Lawmaking absurdities

First the Nevada Senate voted last week to temporarily stop giving tax breaks for green or environmentally friendly construction.

In 2005, lawmakers decided to provide incentives for builders who opted for more sustainable practices. The tax break incentives led to less “green” in the state’s purse. Who’d have guessed? Now funding for schools might be at risk. At least that’s how proponents of the green-tax-break-rollback pitch it.

The green-tax-break-rollback debate baffles. Call me paranoid, but manipulative forces seem at work. Nevada’s not broke. But state income isn’t growing at the projected rate. Schools will get money but not as much as they need for increasing student loads.

I heard Gov. Jim Gibbons laud school “choice” at a recent event. He held up the university system as a fine example of how school choice should work as opposed to “one-size-fits-all” education.True, the university system works fine—for people who have money and resources. Public K-12 schools, on the other hand, slice and dice programs every day to make ends meet. The Gibbons’ solution appears to involve giving our tax dollars to private education corporations. The probable result? Prep schools for smart rich kids who will go to college and run the planet. Warehouses with armed guards for everyone else.

How will this be different than what we have now? Don’t ask me hard questions.

Not making it out of committee last week was AB 157, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley’s bill that would invest $73 million to start full-day kindergarten in all 340 elementary schools in Nevada in the 2008-2009 school year. Given the tightness of funds and a seeming lack of commitment to education, I worry about the survival of the few existing all-day kindergartens.

Or maybe funds aren’t so tight. Gibbons wants to spend $300 million now—and nearly $2 billion in the long run—to build more prisons and hire more guards. That’s a hefty chunk of Gibbons’ total state budget proposal of around $7 billion. That budget includes, by the way, only $13 million for new public schools programs.

Buckley, a Democrat, ranted over these out-of-whack priorities. The state spends about $20,000 a year to incarcerate each prisoner, Buckley told the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. To offer each kindergartner a full day of class would cost $2,400 per student.

Apples and oranges? Maybe. If you keep a 5-year-old in school all day, is there less chance he’ll end up possessing felonious amounts of marijuana as an adult? Studies are inconclusive.

Gibbons went on a tour of Warm Springs Correctional Center last Thursday. Nevada currently has more than 13,000 prisoners in a system built to hold less than 9,000, he said. By 2016, taxpayers can plan on having to house around 21,000 inmates.

Howard Skolnik, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, told reporters that crowded conditions can lead to violence: “You put a bunch of rats in a small space, and they start eating each other.”

Hopefully, students in Washoe County’s overcrowded high schools aren’t hungry.

Maybe I’m not thinking about this correctionally. What’s the difference, really, between education and incarceration? Is there an underlying social cost to education that our state can’t afford? Perhaps we need high school dropouts to keep factories running, to clean the casino toilets and to pay rent in slum apartments.

Maybe building prisons is a small price to pay for maintaining widespread ignorance.

If I were the legislature, though, I’d push for the construction firms to use passive solar, fluorescent lights and wind turbines at the new prisons, tax incentives or no.

Finally, as of this column’s deadline, Gibbons had threatened to veto the eco-tax-break-rollback. It ain’t easy being green.