|Photo by Gage Skidmore|
Next year, Nevadans will vote for a new governor. Term limits keep Republican Brian Sandoval from competing for a third term, and his party is likely to turn to the state’s Attorney General, Adam Laxalt, to be their standard-bearer.
Sandoval has become a genuinely popular Republican in a Democratic-leaning state. He won over 70% of the vote in his 2014 re-election (albeit with very low turnout), has proven determined to make the Affordable Healthcare Act work for his state, and has dedicated increased revenue to the state’s embattled education sector. I probably would not vote for him, but I respect his willingness to bend conservative principles that he clearly values when he recognizes their irreconcilability with what appears to be his genuine care for the welfare of Nevadans.
Adam Laxalt looks to be a very different kind of Republican. Whereas Sandoval has proven himself capable of designing rational public policy, Laxalt’s “issues” page looks like something written by a campaign committee for a fantasy world of elves and dragons and libertarians, where moral imperatives and budgeting math never meet, and where there’s something for everyone, for nothing. (Accessed November 12, 2017.)
Laxalt’s take on the issues that matter most to Nevada voters suggest serial inconsistency, serious irresponsibility when it comes to crafting policy, and have the effect--intended or otherwise--of seriously misleading voters. The only way voters could take Laxalt seriously is if they either never read his take on the issues, or fail to consider the relationship between his prescriptions for ostensibly separate issues.
The most glaring and elementary inconsistency involves Laxalt’s commitment to better fund education, and his pledge to not only “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burdens,” but also to “reduce taxes.”
The state’s largest school district just came through a budget shortage of tens of millions of dollars. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is aspiring to “top tier” status, something that requires serious public investment if it is to achieve that status as a public university. Seventy-eight percent of Nevadans’ young children have no opportunities for early childhood education, and providing those opportunities will require public investment. And many recent improvements to the state’s education system came from the Commerce Tax shepherded through by Sandoval that Laxalt is explicitly promising to roll back. Per-pupil spending in Nevada is low, and lower still when one considers that it is a state growing in demographic diversity and therefore in complexity.
In other words, the state will need serious new sources of revenue if it is going to address the education needs of its children and students. Instead, Laxalt is pledging to cut already-low taxes.
Governor Sandoval has already weighed in on this particular piece of Laxalt irresponsibility, making it clear to the Nevada Independent that if Laxalt makes good on his promise, he would “irreversibly and permanently harm” the state’s education sector, the children it serves, and the “generational investment” made by the state on his watch.
Beyond that basic piece of inconsistency--the fantasy economics of raising funds while cutting taxes--Laxalt’s views about education are muddled, perhaps deliberately so given the “have your cake and eat it” streak of irresponsibility defining his campaign. He opens the “education” section of his issues page by offering his belief “that education is the civil rights issue of this time.”
That’s a bold and powerful statement, and a welcome one in a state and country where people, particularly those on the right, have limited their calls for rights to traditional political rights. However, if Laxalt actually believes that access to a quality education should be a right, he has a strange way of showing it. When defending and enshrining rights, serious advocates recognize that you can spare no expense...that is, after all, part of what takes something from being an aspiration to a right.
In contrast, Laxalt has committed to not only impairing the ability of the democratic state--the guarantor of rights in democratic systems--to enshrine and defend this right, he is also chipping away from day-one at the “right” status of education by advancing its privatization and financialization through the “choice” agenda. Rights aren’t something you subcontract or balkanize. They are, ideally, also not something that you devolve (something the federal government recognized in the oversight it long offered the implementation and guarantee of voting rights in southern states).
