In cultivating a ‘Governor No’ image, Gibbons threw a spotlight on his absence from the legislative process
On Friday, May 29, students from Huffaker Elementary School in Reno and Hummel Elementary in Las Vegas were in the gallery of the Nevada Assembly to watch democracy in action. It’s uncertain, however, that what they saw typified the legislative process. Normally, governors dominate the legislators. But on this day, the legislators were in command.
The day before, Gov. Jim Gibbons had vetoed several bills at what his staffers called a “rally” on the plaza in front of his office. Both the number of bills he vetoed, and the reporters in attendance outnumbered the citizens attending the rally.
“I will stand up and fight for the working people that define the character of this state, and the businesses small and large that power our economy because we all deserve the freedom to choose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, rather than the tyranny of oppressive government and oppressive taxes barging further into our lives and taking out money through higher taxes,” he said. “Raising taxes during an economic crisis is foolish and shortsighted.”
After those impassioned remarks, Gibbons seemed to try hard not to stop the tax hike or to win the battle of the budget—legislator after legislator said neither the governor nor his lobbyists contacted them to try to convince them to vote his way. Normally after a veto, governors’ representatives swarm through the legislative halls like ants. The lawmakers’ cynical view was that Gibbons wanted issues he could use in his reelection campaign more than he wanted to win on those issues in the legislature.
Vetoes from the governor were expected, of course—he had promised not to approve any tax or fee hikes—but no one was prepared for the onslaught of vetoes, which stands at more than 40 at press time.
Gibbons scarcely had time to enjoy the publicity he was receiving as the most vetoing governor in state history before he became the most overridden governor in state history. The Senate stayed up late that night in order to override with majorities of both parties his veto of the legislative tax package. (The Reno Gazette-Journal changed its front page to reflect this part-way through the press run.)
The next morning, the Assembly started work early in order to get to the vetoes. While the outcome was not in doubt, Gibbons having alienated everyone in the building except possibly the custodians, reporters were also there early to miss nothing. In the minutes before the Assembly went into session, two reporters competed on computer scrabble. Columnist Jon Ralston did a hand-to-his-heart Gov. Gibbons impersonation: “I take no joy—.” Assembly sergeant at arms Terry Sullivan approached a guard: “Ohrenschall is on his way in, but we can’t find Cobb.” The guard spoke into a transmitter: “Could you please have the officers look out for Mr. Cobb?”
The lawmakers had been working so furiously that the May 28 Assembly Journal was printed in two volumes, reflecting the number of bills processed. That just added to their exasperation with Gibbons.
Lawmakers in both parties who invested months of hard work in accomplishing their tasks resented Gibbons’ last-minute pose as the master of lawmaking, particularly since they knew what the public did not—that the governor had not been particularly involved in state government, much less the legislature, while they were in Carson City. The lawmakers had read news stories by Las Vegas reporters Patrick Coolican and David McGrath Schwartz about the governor’s casual office hours and uncertain work ethic, and it extended to the legislative session. Republican Sen. Warren Hardy said he hasn’t heard from Gibbons in two months. Counting early budget hearings, the entire legislature lasts only four and a half months.
Once the Assembly started voting on vetoes, it was a steady drumbeat of defeats for Gibbons. Time after time the speaker announced, “Having received a two-thirds majority, the Assembly has overridden the veto of the governor.” The syntax was confused, but the meaning was not. Legislators of the same party as a governor are normally cautious about crossing him, but in this case that fuse seems to have melted. With Gibbons so weak with the public in opinion surveys, he has little political capital to offer to Republicans. On one override vote in the Assembly, Gibbons’ support dropped to just two members—Republicans Ed Goedhart and John Hambrick. Every other conservative voted against the governor.
The veto votes passed without debate until it reached Assembly Bill 429, one of the big tax bills. For this one, 13 Republicans joined Gibbons—his high water mark that day—but it was not enough to stop override. Even then, though, the dialogue lacked the kind of harshness the governor employed. Legislators stuck to the issues at hand.
“Right now, we have a downward spiraling economy, we have declining tax revenues, we have businesses that are closing, we have people being laid off, we have big projects in Las Vegas that have been halted, and we have dealerships that are closing their doors as we speak today,” GOP Assemblymember Richard McArthur said. “This is just the wrong time to raise taxes.”
“We know that this budget, partly funded by this bill, won’t get us out of last place in nearly every indicator there is, but at least we will not fall further behind,” Democratic Assemblymember Sheila Leslie said. “This bill has something in it that every one of us would change if we had the opportunity. That is the mark of a good compromise.”
