Running Scared

Steven Miller

A fundamental problem exists with tax-financed public institutions, and at UNLV January 7 it was very much on display.

As public-choice economists have repeatedly shown, people who get to spend public resources do not suddenly, by that privilege, turn into angelic beings who transcend the self-interested drives characterizing the rest of Homo sapiens.

This all becomes quite evident here in Nevada whenever—as in early January—members of the state’s tax-consuming class volunteer to “help” the larger community address issues of taxation.

In this area, of course, public employees have a profound conflict of interest: On the one hand they are fiduciaries for the taxpaying public of the Silver State, for whom they administer the public’s resources placed in their trust. On the other hand, as tax consumers, public employees have an acute private interest in an always growing public sector.

This conflict of interest is profound, but rarely candidly acknowledged. Rarer still are attempts to actually mitigate it—say, through genuine outreach to the larger, taxpaying community, or through genuine reforms to meet that community’s concerns.

Instead, here in Nevada we repeatedly see something simple and brazen: the use of public resources to support the private interests of the state’s coalition of tax-consumers.

This was clearly the case at UNLV’s property tax conference, as virtually every panelist turned out to be an opponent of any plan—California’s Proposition 13 was the chief whipping boy—that might mean permanently lowered property taxes here in Nevada.

The problem with all proposals for significant change in Nevada’s property tax regime—it was repeatedly “explained”—was that such changes might mean permanently lower government revenues!

Two presumptions went unchallenged throughout the day: 1) that fewer government-supplied services would be a bad thing, and 2) that current public programs operate so efficiently that no reforms could produce systemically greater savings.

UNLV President Carol Harter had opened the conference by congratulating the Greenspun Urban Affairs School’s Department of Public Administration for “reaching out to the community” and enlisting “diverse voices” in a session that Harter hoped would “inform” forthcoming “legislative discussions.”

Yet the lack of genuine diversity was striking. Virtually all the presentations and discussion were devoted to warning the 200-plus audience against any Prop 13-like initiative that might appear on an upcoming ballot. No dissenters inclined to argue for such an approach were allowed.

Noticeably absent on any panel, for example, was the leader of last year’s effort to place such an initiative question on the Nevada ballot—Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, of Reno. Along with all state lawmakers, Angle had been invited to come and listen, she told NPRI later, but was neither invited to participate nor to suggest alternative expert panelists.

Other logical invitees—had UNLV been interested—could have also included panelists from California’s Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association. Named after the leader of the 1978 California tax revolt, that association is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and replete with experts able to make a case in its behalf. Indeed, the entire United States abounds with conservative and free-market think tanks that could have been consulted.

The nature of the UNLV conference, however, suggests that its planners intentionally avoided any such consultations.

Interestingly, events still conspired to reveal the overwhelming support that Proposition 13 enjoys among California and Nevada taxpayers to this day.

A question from the audience was directed to Dr. Gary Cornia, of Brigham Young University. Cornia had spoken on Utah’s Truth-in-Taxation rules and thus had won more credibility with taxpayers than some of the other panelists.

“After all that everyone on the panel has said is bad about Proposition 13,” went the question, “would Californians reject Proposition 13 today?”

Replied Cornia, simply and emphatically: “No.”

Laughter then swept the audience. It eloquently acknowledged the large gap between reality according to UNLV’s hand-picked panel and reality as experienced by California and Nevada taxpayers.

In retrospect it’s clear that the university’s case against any Prop-13-like initiative would only have gained credibility, had the university dared allow dissent.

It is of course true, as tax experts universally acknowledge, that all taxation systems have their pros and cons. And it may well be that, on net, the negatives of Proposition 13 outweigh all its positives. But all that UNLV really suggested by the piling-on it orchestrated January 7 is nothing so much as a tax-consuming establishment that is running scared.

It also suggests a university system that has difficulty mustering genuine academic integrity.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.