(Assemblyman Pat Hickey) – Today begins the fifth week of the legislative session. Sitting in committee hearings listening to those representing government talking to those of us of serving in government—it easily turns depressing. In recent weeks, a constant stream of K-12 and university system officials have delivered their remarks on the doom and gloom education is facing this session. Hanging by a thread over everyone’s head are the Sword of Damocles-like budget cuts poised to destroy the well-being of every Nevada student and recipients of other state services. In this evolving scenario, teachers and state workers are the victims of some merciless scheme by a shadowy figure named Sandoval.
Words like “contempt” and “Draconian” describe the motives of the Governor for proposing an austere budget with the audacity not to raise taxes on Nevadans during the near-Depression Nevada is experiencing. For comparisons sake, even the Obama Administration recently acknowledged the economy would be better off by not increasing taxes (extending the Bush era tax cuts) and eliminating certain payroll deductions for both employers and employees in the hopes of stimulating the economy.
Teachers and union supporters have taken to the steps of the Capitol and the doorsteps of state legislators’ homes in an organized effort to bolster their claim that it’s “not fair” for them to have to endure salary and benefit reductions in the worst economy any of us have ever lived through.
Lawmakers cannot help but feel your pain in every committee hearing they sit through. At the same time, I am mindful of the other 90% of Nevadans (who are not public employees) who are frequently unemployed, have experienced payroll cuts, lost their health care benefits, their 401k savings, gone through foreclosures and yes—even the last resort—having to move from the Silver State.
I have sat through the same painful meetings for the last three years with the employees of my painting business. The kinds of difficult decisions we have had to make are the kinds of “shared sacrifice” that is being talked about. Not one of my employees, even the ones I have had to let go, ever said to me it was because I did not care personally for them. They understood it was the economy and we are all in this together.
While private sector workers in Nevada don’t have union officials and community organizers to make their case in staged events for the press, they are suffering every bit as much and more—frequently without the health and retirement benefits that public employees still enjoy.
So is there an answer? Can Democrats and Republicans sit down and work on solutions that will help Nevada in the short term and get us on the road to recovery in the long term? As a Republican, I have sat down with Elliot Parker, Chairman of the Economics Department at UNR. The good professor understands scientifically what we all know intuitively—that the golden goose of Gaming in Nevada will never again lay the same revenue egg that the Silver State has enjoyed for so long. Parker’s proposal for a small tax on the state’s new service economy—is worthy of serious consideration. Still he does not recommend levying it while the economy wallows in the depths of a recession. Elliot believes those new taxes could be balanced by a decrease in sales tax and tying it to population growth and inflation. These kinds of revenue-neutral but long-term sensible approaches might attract members of the GOP to the table.
What would members of my party expect in return from Democrats before sitting down for some serious give and take? Collective bargaining reforms that would allow local governments to budget reasonably, would be one. Agreed to reforms in public pensions and health benefit packages for future employees that will forestall state budgets from bankruptcy, are something both “R’s” and “D’s” are going to have to tackle. Chapter 40 (construction defect reforms) are costing the construction industry millions in Nevada and are hampering job growth. Genuine education reform tenets like the bi-partisan ones recommended by Elaine Wynn and the blue ribbon panel of stakeholders have proposed are sure to not only attract support from both parties but also the taxpaying public who can be persuaded to spend on education if they are convinced that bottom-dwelling-Nevada is embracing reforms and demonstrating improvements.
Governor Sandoval took the first step. He proposed a constitutionally mandated balanced budget. Democrats and union officials can rally and organize all they want against it—but if you want to see what can be done together, let’s start the process now, in the open and not in the dark days at the end of the session.
(Assemblyman Hickey is a Republican representing District 25 in Washoe County.)