There they go again

The latest budget battle is a strange but familiar episode.

By Andy Matthews
  • Friday, November 2, 2007

How peculiar, in the eyes of any financially responsible citizen, must be this drama now playing out in Carson City. It began when Gov. Jim Gibbons, responding to lower-than-projected revenues over the first couple months of the fiscal year, called on government departments in his charge to prepare contingency budgets at a level 5 percent below what they’d initially planned for.

To most of us, this would seem a prudent, even obvious step. The money isn’t coming in as abundantly as we’d anticipated, so we’ll just have to prepare to spend a little bit less.

But to those who kneel at the altar of government largesse, such a thought is, well, unthinkable. Cut back on spending? Is he crazy? Doesn’t he realize we are the GOVERNMENT?

Leading the chorus is university system Chancellor Jim Rogers, who defied Gibbons by refusing to comply with the governor’s contingency budget request. Clark County government officials did the same.

To these folks, the idea of reining in government spending, even in the face of harsh economic realities, is a non-starter. They prefer the alternative, which, of course, is to fill the gap between actual revenues and desired expenditures by raising taxes. And make no mistake – that is exactly what Gibbons’ critics would like to see now.

Sadly, this is an all-too-familiar tale. Economically prosperous times inspire government spending sprees, which push baseline budgets obscenely high. Then when the economy slumps and revenues dip, those same politicians, rather than cut back on spending (as the rest of us would have to do if caught in such a bind), complain that there simply isn’t enough money coming in to fund all of the, ahem, “vital” programs they’ve created – and that our taxes will have to be raised. Once the economic pendulum swings back the other direction, the process is repeated, with the obvious result of this serial recklessness being an increasingly unbearable tax burden to fund an ever-expanding government.

The repetition of this cycle, played out over several decades now (and which Gibbons, to his credit, is attempting to break), fits into a wider pattern of chicanery employed by our political elites to pilfer from the masses as many of our hard-earned dollars as possible, all while muddying or concealing entirely the truth about their taxing and spending habits. That pattern, the subject of a forthcoming study by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (set for release early next year), is how Nevada lost its status as one of the most taxpayer-friendly states in the union.

But back to the vicious cycle currently playing out. How does this happen? Often it is by quid pro quo , with the politicians and the special interests each scratching the other’s back – campaign contributions in exchange for tax dollars allocated to the pet project du jour . The politicians, who legally control the purse strings, now also enjoy dominion over yet another government program. In other words, incentives abound for both sides to continuously grow the government sector.

Another contributing factor is the rampant – and blatantly unconstitutional – practice of allowing individuals to serve in the Legislature while also working in the executive branch. Such an obvious violation of the separation-of-powers principle has the predictable effect of loosening the money flow to government agencies.

The common theme here is that the taxpayers’ interests are always disregarded. Keenly aware of this, the culprits recognize the need to hide from the public the truth about their profligacy (lest there be hell to pay in November).

So when the rare public official does summon the courage to speak candidly and publicly about the need to curb unnecessary spending during an economic downturn, the debate, which ought to be over fiscal prudence, is thus quickly recast in terms of compassion, in which those who advocate spending limits are cold-hearted demons who don’t care about, for example, “the children” (just ask Gibbons). Those responsible for the systemic skullduggery simply can’t stomach the idea of spending less. So any attempts at limiting expenditures, even modestly, have to be killed under a public-relations barrage.

The result is that, year after year, the government cake grows taller and taller, each new layer making it impossible to remove any of the ones below, even when changing economic realities suggest it’s time to hit the brakes.

It’s a cycle that is poised to repeat itself if the governor’s opponents get their way.

Andy Matthews is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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