

Neither does the brief pay any heed to subcommittee minutes from four days later in which the panel voted to add the word “reasonable” to the costs and fees section of the law and then immediately segued into a discussion of immunity for “good faith in disclosing or refusing to disclose” being “immune from liability for damage.”

Lawmakers clearly saw the two sections as not contradictory. Neither did District Court Judge Timothy Williams who determined there was no ambiguity between the two adjacent sections of the same law. Neither should the Nevada Supreme Court. 

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.

 

Newspaper column: Parents need to weigh ‘social’ promotion options

Up until the third grade, students are learning to read. After that, they should be reading to learn.

That is why in 2015 Nevada lawmakers passed a bill dubbed Read by 3, requiring schools to have students who have not achieved a certain level of literacy to be retained in the third grade. It was modeled after a law passed in Florida in 2002 that quickly increased reading proficiency by catching deficiencies early and providing extra tutoring — greatly reducing third grade illiteracy in less than a decade.

Back in 2011 former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal explaining the purpose of the law and what it had accomplished already, “While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.”

Bush recounted, “Florida ended automatic, ‘social’ promotion for third-grade students who couldn’t read. Again, the opposition to this hard-edged policy was fierce. Holding back illiterate students seemed to generate a far greater outcry than did the disturbing reality that more than 25% of students couldn’t read by the time they entered fourth grade. But today? According to Florida state reading tests, illiteracy in the third grade is down to 16%.”

In order to give students, parents and teachers a chance to prepare, Nevada’s law does not go into effect until July 1, 2019.

If the law had been in effect a year ago, according to newspaper accounts, 55 percent of third graders statewide could have been eligible for retention, while this year the percentage is said to be 29 percent, though about half could qualify for what are called “good-cause” exemptions.

In 2017 Democratic lawmakers were unsuccessful in an attempt to repeal the law. At the time, Gov. Brain Sandoval, an ardent backer of the original bill, put out a statement saying, “The Read by Grade 3 initiative placed nearly $30 million directly in classrooms in more than 300 schools across Nevada with a clear line of accountability and singular focus on developmental reading. The Governor will not compromise on the goal of ensuring every student in Nevada is reading at grade level by third grade.”

Nevada’s State Board of Education may have just watered down the law with its recent policy determinations. The law requires the board to select a standard reading examination and set a cut-off score for promotion to the fourth grade.

According to a board press release, the test to be used under the law beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year will be the Smarter Balanced English Language Arts examination. The test ranks students in four different levels of reading achievement  — exceeds standards, meets standards, approaching standards or emerging/developing standards. Only those in the lowest level would be identified for possible retention in the third grade.

But, as allowed by law, the board adopted an alternative test for those who fail the Smarter Balanced one. That is the Northwest Evaluation Association reading test and the cut-off score on that test will be a rather law 30th percentile.

But then the board created, as the law allows, a number of other “good-cause” exemptions for those with disabilities, English learners, ones who demonstrate reading proficiency through a portfolio of school work and those who were retained in earlier grades.

“While initial data indicates a significant number of students may be retained in third grade, the good-cause exemptions ensure fairness in this process,” Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction, was quoted as saying in the press release. “I can’t emphasize enough, the goal of Read by Grade 3 is not to punish anyone, rather the goal of this program is to enhance a student’s ability to read successfully — thus ensuring success throughout his/her entire academic experience.”

But the law itself does require considerable input from pupils’ parents or legal guardians. Hopefully they will make sound judgments as to whether a good-cause exemption is better than retention. Social promotion often does not work out for the best.

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.

Nevada Department of Education pix

Editorial chastises Laxalt for ignoring the will of the voters by not ignoring the will of the voters

The insert in the morning newspaper never misses a chance to promote its progressive/liberal/gun-grabbing agenda and to lash out at a Republican. Today’s editorial is exhibit A.

This past week District Court Judge Joe Hardy ruled that the 2016 Question 1 initiative, which intended to require background checks for the sales of guns between private individuals, was unenforceable, just as Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office had ruled shortly after passage.

The editorial accused Laxalt of gloating and ignoring the will of the people, saying he and Gov. Brian Sandoval “barely lifted a finger in trying to implement it.”

You see, the backers of the initiative had outsmarted themselves. In trying to get a fiscal note on the ballot measure that said it would cost no Nevada tax dollars, their draft said the background checks would be conducted by the FBI through its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and not the customary method of using the Nevada Department of Public Safety. The FBI refused to conduct the checks.

As for ignoring the will of the people, the measure passed with only 50.45 percent of the vote, failing in every county except Clark. Would it have passed at all if the voters were told how much it would cost them?

“When the feds responded to the state’s cursory inquires (sic) about the law by saying they were not obligated to perform the checks, Laxalt and Sandoval were all too happy to drop the matter and move on,” the screed falsely claims. “Instead of demanding, haranguing, maybe even suing, they quickly demurred.”

As for barely lifting a finger and quickly demurring, the editorial ignores the section of Judge Hardy’s ruling that detailed the numerous communications between the state and the FBI. (See pages 6 through 10.)

“But when voters go to the polls this November, they should remember how Laxalt reacted before, during and especially after the ruling,” the putrid polemic pouts. “This is a man who clearly views himself above the will of the people and imagines an imperial governorship in which he can ignore the voters at his discretion.”

Apparently, the insert editorialists believe that members of the executive branch should ignore the voters and rewrite a law that the voters approved, albeit by a slim majority in one urban county. As Judge Hardy noted, the FBI requirement “was not inadvertent drafting on a peripheral point. It was a conscious choice relating to a central provision …”

So Laxalt and Sandoval should have just ignored the will of the stupid voters who had no idea what they were really voting for anyway.