Jim Clark: More on the Washoe sales tax ballot question (opinion)
September 29, 2016
For a ballot measure that has no organized opposition, the Washoe County School District Board's WC-1 sales tax increase gets a lot of media attention.
It has prompted an avalanche of angry letters to the Reno Gazette-Journal editor and, following the public debate sponsored by the Incline/Crystal Bay Republican Women earlier this month, KOLO TV and KKOH Radio will be hosting debates.
Additionally, a lawsuit was filed to remove it from the ballot on the grounds that the county failed to follow Nevada law in appointing citizens to write the ballot arguments.
Here's a capsulation of where we're at: In the aftermath of the "great recession" of 2008, our dysfunctional Washoe County School District didn't cut personnel expenses but stopped spending money on school maintenance.
In 2013, WCSD lobbyists went to the Legislature and pleaded for $300 million for the "maintenance and repairs" WCSD failed to perform. The legislature passed AB 46, which delegated to the Washoe Commission authority to raise property and sales taxes for schools. Commissioners let the matter expire rather than boosting taxes for another agency.
In 2015, school lobbyists went to the legislature pleading for $315 million for "maintenance and repairs" plus another $781 million to build new schools. With the arrival of Tesla, Switch, etc., WCSD is forecasting "another 50,000 jobs coming to the area," so the legislature passed SB207, which extended an existing Washoe property tax that will produce $315 million.
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Legislators also authorized WCSD to submit any number of possible tax increases to Washoe voters for school construction. With a choice of property taxes, room taxes, vehicle license taxes, deed transfer taxes and sales taxes, WCSD decided to concentrate the whole burden on sales taxes. Jumping the rate to 8.265% would support $781 million in new school bonds. WCSD decided not to "sunset" the increase because they will still need money after the bonds are repaid.
To say there are problems with the proposal would be an understatement. First, no one trusts this school board; second, Nevada ranks worst in the nation for student achievement so we should be hiring great teachers and principals, not erecting buildings; third, WCSD enrollment has been virtually unchanged since 2004, so if they're fixing all the dilapidated properties we don't need new ones; fourth, the $781 million in bonds will be paid off, but the tax increase goes on forever, so there's no accountability; fifth, the cost estimates are laughingly overblown and include a tidy $100 million for "inflation"; finally with all the different tax options permitted by the legislature, WCSD crammed everything into a regressive sales tax increase that will hurt the poor more than others. If it weren't so serious, this would seem like a bad joke.
For answers, follow the money. The Coalition to Save Our Schools ("SOS"), a political action committee, is organizing support for WC-1. So far, $300,000 was donated by teacher unions (well sure, you build more buildings, you hire more teachers, and the union gets more dues); $200,000 was donated by Nevada Realtor associations (of course, that's why there's no deed transfer tax in the formula); and $125,000 was donated by residential builders (you build houses, you need neighborhood schools, right?).
How about unused, existing space such as the old Incline Elementary School? Here's a tidbit reprinted from the current edition of Reno News and Review: " … there is what some have called ancillary space held by the school district and no one seems to know how much of it there is, or where it is. About four years ago district administrators were asked by a school board member for a complete and specific inventory of all that space. It has not yet been delivered."
If voters pass WC-1, we will have lots of shiny new buildings, but Nevada will still rank worst in the nation for student achievement because we adults didn't deal with the problem.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.