Nevada’s problem is its spending priorities, not its rate of taxation

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Cowboy humorist, philosopher and rope-twirling raconteur Will Rogers once said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”Mitch3_1

Well, everybody knows Nevada is a low-tax state. Ask anyone. Why our very state Constitution prohibits an income tax. Sure our sales tax is pretty high but tourists contribute more to the state coffers because of it.

So surely it is understandable why the state agencies are poor-mouthing as the next session of the Legislature approaches, crying that the state needs to spend $1 billion more in the next biennium to just keep up current inadequate service levels. And that doesn’t take into account the $1.2 billion in temporary taxes that are scheduled to sunset next June, leaving the shortfall at a jaw-dropping, wallet-sucking $2.2 billion.

The big fear is that new Republican majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly will balk at raising or extending taxes.

For his part, Gov. Brian Sandoval has been coy on the topic of taxation.

Asked point blank by newspaper reporters about whether his budget might include new taxes, he replied, “You’ll find out.”

He told the editorial boards of the Reno and Las Vegas newspapers, “I have a unique opportunity, I feel, hopefully as second-term governor, going into the session and having the relationships I have with the Legislature to lead this effort in terms of looking at how we fund the state.”

As for the taxes set for sunset in June, Sandoval in both 2011 and 2013 agreed to extend them.

The state’s new Republican Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson was quoted as saying at an education forum in Las Vegas recently, “We have really two choices. We can either reform our tax structure in a broad-based, fair way in collaboration with the community … in a way that generates more revenue. Or we’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to have to cut education significantly.”

Everybody knows Nevada already is a piker when it comes to spending on education and has the results to show for it with poor test scores and graduation rates. In fact, according to the latest Census Bureau data from 2012, Nevada ranked a pathetic 45th in the nation in K-12 education spending.

Since we’re perusing Census data already, how does Nevada stack up in that taxation department?

The most recent Census report on this is the “Quarterly Summary of State and Local Government Tax Revenue” from the second quarter of this calendar year, when Nevadans paid nearly $2.9 billion in taxes to the state, cities, counties and other taxing districts. Divide that by a population of nearly 2.8 million from the 2013 Census estimate and you find the per capita state and local taxation for the quarter was a little more than $1,000.

That was the 13th highest per capita tax revenue in the nation — 12th if you exclude the District of Columbia. Nevada collected more per resident than the presumptive high-tax state of New York. Thus, low-tax Nevada governments collect more in taxes than 38 other states, but can’t seem to find as much to spend on education as 44 other states.

According to the Tax Foundation, Nevada’s average sales tax — state and local — is the 13th highest in the nation.

Nevada’s property tax rate is the 28th highest in the nation, according to Tax-Rates.org.

When you break down the revenue sources for Nevada elementary and secondary education as reported by the Census Bureau, you find Nevada ranked 47th in federal revenue. (Tell me again about how the U.S. Senate majority leader from Nevada is bringing home the bacon.) When it came to funding levels from the state, Nevada ranked 25th, but only 45th for local level funding.

Nevada ranked in the mid-40s in most education spending categories, but 22nd highest in spending on school administration.

The money is there, but apparently it is being spent on other things.

When it comes to government salaries, Nevada’s state and local governments have been able to keep up with others in the same taxation neighborhood. Admittedly, the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau are for 2009, but in that year the state of Nevada ranked 12th in the nation with an average monthly salary level of just more than $5,000. Local governments paid a similar salary level, and ranked sixth in the nation compared to local governments in other states.

The problem isn’t that Nevada collects too little in taxes. It is how it spends it.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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