The inconsistencies mount. What Laxalt dismisses as “barriers to job creation” and “unnecessary regulations and licensing requirements” for some people, might prove to be mandates about healthcare or workplace protections (there’s a good case to be made that universal healthcare would reduce varying and unpredictable costs for business owners who are often held responsible for employees’ insurance). What Laxalt describes as “outsized control” by the federal government that “chokes of opportunities for economic growth and development,” might just be code for destroying the public lands-based outdoor industry that brings jobs and opportunities to a broad swathe of Americans, and replacing it with profit opportunities for elites in the mining and real estate sectors. As with rights, “local control” over public lands doesn’t translate into more opportunities; merely to less of the oversight to ensure that opportunities are not monopolized by the few and that land remains open to many.
In the energy sector, Laxalt bemoans the “heavy hand of government [that] is used to try to force particular energy solutions on the entire population,” celebrating instead “more choice and competition.” But of course both proponents of any form of public control and deference to markets have policy goals to which they aspire. The question is, do we leave the execution of public policy to the blunt and inefficient hand of a market which has its own interests, or do we do public policy in the public interest?
Laxalt extends his illogic deeper into his discussion of the relationship between people and their state community. He simultaneously argues that the state government should “provide quality, essential services, but should refrain from becoming too big, too costly, or too burdensome.” Most important in his view is the “low tax climate” that supposedly enables “businesses [to] thrive and our families [to] prosper.” Hardly someone willing to be held hostage to events, changing circumstances, demographics, or political economy, Laxalt has offered a pledge to “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden, and will also look for ways we can reduce taxes.”
This kind of economic fundamentalism might sit well with the pledge-taking, oath-swearing Republican Party, its members prodded into such positions of inflexibility by anti-tax evangelists and corporate interests. But it signals to Nevada’s voters that Laxalt isn’t particularly interested in the needs of the state or how those might change over time based on voters’ desires or our relationship to national and global factors. Like most other Republicans nationwide, Laxalt is eschewing the basic principle of representative government: that we elect thinking, intelligent individuals, able and willing to weigh circumstances against principles and needs. Instead, he is promising to preside over our political economy as a rubber stamp for the narrow interests that thrive in a low-tax, low-regulation environment characterized by a wasteland of a public sphere.
Nevadans might have a relatively low tax burden. But for that we have underfunded universities and poorly performing schools that are unable to deliver sufficient opportunities to children. Our state has insufficient economic diversity, few of the services and resources designed to attract skilled labor from out of state, a threadbare safety net, poor transit, and shaky civic infrastructure. The wealthy can buy their way to top of the line universities, medical centers, schools, and other civic infrastructure here or out of state, when and as they choose. But for the rest of us to enjoy infrastructure of a similar quality--we could even borrow a page from Laxalt’s book and describe some of these things as “rights”--we and our wealthy but irresponsible neighbors would have to pool our resources and invest in universally available and accessible public goods and services, something we can’t do if we’re lumbered with a governor who does nothing more than mumble the mantra of his wealthy backers.
As we look at Laxalt’s “have your cake and eat it” approach to the issues, we’re bound to ask whose interests he will weigh up most carefully when it comes time for something to give. He has offered voters utterly irreconcilable promises, no sense of the framework he will use or interests he will bear in mind as he makes these choices, and no sense that there is any kind of intellect at work trying to square the various circles he has drawn around himself. What we do have, however, is a commitment by a Koch-funded SuperPAC to embark on “a million-dollar ad campaign to boost the Republican’s candidacy.” Sheldon Adelson is also offering his backing to Laxalt. The support of these interests help us to understand who is most enamored of Laxalt’s candidacy, and which way he’s going to break when his fantasy economic unravel in the face of reality.
The deregulation of business, finance, and the workplace, and the privatization of education, healthcare, and land, together with the faith-based embrace of a market built by and for elites, has always led to predictably bad consequences for the middle and working classes. Voters should realize that Laxalt is selling the patently false, but thoroughly recycled Republican idea that you can have it all (“education is the civil rights issue of our time”) without paying for it (“I will oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden”). His economic fundamentalism has no space for the broadening realization that social and economic rights must take their place alongside civil and political rights if we are interested in building a better world.