Newspaper column: Minimum wage bill doesn’t pass constitutional muster

Lisa Benson cartoon

Lisa Benson cartoon

Democrats in the Nevada Legislature have introduced Senate Bill 106, which proposes to amend the state minimum wage law by raising the minimum wage by 75 cents an hour each year until it reaches $11 an hour for employers who provide health insurance and $12 an hour for those who do not — a 50 percent increase.

There is one minor problem with SB106. You see, that minimum wage law was last amended by an initiative petition approved by the voters in 2004 and again in 2006, which amended the state Constitution to require that the minimum wage be tied to the federal minimum wage or inflation, whichever is higher.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and thus that is Nevada’s minimum for employers who offer insurance and it is $8.25 for those who do not.

According to a Legislative Counsel Bureau fact sheet published in 2015, “Because provisions governing the minimum wage rate are included in the Constitution, any changes to the minimum wage provisions require a constitutional amendment.”

In fact, the Nevada Supreme Court in 2014 opined in a case specifically about the minimum wage law: “If the Legislature could change the Constitution by ordinary enactment, ‘no longer would the Constitution be “superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means.” It would be ‘on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts … alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.’”

Seems rather unequivocal. None of the major news media noticed this minor flaw in the bill.

Just such a constitutional amendment was proposed by initiative petition in late 2015, but that was dropped during the hectic election year, reportedly because of the difficulty of getting enough signatures to put it on the ballot. It would have raised the base minimum wage to $13 an hour.

Even if lawmakers manage to pass such a constitutionally suspect bill, it might not avoid the governor’s veto pen. Media accounts have quoted Gov. Brian Sandoval’s press secretary as saying, “Due to the predicted loss of jobs and harm to small businesses, the potential to block young people and individuals with less work experience from open positions, and an increase in consumer prices, the governor has historically opposed a legislative mandate to increase the minimum wage.”

A minimum wage hike would clearly affect profitability of employers, tend to push all hourly wage rates up, result in higher unemployment, drive certain employers out of the state and increase the cost of goods and services in general — thus affecting nearly everyone in Nevada.

The impact of such a change in either the law or the Constitution would be far ranging and carry unintended consequences.

“Unfortunately, the real minimum wage is always zero,” economist Thomas Sowell points out in his book “Basic Economics,” “regardless of the laws, and that is the wage that many workers receive in the wake of the creation or escalation of a government-mandated minimum wage, because they either lose their jobs or fail to find jobs when they enter the labor force.”

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if the federal minimum wage were increased to a mere $10.10 an hour — as proposed by President Obama and others in recent years — up to a million workers would lose their jobs.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, when the minimum wage rose 41 percent between 2007 and 2009, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds increased by 10 percentage points, from about 16 percent in 2007 to more than 26 percent in 2009 — even higher for minorities.

A Heritage Foundation study reported that every dollar increase in minimum wage really only raises take-home pay by 20 cents once welfare benefits are reduced and taxes are increased.

A Cato Institute analysis reports that a “comprehensive review of more than 20 minimum wage studies looking at price effects found that a 10 percent increase in the U.S. minimum wage raises food prices by up to 4 percent and overall prices by up to 0.4 percent.” Imagine what a 50 percent increase would do.Minimum wage jobs tend to be entry level jobs without which younger Americans cannot build the skills needed to earn higher pay. Nevada already has the 10th highest youth unemployment rate in the nation at 13.5 percent.

Attempting legislatively to raise the minimum wage is a bad idea for many reasons.

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.

Update: On Wednesday the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor met to hear testimony on another minimum wage hike bill, Assembly Bill 175, which proposes to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $14 for employers who provide health insurance or from $8.25 to $15 for employers who don’t.

The question came up as whether the lawmakers have the authority change that law since the current law was establishes by constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 2004 and 2006.

The lawyer for the committee, Will Keane of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, responded: “I spoke with the Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes. She told me that our office thoroughly researched this during the 2015 legislative session and then updated and confirmed that research during the drafting of AB175 this session. She said that as result of their research it is the opinion of LCB legal, based on the rules of statutory and constitutional construction, that the provisions of the minimum wage amendment to the Nevada Constitution do not limit the inherent power of the Legislature to establish by statute a new minimum wage that is higher than the minimum wage that is currently required by law.”

But that morning there was an LCB fact sheet from August 2015 posted on the Legislature’s website that read:

“Because provisions governing the minimum wage rate are included in the Constitution, any changes to the minimum wage provisions require a constitutional amendment. There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One way is through the citizen initiative process. Citizen initiatives for constitutional amendments must be approved in identical form in two consecutive general elections. This is the process that enacted the current minimum wage requirements in the Constitution. The second way to amend the Constitution is through the legislative process. The Senate or Assembly may propose a constitutional amendment, which must pass in identical form with a majority of members of both houses in two consecutive biennial sessions. After that, the proposal must pass a popular vote during the next general election.”

