Let’s be honest: Both major political parties seem to be fans of growing government.
Politicians, however seem to know that most voters aren’t quite as anxious to hike taxes or increase spending. After all, hopeful lawmakers continually promise to make government leaner, trim excess and curb waste in the public sector — and politicians are masters of telling voters what they want to hear.
In fact, it almost seems as if every politician — from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders — reminds us on a continual basis that government wastes much of the hard-earned money we send its way.
Granted, depending on party affiliation, there’s significant disagreement about what constitutes “waste.” Nonetheless, the premise that government is less than efficient isn’t really in question by most serious voters.
And yet, we find ourselves facing ever-higher taxes and ever-growing government largess, both nationally and locally.
Even a couple legislative sessions ago in Nevada, when supposedly low-tax Republicans were in control, lawmakers seemed incapable of limiting government-sector growth — imposing a $1.5 billion tax increase and implementing a slew of new government programs and mandates despite full control over state government.
The reason for this seemingly unstoppable one-way ratchet of government spending isn’t that hard to explain — and it does not boil down merely to the people elected into office. Although, certainly, that plays a part.
Here in Nevada, for example, almost a dozen state legislators are also employees of the executive branch. In other words, they’re government employees serving in a legislative body that directly impacts the funding levels of their employer.
There is, however, an even more powerful force than the self-interest of some government-employed legislators: Government itself.
Last legislative session, for example, Nevada’s local governments spent $3.75 million lobbying lawmakers in Carson City — that’s $3.75 million worth of taxpayer money used to promote the interests of government agencies, not taxpayers or voters.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to agencies like Clark County School District hiring a lobbying firm to push for more funding from the legislature, most local governments have a built-in lobbying firm in the form of government-sector unions.
In the 2016 national elections, labor unions spent roughly $2 billion to elect politicians. That’s $2 billion spent to make sure government keeps increasing budgets and hiring more personnel.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — arguably the most powerful government-sector union in the nation — took its lobbying efforts so seriously that it spent $20 million more on politics than it did on member representation in 2016.
And Nevada is not immune to the self-interest of powerful government-sector unions. In Clark County, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) fought tooth and nail for a 3.25 percent pay increase for local government workers, despite the fact that Clark County already compensates its government employees better than 99 percent of other counties nationwide. Given this union mentality, it is a certainty that representatives from the SEIU will be in Carson City in 2019 to further their interests in getting a larger share of taxpayer dollars.
Unions, after all, exist to negotiate higher pay and richer benefits for their members — it’s literally their job.
In the private sector, this means negotiations take place over profits, using management’s fear of enduring a strike as leverage. In the public sector, by contrast, it means lobbying the legislature. It means directly supporting (or opposing) candidates. It means being a key political player, fighting for more taxpayer dollars year after year.
This, after all, was the main reason the Supreme Court of the United States recently ruled that no worker should be required to financially support a public-sector union — because these unions are inherently political, acting effectively as partisan lobbying firms.
And, given the vast influence they have over government personnel, they’ve been largely effective. Each legislative session, the message to politicians is clear: Work with the union, or face a well-funded opposition campaign in the next election cycle.
The result is a legislative process were insiders — special interests that are already part of the growing government system — are prioritized by elected officials more than the folks who voted them in office in the first place.
Voters from both parties like to point out that our legislative system feels rigged. We’re told that special interests, lobbyists and political insiders pull the strings of lawmakers. That might very well be true.
So, it’s worth remembering that the most powerful political insider of them all, is government itself.
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.