A Reply to Former Senator Bob Beers About State Spending

I want to thank former Senator Beers for his reply to my column in the Las Vegas Sun, which was printed in the Las Vegas Review Journal recently.  It is an important issue, and I appreciate him keeping it before the public so we can clear up apparent areas of confusion, even if he mistakenly thinks I was wrong or reporting selectively.  I insist, emphatically, that I was telling it like it is.

Senator Beers says I did not give details on my sources, but newspapers appreciate brevity.  Had he asked me, I would have gladly shared my sources and calculations, and like any professor I appreciate people checking my facts.  I am easy to find online for anyone with access to a search engine, especially if you spell my name correctly, and I have made the data available on my website.

Senator Beers reports that state revenue was higher than the number I reported for expenditures.  We were near the peak of the housing bubble at the time, and revenues were unusually high.  Rather than saving the surplus for a rainy day, Governor Guinn and the Legislature chose to give most Nevadans a pretty significant tax rebate.  I said I was reporting expenditures, which were more representative of the actual state budget than revenues.  

Senator Beers also reports that the data he found did not exactly match what I reported. In the month between when I downloaded the data and the column was published, it seems a new Statistical Abstract came out.  I have checked these new data, and include them, with updated calculations, on my website.  Nothing significant changed. As in prior years, Nevada still ranked 50th in the nation in the relative number of state employees, total state and local government employees, and employees in higher education, as well as 49th in the nation in K-12 employees.

While Senator Beers admitted that I might be right about the relative number of employees in state and its higher education system, he argues instead that we are overpaid.  He reports that government employees make significantly more in Nevada than the national average, but the data he cites – Table 448, column M – only reports earnings for local government employees, which are three-quarters of the total.  That is relevant for county commissions and city councils, not the state legislature. For the quarter of employees working for the state, average earnings are equal to the national average even though Nevada’s cost of living is higher than average.  

Regarding how our state and university benefits compare to those of other states, I don’t yet have a consistent set of data on this, but I will look for one.  If Senator Beers has one, I would appreciate him sharing it with me.  I do know that we compete in a national marketplace, and our benefits are reasonably competitive but not any more than that.  You should not compare our benefits against those in casinos, but against other states and other universities.

On his web posting, Senator Beers said that I think we should “further expand government.” I don’t know how he reads that in what I wrote.  I certainly doubt that my former economics students – there must be several thousand working in Nevada by now – would say that I advocate big government, and I am quite critical of excessive government.  Instead, I wrote that we should not make the smallest state government in the country even smaller, for it would damage the future of the universities and the state.  These are not equivalent statements.

Finally, I apologize if I offended any Nevadans who earned their degrees online or at small private colleges when I said Nevada only had two universities.  I certainly support the desire of anyone to improve themselves through education, but I also assume anyone who has graduated from UNR, UNLV, or any other similar university knows that the institutions are not comparable.  The fact that Senator Beers suggests that they are causes me some concern.  Is that his objective for our state universities?

 Elliott Parker is Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Chair-Elect of the Faculty Senate