By committee meeting time it had disappeared. Coincidence? The link now returns a 404 Error. But if you put the first sentence of the above fact sheet language into an Internet browser it will return to you a PDF titled: ”

Fact Sheet – 2015 Minimum Wage in Nevada

cached version of the list of LCB fact sheets online has a link to Minimum Wage in Nevada (August 2015), but that link also returns a 404 Error.

A little sleight of opinion? A little selective editing?

Most web archive and cache services also came up empty, but something called Old Home Page came up with this link. In case that too disappears here is a PDF: minimumwage

lcb-fact-sheet

August 2015 LCB Fact Sheet excerpt

So, tell us again how the LCB “updated and confirmed” the research it did in 2015 and the current opinion is diametrically opposite of its 2015 opinion, which has conveniently disappeared.

Be that as it may, a 2014 Nevada Supreme Court opinion in a case specifically about the minimum wage law is still online. That opinion states: “If the Legislature could change the Constitution by ordinary enactment, ‘no longer would the Constitution be “superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means.” It would be ‘on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts … alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.’ In this case, the principle of constitutional supremacy prevents the Nevada Legislature from creating exceptions to the rights and privileges protected by Nevada’s Constitution.”

The opinion also flatly stated: “It is fundamental to our federal, constitutional system of government that a state legislature “has not the power to enact any law conflicting with the federal constitution, the laws of congress, or the constitution of its particular State.”

Newspaper column: New senator wants to shred First Amendment

Nevada’s newly elected U.S. senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, has already taken up the cudgel against the First Amendment previously wielded by her predecessor, Harry Reid.

She put out a press release recently announcing that she has joined with other congressional Democrats to reintroduce a constitutional amendment that would overturn Supreme Court rulings that have held that it is a violation of the First Amendment to restrict the amount of money corporations, nonprofits, unions and other groups may spend on political campaigns and when they may spend it.

In its current incarnation it is being called the Democracy for All Amendment. In previous years it bore the unwieldy acronym DISCLOSE Act — Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. Reid frequently took to the floor of the Senate to pound the table for the amendment and disparage the Koch brothers’ political spending as the embodiment of evil.

“The U.S. Constitution puts democratic power in the hands of the American people — not corporations or private companies,” the press release quotes Cortez Masto as saying“Since the Citizens United decision, big corporations have gained unprecedented influence over elections and our country’s political process. I am proud to be a cosponsor of this legislation; it’s critical that we end unlimited corporate contributions if we are going to have a democratic process and government that will truly work for all Americans.”

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, a 5-4 Supreme Court struck down the part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prohibited organizations such as Citizens United, a political action committee, from expending funds for electioneering immediately prior to an election. In this case the Federal Election Commission blocked the 2008 broadcast of “Hillary: The Movie,” which was critical of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

During the arguments in the case, the Justice Department attorney defending the law admitted the law also would censor books critical of candidates, though newspapers and other media, most owned by large corporations, were exempted from the law and may criticize, editorialize and endorse or oppose candidates freely. Some corporations are more equal than others.

Cortez Masto’s statement concluded, “The Democracy for All Amendment returns the right to regulate elections to the people by clarifying that Congress and the states can set reasonable regulations on campaign finance and distinguish between individuals and corporations in the law.”

The problem is that free speech is not free if the incumbent government satrapy can curtail its dissemination.

Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this in his majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC: “As a ‘restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign,’ that statute ‘necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.’ … Were the Court to uphold these restrictions, the Government could repress speech by silencing certain voices at any of the various points in the speech process. (Government could repress speech by ‘attacking all levels of the production and dissemination of ideas,’ for ‘effective public communication requires the speaker to make use of the services of others’).”

The fact the expenditure is coming from a group instead of an individual does not negate the First Amendment guarantee of the “freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely,” because it “also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”

An assembly is not just a crowd of people on the street, it is also an organization.

Reid in one of his many diatribes on the subject said: “But the flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the greatest threats our system of government has ever faced. Let’s keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons. It is time that we revive our constituents’ faith in the electoral system, and let them know that their voices are being heard.”

This implies the voters are too stupid to hear an open and free-wheeling debate and not be influenced by the volume or frequency of the message.

Lest we forget, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was outspent by Hillary Clinton by two-to-one — $600 million to $1.2 billion.

Censorship is unAmerican and unnecessary. Cortez Masto should abandon this assault on free speech.

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.

