Coming out of the dark
There's nothing particularly new, or even all that interesting, about the kafuffle taking place over Nevada's public K-12 education budget.
Responding to lower-than-expected revenues, Nevada's Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, has called for K-12 education to join most other government agencies in shaving 4.5 percent from its originally projected budget. The usual suspects on the left — Speaker Barbara Buckley, school board members and the rest of the educational establishment — have denounced the move, arguing that such allegedly Draconian "cuts" would starve the Silver State education system of much-needed funds and render impossible the task of educating Nevada's children.
We at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank, of course find the governor's position on this issue more persuasive. A core principle of the Institute is that government should operate within its means (as individuals and businesses must), and that when revenues begin to dry up, government should be just as capable as the rest of us of setting priorities and trimming where possible.
So there's not much surprising there, either.
But what if a new twist could be added to the stale and predictable fight between tax-and-spend left wingers and belt-tightening righties? And what if that twist were also likely to result in not only better government, but a more credible, enlightened debate over public policy?
Throughout the country a new wave of support for government transparency is gaining serious momentum. It comes in the wake of the Coburn-Obama legislation that mandates disclosure of federal expenditures via a publicly accessible website. This push for government transparency has now filtered down as well to several state governments, and is one of the few movements that actually garner bipartisan support.
Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, Arizona and South Carolina are all states that have adopted transparency measures in one form or another. Texas, Missouri, Indiana and South Carolina all have Republican governors, but Democrats occupy that office in Kansas and Arizona.
Nevada ought to get on board as well. One of the chief obstacles to achieving consensus on government spending is the inherently opaque nature of government itself, particularly in the realm of K-12 education. Citizens are made aware, usually through the press, of bottom-line expenditure levels for the state's various government agencies, but there's no easy way for the average citizen or state lawmakers (or even a public policy outfit such as NPRI, for that matter) to track where exactly all of this money is going once it is doled out.
Absent transparency, the average citizen trying to follow the typical back-and-forth between proponents on each side of the debate remains in the dark about who has the more credible argument.
Those who argue that these budget reductions would be a serious blow to the quality of education in Nevada would certainly have more credibility if citizens could independently verify matters for themselves. Currently, taxpayers who would have to come up with the extra revenue needed to maintain desired spending levels simply have to take the education establishment's word for virtually everything. If those who swear there is absolutely no room to trim are indeed sincere, then they ought to welcome the opportunity to open the books and prove their case.
And what of those on the other side of the debate, like NPRI? They, too, although generally sympathetic to the argument for scaling back spending during economic downturns, could make valuable contributions to the discussion under an open-books regime. It is our belief that even under the governor's "cuts' to the K-12 education budget — which still allow for a 15 percent increase in spending over the last biennium, after all — the ed establishment has sufficient funds (assuming some basic level of managerial competence) to carry out its functions. Still, absent the specifics, we, too, appear reduced to what to many people likely sounds like vague theories and empty rhetoric.
It is long past time for Nevada voters to be treated like adults and be allowed to see exactly where their money is going.
Andy Matthews is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.