“I expected to do good work when I ran for office and instead we spend our time dismantling everything.”
Sparks City Councilmember Julia Ratti’s rueful quip reflects the way a lot of elected officials feel. The recession is generally believed by economists to have started at the beginning of 2007, though in Nevada—hard hit by the nation’s highest foreclosure rate—it may have been earlier. Certainly, it has lasted longer in Nevada. And people who wanted to make an enduring contribution have instead had to spend their time coping, at best.
Ratti ran for the council in 2008, so her entire tenure has been in hard times.
“Well, certainly as a person who’s been involved in the community all my life, and always looking to build solutions to the problems that we’re facing, getting elected right at the time when the economy was crashing—and really, the first two years were spent tearing things down—we had to discontinue a lot of programs, we had to pull apart some things that other people had spent years building” she said. “And that was certainly not something that I relished. I felt it was important, though, that there be someone on the council who really was invested in quality of life and making sure that we were meeting the needs of all neighborhoods and making sure that we weren’t always just focused on the needs of business, but we were focused on all aspects of the community. And so I just did the best I could to be that voice.”
Ratti, a naturally upbeat person who grew up in Sparks, still enjoys the work and is able to keep an optimistic outlook on city affairs. She said that there have been some “small victories along the way,” and she hopes for a more stable economy. And she says that even the hard times have not been without valuable lessons.
“I think it’s a coin with two sides,” she said. “So I think being forced to trim as drastically as we’ve been has made us more nimble, more creative, more efficient as a local government. At the same time, the service levels we’re providing now are inadequate. They are just frankly inadequate. We’re not investing in infrastructure, we’re not doing anything in terms of prevention, we’re not doing the kinds of things that make a city great. So if what our community wants is to just get by, then our service level is adequate. But if we want to have parks that we’re proud of, if we want to have the kind of community services that, when businesses relocate, they’re looking for in the community because this is where their employees want to live, we have some investment that we still need to do.”
Washoe County Sen. Debbie Smith, who chairs the budget committee and did the same in the Assembly before moving to the Senate, knows state finances intimately, and spent years building public services, even before she got into elective politics. Like Ratti, she is concerned about economic development but is unsure when the state will be able to rebuild enough to be competitive in economic development. And she thinks it’s important to come to grips with difficult facts—that the state economy as it once was is gone for good, and that the state’s unstable, unpredictable tax structure is a hindrance to moving on to a new and robust economy.
“It just doesn’t look like that economy will ever be there again,” she said of the state’s reliance on construction as an economic engine. She said she’s been told that in the construction trades, union apprentices have been told they should not get used to the lifestyle.
“We’re not going to go back to the way it was,” she said. “You hear people talking about the new normal a lot, and that’s what we have to focus on.”
But how does the state build a new engine in accordance with that new normal when it is scraping by, unable to compete with other states for business?
“I think if we don’t look at the tax structure, I don’t know how we’re going to get to where we need to be,” she said. “There’s not enough conversation about where we are and where we need to be.”
Watching the wreckage of programs like higher education and mental health, after she spent years in budget committee sessions, is not easy.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “One of the most difficult ones for me has been class size. I was a parent with the PTA when we passed class size reduction and thought it was one of the things we could be proud of over time. We’ve maintained the requirements in grades one and two, and done something for kindergarten, but what we haven’t done is be able to improve the other grades. For me that’s been the hardest thing, that we haven’t been able to improve class sizes. In fact, it has gotten worse above the second grade. It’s very hard to work at something for a very long time and find that our classes are much bigger. Two steps forward and three steps back and it can be very frustrating.”
She also said the failure to invest in infrastructure means the state will have major costs down the road.
Nor is there a likelihood of much rebuilding of programs any time soon. In previous recessions, there was a sense of recovery and, eventually, of brisk economic growth, which led to repairing damage and making the state able to vie with other states again.
But in Nevada, at least, the effects of this recession linger on and any recovery is happening at an achingly slow pace, which is why the 2013 legislature was a maintenance session. And repeated political claims that the state is in good shape prevents any sense of urgency as other states pull ahead.
For instance, it took Nevada until 2003 to stop ignoring gambling addicts and create a program for them. It was funded by $2 on the taxes on each slot machine. During the recession, those funds have been cut and also raided to help deal with overall shortfalls. (Gov. Jim Gibbons unsuccessfully proposed killing the program altogether.) There were acid jokes at the 2011 Nevada Legislature when, as the lawmakers were cutting the program’s funding in half, an advisory committee at the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services adopted a five year strategic plan to help problem gamblers.
This program helps demonstrate the consequences of these kinds of budget cuts. Gambling addictions cost the state money in criminal justice, prisons, and social service programs, and sap the state’s economy further—the problem that caused the cuts in the first place. Reducing the problem saves money, and cutting funding adds to the state’s costs at a time when it can ill afford it.
Without a sense that recession is behind, the 2015 legislature will another maintenance session, and members of governing bodies all over the state will have more coping to do. And while the legislature is more or less the legal master of its own house, local governments are at the mercy of rules set by the legislature.
Whether any of the programs damaged by recession cuts will come back again is far from clear for the foreseeable future.