Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Gangs of Nevada

I want to spend time here talking about swing state politics, focusing on the stuff that happens between elections. I grew up in Nevada and  I’ve spent a lot of time as an adult helping folks turn it blue( as a political data guy in far away DC). Nevada is a different kind of blue; the state has a frustrating anti-tax, libertarian streak that brings self-inflicted wounds. I applaud all my friends who still live there  fighting the good fight…

Nevada is beset by gang violence. It’s not youths on street corners wielding stolen handguns, but the damage is just as palpable. Nevada is under siege from The Old Ways Are The Best Ways Boys (TOWATBWBs hereafter). They aren’t hip  enough to spell “boys” with a “Z. They are Nevada's Archie Bunkers, future-phobes sitting in their comfy chairs railing against a brave new world.

TOWATBWBs hate taxes. With no state income tax, Nevada relies on a gaming tax, which tanked in the recession, cratering the state's budget. While revenues are recovering, real long term growth in gaming is unlikely. Americans are  focused more on paying down mountains of credit card debt than playing craps.  Plans for a modest tax on the state's uber-profitable mining industry (that pulls massive riches from under public lands) were scuttled by the TOWATBWB in the state legislature.

When Clark County teachers saw their 2012-2013 pay raises rescinded mid-year amidst Nevada’s budget chaos, the TOWATBWB popped the champagne corks. It reminded me of one of my first political experiences in Nevada, phone banking for a modest library bond that failed, as caller after caller retorted "we don't need no stinkin' books." TOWATBWB. They have met the enemy, and it is smart people.

TOWATBWB scoff at economic diversification. Senator Harry Reid’s efforts in bringing modest-sized solar power plants to Boulder City (Nevada Solar One) and Tonopah (Crescent Dunes) were greeted with derision.  The United States is a world leader in wind energy, with over 60,000 megawatts of capacity, ranking 2nd in the world behind China.  States are cashing in with clean energy and jobs. Texas sports 12,212 megawatts of wind, and California 5,549. Washington, Oregon and even Oklahoma are building windmills like crazed Dutchmen, with about 3,000 megawatts of capacity each. Nevada?  One puny 152 megawatt wind farm. Renewable energy accounts for 12% of US electrical generation and will likely grow to well beyond 20% by 2020. Meanwhile, TOWATBWB sit home listening to Rush Limbaugh, who assures them that clean energy is just a big commie plot.

TOWATBWB thwart mass transit construction, blithely ignoring an increasingly volatile crude oil market. When oil prices spike, the flow of tourists on Interstate 15, which links Las Vegas to Los Angeles, slows. Gaming revenue depends in part on cheap oil.  Mass transit is sprouting in the West (with over a dozen light rail lines under construction in Salt Lake City, Houston, Los Angeles, and Dallas alone) while Nevada clings desperately to the car. Plans for high speed rail to Los Angeles are proceeding at a glacial pace. Las Vegas hired its first full time employee to pursue a rail link to LA in the 1970's, but the federal government will not pay all the freight, states need matching funds and TOWATBWB  refuse to pony up the cash.

TOWATBWB long for federal sequestration, but Nevada relies heavily on Federal largesse. Nellis Air Force Base, which provides over 20,000 Civilian and Military jobs in Las Vegas, is the home of the manned fighter pilot. In the brave new world of drones, significant cuts at Nellis are becoming increasingly likely, especially with the abysmal performance of the new F35 fighter jet.  Long term budget  negotiations would help save jobs, but sequestration slashes the Pentagon’s wrists, making radical cuts at Nellis in the coming months more likely. 

While most metropolitan areas feverishly invest in universities, Nevada cuts class. UNLV and UNR are hundreds of millions of dollars short of becoming real research universities, and simply cannot compete in attracting industries that require highly educated employees.

TOWATBWB pooh-pooh climate change while meteorologists warn that the severe drought conditions of recent years may in fact be the new normal. In the coming water wars with the political juggernaut that is California, Nevada may well whither of thirst in the desert.

While progressives delivered Nevada for President Obama, they folded in the Congressionals, sending arch-conservative Dean Heller to the Senate and Representative Joe Heck to the House.

The calendar says “2013”, but  TOWATBWB are content to double down on 1950. Nevada’s boom has turned largely to bust, but it remains unclear if that will sweep this Gang from power. Progressives concerned about the state's future are going to need to bring the battle down from the Presidential level and tirelessly tangle with  Msrs. Heller and Heck and a host of arch-conservative state lawmakers.Nevada is painted blue on the map of Presidential states. Behind the curtain progressives too are decidedly blue, but for profoundly sadder reasons.

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