Are you invisible?

Who are state lawmakers really working for?

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, June 15, 2009

Historically, they were called "public servants." In Nevada nowadays, however, government employees increasingly are the public's masters.

The servant? Increasingly, it's you.

Consider the state Assembly. Of the 28 Democrats making up the two-thirds majority that controls the Nevada Legislature's lower chamber, 20 are current or retired government employees — or make their living from tax dollars the government allocates to their non-profit corporations. That's over 70 percent.

In the state Senate, more than half of the 21 senators, 11, either receive pension and retirement benefits from the state Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) or have someone in their personal household who does.

Does this explain why state lawmakers this year — in the teeth of Nevada's worst recession since World War II — insisted on raising taxes on the great mass of Nevadans who do NOT work for state or local government? And insisted on doing so even though they were fully informed that this meant killing private-sector jobs?

Can it also explain why the Nevada Legislature for so many years regularly refused to even attempt to pare back the PERS system's shamefully rich benefits for public employees, in order to deal with the system's growing billions of unfunded liability dollars for which Nevada taxpayers are on the hook?

Who, really, are Nevada state lawmakers working for?

The actual words of state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, when inspected, are not encouraging. In a final-day statement on the floor of the Senate, he summarized the accomplishments of the 2009 Legislative Session as:

We have kept teachers in classrooms and preserved services for our most vulnerable citizens. We have not dismantled our higher education system and we have kept our promises to those citizens who serve our state with dedication, our public employees. We have done our job.

Note that every group mentioned by the majority leader here — 1) teachers, 2) those providing "services for our most vulnerable citizens," 3) Nevada System of Higher Education employees and 4) "those ... who serve our state with dedication" — turns out to be a collection of government employees.

Thus, Horsford's words suggest that he sees his primary "job" as Senate majority leader as keeping tax dollars flowing to public employees, the core Democratic Party constituency. Significantly, while he boasts that he and other lawmakers "kept our promises" to public employees — some 5.5 percent of the state's population — he does not mention that he broke his word to the 94.5 percent of Nevadans who do NOT work for state or local government.

Last fall, both Horsford and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley assured voters that accelerating economic hardship in Nevada's private-sector economy meant that tax increases should not be on the table during the 2009 Legislative Session. Nevertheless, as soon as both legislative leaders got back to Carson City, they began crafting the new billion-dollar-plus tax increase that they then imposed on private-sector Nevadans. They did this even though Nevada's economy had deteriorated even further from its level when Horsford and Buckley had been pledging no new taxes!

Is it in just one quote, pulled out of context, where the Senate majority leader characterizes his job responsibilities as primarily to government employees? On the contrary, it is a recurrent, unconscious refrain with the senator. In a television interview later in the week, Horsford said he and other lawmakers "met our obligation to have a constitutionally balanced budget that funds education, that protects teachers in the classroom, [and] that does not dismantle higher education."

Leave aside, for the moment, the willful blindness here that presumes that, unless government takes everyone's money and gives it to its own education cartels, education will implode in Nevada, since Nevadans are morons who would never voluntarily buy educational services they believe are valuable.

The immediate point, rather, is that once again in the majority leader's account, the financial concerns of the huge majority of taxpaying Nevadans turn out to be completely invisible. In the Carson City world-view, the obligations of legislative leadership flow primarily toward government employees — especially toward making sure that the latter's consumption of tax dollars never gets interrupted.

Steven Horsford, of course, did not invent this system. What he does — like almost any politician — is react to, listen to and attend to those who show up. Because the public-employee unions have made themselves so powerful that they determine majorities in the Nevada Legislature, they have basically become the only Nevadans who "count" for our current collection of professional politicians.

This is why, from the vantage point of Carson City, the odds that you are invisible are currently about 19-to-1.

Steven Miller is the vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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