For private businesses trying to rebuild in a post-COVID world, their main task in 2021 will be “doing more with less.” Government should be doing the same.
The good news for fiscal hawks going into the 2021 Legislative Session is that politicians in Carson City don’t really have much of a choice but to have a discussion that otherwise likely wouldn’t be taking place with full Democrat control of the legislature: Where to cut the budget. It’s a refreshing conversation after years of ever-larger budgets—including that infamous session five years ago when Republicans passed the largest tax hike in state history. Of course, despite the forced conversation on fiscal restraint, there will nonetheless be government insiders who lobby relentlessly for new tax schemes as a way of “fixing” the budget without the unpleasantness of making politically difficult cuts.
The Clark County Education Association (CCEA), for example, has already petitioned the legislature to consider a proposal to “fix” education by forcing Nevadans to pay the highest average sales tax in the nation—an especially audacious proposal, given that the very same union has spent the last year actively fighting to keep classrooms closed to students. And the CCEA isn’t going to be alone in their call for more taxes. Remember, many in the government sector melted into hysterics last year when the governor suggested a mere one-day-per-month furlough for government workers. There’s no reason to think that similar outrage wouldn’t be levied at any proposal to cut hours, positions, or budgets during the legislative session.
Indeed, government insiders will be spending plenty of time lobbying lawmakers for more revenue rather than conceding to modest budget cuts. “More money,” as it turns out, will be the primary concern for government special interests that were already demanding ever larger shares of taxpayer dollars even before the economic downturn of 2020.
However, despite what we’re likely to hear from Carson City in the coming months, improving and fixing government services doesn’t actually require more “investment” from struggling Nevada taxpayers. Giving greater autonomy to agencies—thus allowing the expertise of public workers themselves to drive innovation—would do far more good than merely throwing more money at a barely functioning system.
Freshman Assemblyman (and former Nevada Policy President) Andy Matthews has proposed adopting a “Charter Agency” reform to do precisely that. Already used with great success in Iowa, the charter model allows the legislature to set broad policy goals for agencies, while specific decisions over the means for achieving those goals are left to the agencies themselves—incentivizing smarter use of public dollars and dramatically improved service. A similar story could be told in education. Educational options such as charter schools, Opportunity Scholarships and Education Savings Accounts not only empower families with greater choice, but they cost significantly less per-pupil than traditional public schools. As a result, greater educational choice would not only translate to greater academic opportunity (and therefore higher academic performance), but the financial savings would mean more funds available per-pupil for the students who remain in traditional public schools.
Even simple transparency reforms could help constrain government’s more run-of-the-mill expenses. Personnel costs, for example, are the largest single expense for any public agency, and yet contract negotiations with government unions are currently conducted entirely behind closed doors—inaccessible to taxpayers, the media and even the very workers covered by the contract. Merely opening such negotiations to the public would put downward pressure on the year-over-year growth of government-sector personnel costs.
Unsurprisingly, such reforms will face serious opposition from government unions, agencies and political insiders who are more dedicated to increasing their budgets than improving the value of government services. However, lawmakers weren’t sent to Carson City to represent the interests of government agencies, or public-sector unions. They were sent to represent the thousands of Nevadans who still haven’t received unemployment checks, parents who are desperate for educational alternatives for their children and the taxpayers who fund all of government’s activities.
Therefore, it’s incumbent upon lawmakers to share the burden faced by private businesses and workers throughout the state, and use 2021 as an opportunity to learn how to do more with less.
Michael Schaus is Communications Director at Nevada Policy Research Institute