Government should pluck a goose

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”
—Jean B. Colbert

Consider the triumvirate that is collectively the Reno, Sparks and Washoe County governments. City and county officials are salivating over a prospective county sales tax increase—and the rest of us have been primed for plucking—courtesy of some recent poll respondents.

According to a June 7 Reno Gazette-Journal article, if enacted, the money would be spent thusly:

For the city of Reno, a total of $8.4 million for new police stations, 18 new police officers, including six vehicles and equipment, 15 firefighters and 10 community service officers.

For the city of Sparks, $4.48 million for 36 police officers, six civilian police workers and equipment.

For Washoe County, $8.4 million for four sheriff’s deputies and equipment, RAVEN helicopter upgrades, crime lab equipment, additional prosecutors, jail expansion, and fire risk reduction.

If the proposal is placed on the Nov. 7 ballot and subsequently passes, it (fortunately) must still be taken to the state legislature in the next session.

The same RG-J article insightfully notes that “officials are seeking a ballot question to raise the sales tax in the county for public safety instead of the Truckee River flood control project.”

This is eminently relevant because, you see, it was the flood-control steering committee that dropped a cool $22,000 to have surveys conducted by InfoSearch International. The reason for the surveys was apparently to help get a grasp on what voters considered “the most important issues facing Washoe County.”

If I understand the survey results correctly, only 44 percent of voters would approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase for flood control. Turns out that figure jumps to 56 percent if said increase were used for public safety.

In another survey of Sparks voters, that number jumps to 73 percent in support of a quarter-cent sales tax increase—but again, only if for “public safety.” So apparently “public safety” is this political season’s hot button issue. (Which, apparently, somehow excludes “flood control” from its definition.)

Turns out the top six issues of concern, according to the surveys, were growth, water, traffic, education, higher gasoline/utility prices and public safety. And flood control? That came in at No. 13 on the issues hit parade.

Now good leadership—an oxymoron in government circles—is sometimes all about doing unpopular things. Actually, it’s all about making unpopular things popular—that is, when the initially unpopular thing is the right course of action. Said another way, officials could have taken the polling data and found an effective way to convince voters that the flood control project, and the smaller sales tax increases were the right thing to do. At least that would have been a principled stand.

Instead what do we get? A tax hike for “public safety” because after all, it’s what (some of) the people asked for.

Sounds like a perfect example of good government doesn’t it? I mean, ask the people what they want and then deliver it.

Except here’s the problem that poll participants didn’t seem to fathom then—and that I’m guessing officials are counting on voters not to fathom come November, either.

Public safety is the cornerstone of every government’s function. It shouldn’t require polling data or additional taxes to make it a priority. And it certainly shouldn’t be a backdoor into taxpayer’s pockets by spineless politicians and government bureaucrats looking for ways to increase their revenue base on taxpayer anxieties—or to avoid the smallest possible amount of hissing.