Friday, January 11, 2013

Shortchanged No More?

In today's RGJ, some Washoe County "business leaders" and the Nevada Superintendent of Higher Education claim they've found the reason why Nevada ranks so low in quality of public education. But of course, it's all the fault of those damned Vegas kids! That must be it. (/snark)

“By comparison (to Las Vegas,) Washoe looks like someone’s dream,” said Nevada Superintendent of Schools James Guthrie. [...]

“To be honest with you, I don’t worry about Washoe too much,” said Guthrie. He said there is work to be done in Washoe County, but the district has the right people and community support in place. [...]

“Clark County drives 75 percent of the numbers,” said Anne Loring, about negative national rankings. Loring is a former Washoe County School Board trustee and a board member of the [Education Alliance of Washoe County].

“We (Nevada) are an anomaly because we have one of the biggest school districts and here we are, so tiny,” Loring said.

Well, it's true that Nevada is such an anomaly because just over 70% of the entire state population is in Clark County. What makes it worse is that Clark County has been chronically shortchanged. When Southern Nevada schools are far less funded (per student) than schools in the rest of the state, Southern Nevada will drag down the entire state average.

What makes this even worse is that over many years and many legislative sessions, "the powers that be" in this state have mostly looked the other way despite all the growing evidence pointing to these serious problems. "The Great 2000s Real Estate Bubble" was always doomed to burst, but hardly anyone in Carson City wanted to talk about how to get past it until it was too late. Of course, they probably didn't want to talk about it because the bulk of the state's budget was built upon the bubble, and that everything from fire stations in Tonopah to community centers in Eureka to freeway projects in and around Reno depended on tourist dollars from the Las Vegas Strip. And even as the state had been able to fund some public infrastructure in Central and Northern Nevada thanks to "bubble" money from the last decade, Clark County still lacks sufficient higher ed opportunities at UNLV, sufficient health care, and plenty other areas of infrastructure that are critical to a successful community. Strangely enough, money from the primary economic engine of Nevada (Clark County) hasn't been used to properly maintain that engine. And because that engine has been neglected, the entire vehicle (Nevada) is in trouble.

And this brings us back to Dr. Robert Lang's segment on KNPR's "State of Nevada" this morning. The typical "powers that be" in Carson City have failed the entire state, but especially Southern Nevada has been neglected, and that's ultimately been to the detriment of everyone in Nevada. As this election season heats up and we eventually hear candidates talk about what they want to do in Carson City next year, we need to make sure that they follow through on their promises once elected, and that they finally stop avoiding what has to be done to heal our state and let Las Vegas become more self-sufficient.

Speaking of UNLV's Robert Lang, he took part this week in a summit for Southern Nevada business leaders and elected officials (from both local and state levels) on building a strategy to deliver more funding for Clark County and its public infrastructure.

The private sector, which has been frustrated over the years by southern lawmakers not sticking together, also is involved. Brookings’ Rob Lang is helping to kick off the event along with the Las Vegas Chamber’s Brian McAnallen.

“It is a conversation with a variety of partners in the community about issues in Southern Nevada and setting some Southern Nevada priorities for the upcoming legislative session,” said chamber spokeswoman Cara Roberts.

The daylong event apparently is designed to be a strategy session between local and state elected officials. Friction between those two groups -- the locals think the state wants to steal its money, and the state often has fulfilled that prophecy -- has not helped southern solidarity in the past. But maybe after the state Supreme Court all but ended the local government pilfering parade with the Clean Water Coalition decision that changed the arc of Session '11 and, perhaps, Gov. Brian Sandoval's career, maybe comity can be achieved.

This is an issue that we've often discussed before here, yet it's one that isn't discussed enough in Carson City. One would think they saw another painful reminder in November's steep drop in casino wins. Simply put, Nevada can no longer afford to ride a "one trick pony" that's a Las Vegas economy based only on gaming. And the only way we can solve this problem is by properly funding the public infrastructure that's necessary to allow new businesses to grow alongside the traditional staple of gaming.

One can hope the issues addressed at yesterday's summit will make it on the agenda in Carson City.

The morning started with presentations by Brookings Mountain West director Rob Lang and Las Vegas Regional Economic Development Council executive director Tom Skancke.

Lang detailed how the state’s outdated governance structure in many areas limited the opportunities for Southern Nevada to grow dynamically.

“This is nobody’s fault. This is just that we’re inheriting a legacy from folks who did not take on the challenge of adapting government to a larger scale that was part of the rapid growth process in this state,” he said.

He outlined a range of issues that need addressing at the state level, including finding new education funding formulas, restructuring the community college system, funding an on-campus stadium at UNLV and dealing with the effects of the federal health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

As I described above, there's a clear reason why Clark County has often underperformed the rest of the state on key metrics of community well-being. We just haven't had enough resources to properly fund our public infrastructure. Hopefully, that can start changing this year. With new leaders in Carson City and a state economy that's starting to reemerge from the worst recession in 80 years, Nevada needs to invest more in its economic backbone (Greater Las Vegas) in order to ensure a healthy and balanced economy in the future.

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