Most Nevadans lead busy lives. They have jobs to attend, children to bus to and fro and a variety of civic and social groups to which they belong. As such, most Nevadans don't have the time to keep detailed tabs on the actions of their elected representatives serving in the state legislature.
Yet, every Nevadan is affected by the decisions of his or her state legislator, and when politicians are allowed to run amuck, the consequences can be disastrous. In 2009, lawmakers secretly crafted ideas for massive new taxes and foisted those taxes on Nevada families with minimal public debate.
As a result, Nevada households, despite facing record unemployment, had to endure lawmakers' increased taxes on sales, payroll and motor vehicle registration. As these taxes squeezed the after-tax income of Nevada households even further, parents found themselves less able to provide for their children — while politicians protected their highly paid political allies in public employee unions from meaningful labor reform.
If citizens are to hold lawmakers accountable for such actions, they must know how their representatives behaved while in session. Following the 2009 Legislative Session, the Nevada Policy Research Institute provided this information by grading each legislator based on his or her voting record on fiscal issues.
Lawmakers who voted consistently to increase the tax burden on Nevada families received low scores while those who acted to defend Nevadans from onerous tax increases earned high scores. What the record showed was that, in 2009, Nevada families had few friends in the legislature. Only 11 of 63 lawmakers voted consistently to defend Nevadans from tax hikes pushed by predatory interests.
The divide was philosophical, not partisan. Every lawmaker in a leadership position — from both major political parties — voted to support increased taxes and spending. It is notable that only one of those lawmakers — Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford — will return to the legislature in 2011.
This year NPRI will again grade lawmakers based on their voting records. As in 2009, the grading will apply the methodology that the National Taxpayers' Union uses to grade members of Congress. This approach recognizes that excess spending and tax increases are two sides of the same coin. If Nevada lawmakers vote to spend at a level that is beyond the state's available resources, they are implicitly voting for a tax increase.
In 2009, several lawmakers voted to oppose SB 429, which was designed to impose $781 million in new taxes, and yet voted in favor of spending increases that would make this additional revenue necessary. Voting records such as these are philosophically inconsistent and are graded as such.
Consequently, lawmakers will lose points by voting explicitly for tax increases or by doing so implicitly by agreeing to spending beyond available revenues. This will be especially significant, since Gov. Sandoval's Executive Budget proposal for the 2011-13 biennium already intends to outspend anticipated General Fund revenues by roughly a half-billion dollars. While the Executive Budget contains many worthwhile and long-awaited reforms, a consistent grading methodology must treat it as a proposal to outspend revenues.
Lawmakers can also gain points by voting to reduce spending or lower taxes. Practically, however, only a few meaningful proposals along these lines may be allowed to reach floor votes in 2011. Nevertheless, to ensure objectivity, the grading methodology will be restricted to floor votes.
One of the great strengths of the NTU methodology is that each vote is weighted to reflect its relative significance. The fiscal impact of each bill is normalized along a scale of 1 to 100, with a value of 100 assigned to the session's most impactful bill. This allows a vote that would increase the tax burden by twice as much as another to be treated as such and results in a final score that most accurately reflects the voting impact of each individual lawmaker.
During the 2011 session, NPRI will evaluate the fiscal impact of legislative proposals and will track on its blog, WriteOnNevada.com, those that will be used to evaluate lawmakers' performance.
Nevada families will be watching — and now they have a way to keep score.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.