Can lawmakers raise the minimum wage since it is ensconced in the state Constitution?

miniwage

Democrats in the Nevada Legislature have introduced Senate Bill 106, which proposes to raise the minimum wage by 75 cents a year until it reaches $11 an hour for employers who provide health insurance and $12 an hour for those who do not.

This would affect profitability of employers, tend to push all hourly wage earnings up, possibly result in higher unemployment and increase the cost of goods and services in general — thus affecting nearly everyone in Nevada. The story was relegated to the bottom of the business page in the Las Vegas newspaper, but was the lede story in the Elko paper. AP gave it short shrift.

One minor problem with this proposed law is that the voters approved an initiative petition in 2004 and again in 2006 that amended the state Constitution to require that the minimum wage be tied to the federal minimum wage or inflation, whichever is higher. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The amendment also said the minimum wage would be a dollar higher for employees who failed to provide health insurance. So far as I can find, the amendment does not give lawmakers the option to alter this without asking the voters to again change the Constitution.

According to Legislative Counsel Bureau fact sheet published in 2015:

“Because provisions governing the minimum wage rate are included in the Constitution, any changes to the minimum wage provisions require a constitutional amendment. There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One way is through the citizen initiative process. Citizen initiatives for constitutional amendments must be approved in identical form in two consecutive general elections. This is the process that enacted the current minimum wage requirements in the Constitution. The second way to amend the Constitution is through the legislative process. The Senate or Assembly may propose a constitutional amendment, which must pass in identical form with a majority of members of both houses in two consecutive biennial sessions. After that, the proposal must pass a popular vote during the next general election.”

Just such a constitutional amendment was proposed in late 2015, but was dropped during the hectic election year, reportedly because the difficulty of getting enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

SB106 proposes to rewrite NRS605.250 to alter the minimum wage. That law currently reads: “Except as otherwise provided in this section, the Labor Commissioner shall, in accordance with federal law, establish by regulation the minimum wage which may be paid to employees in private employment within the State. The Labor Commissioner shall prescribe increases in the minimum wage in accordance with those prescribed by federal law, unless the Labor Commissioner determines that those increases are contrary to the public interest.”

Las Vegas newspaper columnist Victor Joecks quoted Gov. Brian Sandoval’s press secretary as saying:

“Due to the predicted loss of jobs and harm to small businesses, the potential to block young people and individuals with less work experience from open positions, and an increase in consumer prices, the Governor has historically opposed a legislative mandate to increase the minimum wage.”

This implies the governor might veto such a bill even if it passes constitutional muster.

As I’ve pointed out on a number of occasions the impact of such a bill is far ranging and carries unintended consequences.

“Unfortunately, the real minimum wage is always zero,” economist Thomas Sowell points out, “regardless of the laws, and that is the wage that many workers receive in the wake of the creation or escalation of a government-mandated minimum wage, because they either lose their jobs or fail to find jobs when they enter the labor force.”

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if the federal minimum wage were increased to $10.10 an hour — as proposed by President Obama and others — up to a million workers would lose their jobs.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, when the minimum wage rose 41 percent between 2007 and 2009, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds increased by 10 percentage points, from about 16 percent in 2007 to more than 26 percent in 2009 — even higher for minorities.

These are entry level jobs without which younger Americans cannot build the skills needed to earn higher pay.

Another Heritage study reported that every dollar increase in minimum wage really only raises take-home pay by 20 cents once welfare benefits are reduced and taxes are increased.

Then there are the affects on everyone. A Cato Institute analysis reports that a “comprehensive review of more than 20 minimum wage studies looking at price effects found that a 10 percent increase in the U.S. minimum wage raises food prices by up to 4 percent and overall prices by up to 0.4 percent.”

Minimage wages also tend to push younger workers with less worthy skills out of the job market, and Nevada already has the 10th highest youth unemployment rate in the nation at 13.5 percent.

Newspaper column: Retirement system officials should respect transparency

What do you do with a rogue government agency that spends billions in taxpayer dollars but constantly dissembles, denies, deceives, dodges and dithers to avoid public scrutiny and does so by spending still more taxpayer money?

For years the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) has attempted to conceal from the public any specifics about the amount of public funds that are being doled out to retired public employees. PERS spends more than $1.5 billion a year on pensions and by standard accounting methods has an unfunded liability of at least $40 billion.

In 2011 in a suit filed by the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled PERS records — including the name of a retiree, the amount of retirement payment, name of the agency where the retiree worked and hire and retirement dates — were subject to public inspection under the state public records law.

PERS officials appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that such records are indeed public, but the agency was not required to “create” a record it did not already maintain.

Some PERS records were released and the Nevada Policy Research Institute posted that information on its TransparentNevada.com website.

In 2015, after the judge in the Reno newspaper case chastised PERS for “stonewalling” and possible lack of “truthfulness,” PERS lobbied the Legislature to specifically exempt its records from the public records law.

