Taxes trump transparency
Politicians’ priorities show contempt for taxpayers
- Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Transparency and taxes are a study in contrasts.
No one is against transparency (publicly), but few, if any, elected officials actively work toward making Nevada's government more open to the public.
Few politicians support taxes (publicly), but when Nevada legislators get together behind closed doors, that's all they seem to talk about.
Consider, for instance, the 2009 Legislative Session, when Nevada legislators passed a series of tax increases amounting to a record-setting billion dollars in hikes. Many citizens know few — if any — of the details behind those tax increases, because legislative leaders of both parties conducted the negotiations over $781 million of the increased taxes in secret.
The legislature finally released the tax bill to the public on May 14, and then voted to approve it less than 10 days later, meaning anyone who wasn't following legislators' back-room dealings closely likely didn't learn about the tax bill until it had already passed. This secrecy severely limited citizens' ability to tell their elected officials what they thought about the tax increases — an arrangement with which lawmakers seem very content.
The best hope for transparency in Nevada sprung about 17 months ago, when Gov. Jim Gibbons signed an executive order calling on the Nevada Department of Administration to create an easily searchable, open-government website. The site was to contain information on all facets of state spending, including payrolls, contracts and grants.
Gibbons' executive order followed in the footsteps of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which created a searchable database of federal spending. The federal website, http://www.usaspending.gov/search.php, was sponsored by then-Senator Barack Obama and Sen. Tom Coburn and has been extremely popular and useful. In Nevada, too, it looked like the public checkbook was finally going to be made public.
Except today, 17 months later, it still isn't.
Nevada's transparency site, http://open.nv.gov/, contains only a fraction of the information that Gibbons promised. It does not contain information on payrolls, contracts or grants.
The Department of Administration reports that the missing information is available, but the funding to put it on the web isn't. The department says it would cost approximately $63,000 each for the payroll and contract information to be put online, and $125,000 for the grant information to be made available.
In other words, a much more transparent Nevada is only $250,000 away, but Gibbons didn't request any funds for the transparency website during the 2009 Legislative Session. And no one else in Carson City funded it, either. This is the case despite the legislature passing a record-setting General Fund biennial budget of $6.9 billion, which, again, included a billion-dollar tax increase.
To put these numbers in perspective, imagine you had a million dollars but claimed you couldn't afford to spend $36.44. That would be exactly proportionate to what our politicians did, in opting not to provide funding for the transparency website.
Now, frugality, even when dealing with the smallest amounts of public money, is laudable. But transparency is no pork-barrel project. Transparency should be government's highest priority, not an afterthought that is funded only after politicians have satisfied the rest of their spending cravings. After all, a little money invested in transparency will actually save the state huge sums of money in the long run by ensuring our elected officials are accountable and responsible in how they spend.
Tax increases, however, clearly are not an afterthought for Nevada's politicians. In August, a subcommittee of the Interim Finance Committee held its first meeting to discuss a legislatively approved study of Nevada's revenue structure. That's a euphemism for "determining how to increase taxes in the next legislative session."
Studies like this don't come cheap. While legislators couldn't find $250,000 to put the public checkbook online, they had no problem coming up with $500,000 to fund this tax study.
And it gets worse. Gibbons vetoed the tax-study funding, but Sen. Bill Raggio — the Republican leader in the Senate — announced that the Interim Finance Committee was going to use contingency funds to pay for it anyway.
So while they tell us they don't have $250,000 for transparency, legislators have twice "found" $500,000 to fund a study that they'll use in 2011 to try to convince us they need more of our money.
When it comes to transparency and taxes, no matter what Nevada's politicians say, their actions speak louder than their words.
Victor Joecks is the deputy communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.