Saturday, September 24, 2005

Column 50 - City

I’ve been a part of the Independent Incline movement from its inception. The tax impact of various options has been almost the singular focus of the group today. Because the group has focused primarily on Incline’s becoming a county through legislative action, our activity has waxed and waned with the legislative/election cycle.

For many of those on the IIC the issue is taxes, but that may be too narrow a view. To be sure, the disparity between what we pay and what we get back, which I have detailed in earlier columns, makes my blood boil, and nothing but becoming a county will cure that completely. The possibility of incorporating as a city as an interim step has never got very far, particularly since such analysis as was done indicated it would probably mean an increase in taxes for residents.

A number of recent developments and conversations have led me to reconsider my skepticism abou the city option and I have proposed the committee meet to re-look at our position. Right now we have a situation where not less than three groups are looking at plans that will materially affect Incline’s future. The County is encouraging Crystal Bay to go its own way in economic planning, and that is clearly of interest at least to the casino owners there, if not to the residents, to do so. Secondly, TRPA’s Pathway 2007 is in a planning process that has only just now, after almost a year, realized it might be a good idea to engage local input, and IVGID and the CAB began the Incline Vision process a few months ago

I see no reason to trust that the County, in conversation with the casino interests in Crystal Bay have IV/CB residents’ interests in mind. While TRPA’s effort has not realized my direst trepidations, and I am not sure where they are going, their area of interest is the lake as a whole, not just Incline Village. Finally, I have the highest regard for Bea Epstein and the Incline Vision group, but in the end, they will have only as much power as the government of Incline has to implement their plans. In addition, at least one candidate for Governor, Senator Beers, has propsed a 3% cap on budget increases, which would cut back on our public services such as roads, sheriff, etc.

In researching further the powers a city would have, I have learned that there is more to it than I thought and that we as a committee have discussed. Chief among these are land use powers. A city has powers over land use, land use planning, zoning, building codes, eminent domain, etc. that are close to absolute within its borders. For example, we are dependent now on help from TRPA and maybe the County if we don’t want a new Post Office built where the USPS plans to build it – as a city we would have the power to control our own destiny. Given the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain powers, this should be of great concern to us. In addition, as a city we would be included on public boards such as the RSCVA, the Airport Board, and others where we would have our own voice.

I am not prepared at this point to raise the “Incline City” banner – a lot more research needs to be done. My call to the committee to reconvene and reconsider the city alternative was made on this basis. I do think, though, that the issue needs to be considered from a broader perspective than taxation alone – from a business perspective any prospective expense should be reviewed against the potential benefit, and ways to offset those expenses should be considered. For example, as a city what would we be entitled to in terms of returns on our taxes from the County, what could we realize in city taxes on resort and transient accommodations, etc. Again, I’m not recommending we do any of this now, but rather that we study the matter fully and see whether the return on investment in terms of local control and protection might not be something that would make some small increase in taxes worthwhile to Incline residents. Make your voice heard.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Column 50 (National) - Katrina

Hurricane Katrina has ripped the fa├žade off the Bush Administration as easily as it ripped the roof off the Superdome. There are a few true believers for whom their hero is right and who would not be shaken in the face of divine revelation. Aside from those however, it is hard to imagine how anyone who has been a Bush supporter can maintain their position in light of (a) the Federal Government’s unbelievably inept response to the cataclysm and (b) the President’s characteristic dissembling, spinning, and irresponsibly taking care of his friends.

Since the Nixon impeachment, the GOP, with the complicity of much of the media has done a masterful job of blaming the Left for everything from poverty to abortion to drugs. Indeed, in the wake of Katrina, according to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the Department of Justice sent an email to US Attorneys that can only have had the intent of gathering “evidence” to blame environmental groups for the hurricane damage. The difference this time is that, unlike the non-existent WMDs in Iraq, the biased recount in Florida, and other concealable lies, the Administration’s ineptitude in responding to Katrina was impossible to cover up. Notwithstanding that, the Right would have us believe that, somehow, the President’s “cutting his vacation short” by a couple of days after days of non-action, his rushing Condy Rice to the Gulf from her New York vacation, and his ringing endorsement of his pal “Brownie” for “doing a heck of a job” constitute a response. Never mind that Brown had no qualifications for the job, even after lying about his experience. Now, of course, the President would have us believe that he barely knew “Brownie,” just as he “barely knew” Kenny-Boy Lay after the Enron scandal broke.