When that failed PERS altered its recordkeeping procedures so that records were filed by Social Security numbers only and without a name attached. Social Security numbers are “non-disclosable” by law.

NPRI filed suit.

“By replacing names with ‘non-disclosable’ Social Security numbers in its actuarial record-keeping documents, PERS has attempted to circumvent the 2013 ruling of the Nevada Supreme Court requiring disclosure,” explained Joseph Becker, the director of NPRI’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, at the time of the suit.

This past week another Carson City judge again slapped down PERS for refusing to release the names and pensions of its 57,000 public employee retirees under the state public records law.

District Judge James Wilson chastised the agency for being deceptive, noting that the law “does not require an agency to create a public record, but neither does it bar an agency from creating a record. PERS quoted in part Nevada Public Records Act: A Manual for State Agencies 2014 which states in part: ‘An agency is not required to organize data to create a record that doesn’t exist at the time of the request.’ The part PERS left out from that sentence in the Manual is: ‘but may do so at the discretion of the agency if doing so is reasonable.’ PERS failure to indicate it was quoting only part of the sentence seems a bit deceptive.”

Judge Wilson further noted that the state Supreme Court has since ruled in another case that “when an agency has a computer program that can readily compile the requested information, the agency is not excused from its duty to produce and disclose that information.”

He also dismissed as “hypothetical and speculative” claims that disclosure might subject retirees to cybercrime, noting that the opinions buoying this argument were based on releasing data such as gender, birth date and address, which were never requested.

NPRI’s attorney Becker said in a statement, “NPRI is delighted that the court has once again weighed in strongly on the side of transparency, and once again with respect to PERS. As evidenced by the recent lawsuits against the agency, the courts need to crack down on government entities, such as PERS, that thumb their noses at the Nevada Public Records Act’s requirements for disclosure.”

He noted that the court seemed especially sensitive to the fact PERS officials had changed their recordkeeping methodology in an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling.

Not only did PERS spend tax money to fight the current lawsuit, it now must spend more tax money to pay attorney fees and costs to NPRI.

There are several vacancies coming up on the PERS board this year. We encourage Gov. Brian Sandoval to use this opportunity to appoint members who abide by the letter of the law and respect the public’s right to transparency in how its money is being spent.

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.

Update: On Tuesday the PERS board voted unanimously to appeal this court decision.

 

Newspaper column: Lawmakers must finally address public worker retirement reform

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

In his State of the State speech this past week Gov. Brian Sandoval tossed out tax money like trinkets and candy from a Mardi Gras parade float — a couple million here for this or that education program, a few million there for a veterans’ home, millions for a medical school, more millions for an engineering school and pay raises for state employees.

“This session, my budget includes a 4 percent cost of living adjustment and increased funding for health benefits to recognize the shared sacrifice and dedication of our state employees,” the smiling governor said about his spending proposal for the coming two years.

Overall, Sandoval proposed a 10 percent increase in the general fund portion of the state budget, even though the cost of living increase for 2016 was only 2 percent.

What the governor did not address was how the taxpayers are going to pay for the commensurately higher retirement pensions that are tied to the salaries of those state employees.

Nor did he take note of the fact his proposed budget — total budget, not just the general fund — is 49 percent higher than the total budget he proposed when he first took office, while over the past decade the Nevada median household income has fallen 17 percent.

A part of the growth in state government spending has been due to burgeoning pensions for state employees, who upon retirement are guaranteed a percentage of their highest salary level — which officially is 70 percent after 25 years, but can often top 100 percent after various pay add-ons and gimmicks are employed. Public employees in Nevada can retire in their 40s and get paid more in retirement than they were paid for actually working.

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 underfunded by more than $40 billion.

“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.”

In 2015 Reno Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner introduced Assembly Bill 190, which called for reforming PERS, which at the time was costing nearly $15,000 per Nevadan per year and growing.

The changes Kirner proposed would have applied to future state and local government workers and not current ones.

AB190 would have introduced a hybrid — part defined benefit, part defined contribution.

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.

Kirner argued his bill would have a minimal impact on taxpayers, but the PERS administration claimed it would cost millions to implement. Kirner withdrew the bill so the funding could be studied and he could re-introduce it again this year, but Kirner decided to not seek re-election.

Instead, state Controller Ron Knecht has offered a bill nearly identical to Kirner’s, but it is questionable whether it will get much of a hearing before a Legislature that is now comprised of majority Democrats in both chambers.

This past summer NPRI’s Director of Transparency Research Robert Fellner released a 36-page report warning that if the economy stumbles the PERS “fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

Nevada lawmakers have been kicking this can down the road so long it is now a 55-gallon drum ready to explode.

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: 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.
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