Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why "Down Ballot" Should Be at the Top of Voters' Minds

Buried at the bottom of today's RGJ story on the high stakes SD 15 race between incumbent State Senators Greg Brower (R-Reno) and Sheila Leslie (D-Reno) now running in the same district that may determine control of the State Senate next year, I found this shiny nugget that may really change the dynamic of Legislature campaigns.

Leslie feels Brower hurt students and parents involved in public education by voting against the final budget deal of the 2011 session because it contained about $700 million in taxes that were scheduled to expire but were renewed with the budget deal.

“In the last session, after Sen. Brower was appointed to his position, he had a record that was very extreme,” Leslie said. “The constituents in this district are very unhappy with that, especially with education.”

Leslie said Brower will also have to answer for being among a handful of senators who voted against the final state budget deal endorsed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, because it contained revenue from a group of taxes that were scheduled to expire in 2011.

So why is this so important? And why is this a game changer? Let me explain. For once, taxes may finally be touched on as a legitimate policy issue worth discussing intelligently, not another forbidden "four letter word" (never mind it actually has five letters!).

Now of course, this situation is different. At the end of the 76th session, we only saw an agreement to extend the tax deal already put in place in 2009. And it's probably less scary for Democrats to embrace this as a campaign issue now that Brian Sandoval has to own it.

Still, this reflects what may be a big change in campaign strategy. Instead of trying to avoid the subject, as so many candidates did in 2010, we may see a real head-on collision.

And frankly, we may need it. As I hinted at last week, several states are considering legalizing some form of internet gambling. We can't always depend on the gaming industry as our only stable source of income. We also can't continue to underfund the critical public infrastructure that we need to attract more businesses here and diversify our economy. Something's got to give.

And perhaps, something will this year. Even the RAN poll done by Republican polling outfit Public Opinion Strategies found a willingness among Nevada voters to talk taxes. So it's likely that the other private polls in the field are showing similar results. And when considering that and the proposed ballot initiatives already making a mark on the tax talk, this may be the ideal time for Legislature candidates to actually talk about what happens in Carson City and why they want to go there.

And remember this. Even if one or more of the tax initiatives pass, there will still be important fiscal decisions made in the Legislature next year. And considering everything from mining taxes to funding public education are likely to be big issues looming over Carson City next year, this election may really be the most important Nevada has faced in a long time.

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