Now the Administration is rushing to cover their tracks with money the government doesn’t have – the President says we will do whatever it takes, but he has said nothing about how we will pay for it. The plan they are designing turns the Gulf Coast into a field day for the usual Rightist agendas and cronies – Halliburton for rebuilding, private school vouchers to undermine public education, abandonment of environmental regulations, abolition of wage standards, and yet another tax cut for the wealthiest.

And most astonishingly all this will be overseen not by experienced planners or development, but by Karl Rove, the quintessential political operative whose involvement in the Valerie Plame affair has never been accounted for.

The most damning part of all this is what it exposes about how little this President and this Administration understands about how the vast majority of Americans live. The President’s mother goes to the Astrodome and sees it as fortunate for those forced to stay there in squalor, separated from their families. Tom DeLay goes there and asks a young African-American child if it’s not like camp. After 9/11, the wealthiest victims got more compensation than those who were less well off. Here those with means got out and are staying with family or in hotels while the poor get the scraps.

When money is on the line, cronies always come first for this President, who calls himself “the CEO President,” but who has a consistent track record of crashing and burning every time he had something to run. I doubt that anyone but the true believers takes seriously any more the President as a “uniter” or his “culture of life,” but if he has a shred of decency Mr. Bush will see that in a culture of life, all human life must be valued. This country, and the 90% of its people who earn less than six-figure incomes needs compassion, competence, integrity, and heart. What we have is cronyism, poverty, and a government that cares only for the 10% that fund it and its pet projects.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Column 49: Tax Caps

In his column last week, Jim Clark appeals to knee-jerk reactions and a surface analysis to get us to favor tax caps. On the face of it, tax caps sound like a good idea. After all, here in Incline our property taxes keep going up, don’t they? Well, not exactly. Actually, our assessments keep going up, and property taxes are based on assessed value. For this reason, the Tax Revolt has wisely gone after unfair, irrational assessments. With a tax cap, assessments will keep going up, and the disparity between the property tax we pay and the assessed valuation will get greater and greater.

But what will happen to people who pay taxes on properties with lower assessed valuation? Their valuations will also also go up, though not as quickly, and so will the taxes they pay. In other words the effect of a property tax cap, when taxes are based on assessed valuation, is a tax that disproportionately favors those who own more expensive properties while providing no relief to those whose properties are worth less.

Also, what services are the proponents of tax caps planning to cut? The net effect of tax caps is that revenues to the state will decrease – taxes on high-end, fast-appreciating properties will level off, and the increase in revenues from taxes on low-end, slowly-appreciating properties will not be sufficient to cover the loss. As a result, some tax-funded services must suffer. Property taxes go to fund education and other services. Clark says “prophets of doom…are already predicting that children will die of starvation and the elderly will be thrown out in the cold if these Scrooge laws are imposed.” In my research I have not found anyone saying anything even close to that.

Here is what I have found: while no states have been bankrupted by tax caps (another non-argument the Right likes to “rebut”), in every case there have been significant service cuts. Proposition 13 in California directly resulted in cuts in mental health care that closed a number of hospitals and released thousands of patients - these released patients form the core of the homeless in cities such as San Francisco. In the 1970’s, California’s education system was number one or two in the nation. Prop 13 was passed in 1978 and California’s primacy in quality education was lost.

If there is a lesson from Hurricane Katrina it is that we must be responsible as a society for the least fortunate among us. The Republican administration dragged its heels, content to see those with the means to get out of New Orleans save themselves before doing anything about those too poor or infirm to help themselves. The danger in tax caps is that we will once again “save” those with means while ignoring those with less.

Jim wants to make the issue here the supposed “absolute authority” of the legislature to raise taxes, but this again is Republican sophistry. The Nevada Constitution, like the US Constitution, includes a system of checks and balances. The Governor has the power to veto legislation, whether to check profligate government spending or to block inappropriate tax measures, and the courts can overrule both the government and the legislature. In addition, both the Governor and the legislators are elected and subject to voter pressure. Jim and his cohorts want us to believe that the power of the electorate to overrule tax caps affords better protection than that provided in the Constitution, but this is again a canard – Prop 13 in California, for example, cannot be overruled, and even if a tax cap bill includes this possibility, the system of voter initiatives is cumbersome and meant to be used in extreme cases, not as an ersatz substitute for checks and balances.

In considering the question of tax caps it is critical that we think about this and not buy into the Right’s assumption that we are too dumb or too shallow to think about the real issues.