Democracies function best when voters are well informed about the voting records and policy positions of incumbents. Without such knowledge, voters are unable to hold politicians accountable for their performance.
Most voters do not have the time to follow the performance of their elected representatives at all levels of public office. Hence, the success of representative government hinges significantly on the public's access to accurate and reliable evaluations of performance in public office. However, while many organizations offer their own evaluations of public office-holders at the national level, few objective analyses are available to voters considering performance by elected officials at state and local levels of government.
Recognizing this weakness, the Nevada Policy Research Institute has recently undertaken an objective evaluation of the performance of state legislators. Arming individuals with the information necessary to make educated decisions about who should represent them, The 2009 Nevada Legislative Session: Review & Report Card ranks the performance of individual lawmakers according to their defense of taxpayers.
The Report Card applies the methodology employed by the National Taxpayers Union for the grading of congressmen. It examines the voting record of each lawmaker on bills that would either impose tax increases or require tax increases by implementing spending beyond available tax revenues. Each vote is weighted in accordance with the impact of the associated bill. Lawmakers who scored highly are those who acted consistently to protect Nevada taxpayers from tax increases.
Unfortunately, those legislators were few and far between. Only 11 lawmakers achieved scores that could be considered "friendly to the taxpayer," while the scores of 52 legislators showed that they generally failed to protect taxpayers during the 2009 session. Indeed, this balance culminated in a 19 percent increase in the total tax burden facing Nevadans over the 2009-2011 biennium.
Because the Report Card ranks lawmakers by their demonstrated desire to protect Nevada taxpayers, it also reveals an ideological divide that goes much deeper than simple party affiliation. While all 11 of those lawmakers who achieved favorable scores were Republicans, the scores of more than half of Republican lawmakers demonstrated the intent to prey upon taxpayers.
In fact, the leadership of each party achieved unfavorable scores in both houses of the legislature. In the Senate, the leaders of each party were virtually indistinguishable, as both Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio obtained scores in the low 20s on a scale of zero to 100. As a whole, the Nevada Legislature achieved a composite score of about 31, with the Assembly scoring slightly higher than the Senate. Republican lawmakers obtained an average score of 52, while their Democratic colleagues averaged a score of 18.
The unique challenges of declining tax revenues that faced legislators during the 2009 session may have depressed scores to some extent, as lawmakers apparently saw little political profit in proposing tax cuts. However, a few individual lawmakers were able to demonstrate that, even under such conditions, it was still possible to achieve extremely high scores. Assemblymen Ed Goedhart and Don Gustavson led the way, scoring in the mid-90s. Yet, to the detriment of Nevada taxpayers, few lawmakers followed the example set by the two assemblymen.
Many of the tax increases enacted by the 2009 legislature are set to expire in 2011, and this will be a prominent issue facing Nevada taxpayers in the 2010 legislative elections. As such, taxpayers should find the Report Card to be an extremely valuable tool, allowing them to make informed decisions about which incumbents can be expected to protect them from future tax increases.
Geoffrey Lawrence is a fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article originally appeared in the November 2009 edition of the Nevada Business Journal.