Some comments sought to recognize and reinforce the cooperative relationships some legislators had developed during the 2009 session.
“Although I never totally reached accord as far as the type of revenue we needed, I did support and work with my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to develop a budget that would maintain the rural school districts and my community colleges in the district I represent,” said Republican Pete Goicoechea.
One grace note came from Republican floor leader Heidi Gansert just before a vote on a bill that will force state workers to take unpaid furloughs.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank the state workers. I know they are having to do more. We were looking for a solution because payroll is such a great portion of our expenses. I believe that this bill with the furlough represents a good solution for the upcoming biennium. Again, I want to thank them for their work because it has been very difficult, I know, during the budget cuts that we put into effect last year and then moving forward.”
When the Assembly finished, not one Gibbons veto had survived in eight override votes.
Upstairs while the Assembly voted, the Senate Finance Committee heard several pieces of legislation. State Department of Business and Industry director Dianne Cornwall (former deputy chief of staff to the governor) urged the committee to approve a bill that would impose a fee on local government employers. The notion of the Gibbons administration asking for a new fee titillated the senators.
“This is just the kind of bill the governor has been vetoing in recent days,” said Sen. Robert Coffin. “I don’t know quite how to react.”
The committee then approved the measure with a “do pass” recommendation to the full senate.
When seated at the committee table, members of the committee face a photograph on the back wall of Hoover Dam under construction, a reminder of the taxpayer-funded, Depression-era government project that was the salvation of southern Nevada. It served as a reminder of the New Deal-style public works that could relieve unemployment, but the lawmakers this year had to kill funding for a Hoover Dam-related project. A highway bypass will be needed to relieve traffic congestion in Boulder City once a new bridge across the Colorado River downstream of the dam is completed next year. The federal government has provided $34 million, but the state was not able to scrape together its $6 million share.
With the governor’s standing among legislators already low, he infuriated them further that evening by issuing another 10 vetoes. Some of the vetoes dealt with matters of such moment as hunting apprenticeships and a street closure in Las Vegas and could have been rendered unnecessary if Gibbons, like all other governors, had involved himself in the legislative process. Legislative leaders said his concerns could have been accommodated when the bills were being sent through committees and amended. “He never asked for these changes,” said a legislative staffer. Gibbons even absented himself from the capital during several of the closing days of the legislative session, something no governor in memory has done.
“This is not a serious person,” said a lobbyist after reading the new vetoes.
“Sure, he vetoed a lot of bills,” said a GOP legislator. “It was the first time he saw them.”
One lobbyist, former assemblymember and senator Ernie Adler, said of Gibbons: “He used to be—1989, 1991—a lot easier to deal with. He was willing to participate and work with people.” Gibbons was then a member of the Assembly.
The level of disaffection from the governor was not solely because of his off-putting behavior. Some lawmakers said their exposure to his policies and priorities raised their watchfulness.
“When I really started looking at the governor was when I saw what he wanted to do with casino regulation,” said one GOP lawmaker. Gibbons had proposed cutting more than 30 Gaming Control Board agents. “We’ve spent years and years keeping that industry clean. This is really reckless. So then I started looking closer at everything he was doing.”
Reporters found the conduct of the governor so unusual that they searched for wording that conveyed the atypicality of what was going on. The Las Vegas Sun, for instance, reported: “What is particularly unnerving, they [legislators and lobbyists] say, is that his staff members are in the dark about what will get vetoed, and they don’t have any guiding principle for what will get the [veto] stamp. … A few of the vetoes have confused legislators. In some cases, his argument seemed to be that if he could not have the whole bakery, he does not want a loaf of bread.”
That didn’t mean that Gibbons wasn’t getting support from outside the legislature, but that, too, carried its own backfire. One reactionary blogger called Republicans who voted against the governor “rat heads in Coke bottles” and termed all legislators who supported the tax package “purely psychotic.” Conservative supporters of the governor’s program like Sen. Barbara Cegavske distanced themselves from such comments. It was just the kind of vitriol Democrats and Republicans had been trying to avoid in order to preserve working relationships.
The building in which the legislature meets is, by definition, the state capitol (Random House Dictionary: “Capitol … a building occupied by a legislature”), but since its first use in 1971 the Nevada Legislature building has never been called that. The old capitol just to the north continues to carry the title. But during the closing days of the 2009 Nevada Legislature, as the lawmakers began acting like a coequal branch of government for a change, political power could be seen almost visibly to move from the governor’s office to the legislature.