Jim Gibbons brought legislative Democrats back to life

During the closing hours of the legislative session, many legislators spent long periods sitting and waiting for thorny issues to be settled in conference committees and hallway huddles.

During the closing hours of the legislative session, many legislators spent long periods sitting and waiting for thorny issues to be settled in conference committees and hallway huddles.

Photo By David Robert

Four days before the 2007 Nevada Legislature ended, I spotted Assemblymember Sheila Leslie in the hallway outside the Assembly hall. There was a question I wanted to ask a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, and she was the ideal choice.

In 1999, when I was in Reno television news, I had asked her this same question while my photographer shot footage of her: “What has this legislature done for low-income people?”

There’s never any difficulty in spotting the goodies handed out to the rich and powerful. This is, after all, the legislature that gave casino magnate Steve Wynn a personal tax break on his art collection.

On that day in 1999, Leslie provided a great response. At first she looked a little blank, then replied slowly, “We weren’t able to address public assistance in a meaningful way at all. We weren’t able to get the child care funds established.”

She paused.

“What were we able to do, Dennis?”

She looked off to her left, searching her mind quietly. Seconds passed. Silent passing seconds show up fast on television.

“What did we do for low-income people? No, it wasn’t a good session for low-income people. Am I missing something?”

Other 1999 lawmakers were able to come up with some small items, but they were cancelled out by other legislators who said the poor had actually been hurt, as when federal money for low-income dental care was diverted to creation of a Nevada dental school.

Now, eight years later, I knew Leslie had better news. For one thing, the previous night she had made a successful motion to increase welfare payments in Nevada by $34.82, the first such hike since 1991—16 years ago. That will raise the monthly payment level for a family of three from $348 to $382.82. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when inflation is figured in, what cost $348 in 1991 costs $528.10 this year.

Sen. Terry Care, left, shows his weariness in the closing days of the legislative session. Sen. Maggie Carlton, here with an aide, was seen during those days riding a Segway around the legislative building.

Photo By David Robert

As expected, Assemblymember Leslie cited this increase as her first item in answering my question last week. She then went on, “We continue to strengthen Medicaid. You know, we’re still at the bottom in terms of per capita Medicaid funding. But we added more money to Nevada check-up [the state health insurance program for low income children] so we’re not going to have to cap enrollment, which would be just a horrible thing to have to do.”

Later, Speaker Barbara Buckley added some items—"the mental health budget statewide, medication funding, health services, child welfare funding, all the little lists.” And she said she knew she would find some more items when she had a chance to comb through the budget.

Leslie, a Washoe County Democrat who has surprised many by becoming one of the principal legislative leaders, took some time to ponder everything that had been accomplished, particularly in low-income health care, more items occurring to her as she chatted:

“In health and human services, I think there were incremental increases to try and keep up with growth, and I think we did some of that, but we still are underfunding mental health [and] access to health care. Oh, we did yesterday successfully get the Senate to let us … reinvest $815,000 in HIFA savings [from the last budget years] because our access-to-health-care program from last time got off to a slow start. … We raised the threshold so more pregnant women, low income pregnant women could get help.”

HIFA—U.S. Health Insurance Flexibility and Accountability—is federal funding for health care for children, pregnant women and other groups, like some elderly and disabled, and there were unused funds from Nevada’s last two-year budget.

Leslie continued, “So we continue to strengthen access to health care for those populations at the bottom. You know, we get criticized because we don’t have a bold health care plan like Massachusetts or California, but considering our revenue situation this time, which is much slower this time than we had anticipated, and the climate, always, in Nevada—I think, I know the liberals criticize us for not, for only getting incremental changes, but from my point of view as long as we’re continuing to strengthen every year, and we’re not going backwards, you know, at least we’re moving in the right direction.

“It’s hard to be visionary about some of the things I’d like us to be visionary about when you don’t have the revenue to back it up.”

The focus of Assembly Democrats like Leslie and Buckley on health care is no accident. It’s what businesspeople would call cost-effective spending—health problems that go untreated in the working poor can run up huge Medicaid bills later on.

New dynamic
But beyond the merits of these funds for low-income people, why did they succeed in this legislature when the results in earlier sessions were so meager? As I asked around a reason seemed to emerge—there was a new governor with a new governing style, and it forced Democrats to govern differently, too.

Jim Gibbons’ arrival in the governorship from Congress changed the tone in the state capital. Not in the memory of anyone living has Nevada had a more doctrinaire governor. It forced Democrats and moderate Republicans to a defense of some of their most basic values, and they came away with some big victories. It’s not that he did anything to make this happen. In effect, Gibbons changed the equation merely by taking office.

Part of the reason was Gibbons’ personal style of adversarial conflict. It’s coin of the realm in campaigning, perhaps, but it makes governance extremely difficult and reduced the governor’s influence in 2007. In addition, his larger legal and political problems and startlingly low popularity ratings reduced his influence. Of the 19 Nevada legislatures I’ve covered, never has a governor been less of a factor. On May 30, when a budget agreement was reached between legislature and governor, there was a revealing photograph of Gibbons and legislative leaders in the Reno Gazette-Journal. At the podium was not the governor but the Assembly speaker. It was clipped out and pinned up in offices around the legislative building.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie, here with Assembly Judiciary chair Bernie Anderson, is one of several women legislators who have become increasingly influential. She chairs the health and human resources committee and is a Democratic floor whip.

Photo By David Robert

And when Gibbons did wield his influence, it was in an essentially obstructive way, making more veto threats in one legislature than most governors make in a term or two. There was a perceptive comment by a lobbyist in the Las Vegas Sun: “For a lot of Nevadans, they’d like to see fewer lines in the sand.”

It was supposed to have been otherwise. After winning an election by 4 percent that he might well have lost if it weren’t for early voting (tens of thousands of votes were cast before all the pre-election news involving three Gibbons scandals fully emerged), Gibbons promised in his inaugural address to temper his confrontational style: “In order to achieve real results for all Nevadans, I know I must reach across the aisle, and understand that the shared patriotism I have with each person here today does not create barriers but builds bridges.”

As governor, though, he tended to talk at the legislators instead of to them. He rarely set foot in the legislative building. “You know how I found out that the governor dropped his plan to use teacher retirement [money] for school empowerment?” said one GOP budgeter. “I heard about it on a newscast.”

A governor going to the legislative building can be a touchy matter. When Gov. Mike O’Callaghan did it in the 1970s to twist arms and buttonhole lawmakers in the halls, legislators complained long and loud about a breach of the separation of powers. But O’Callaghan used a hard sell. Gov. Kenny Guinn, Gibbons’ predecessor, frequently stopped in, and there were few complaints because he was the master of a soft sell and because he did not take rejections personally, maintaining warm relations with those who voted against him. Gibbons’ absence from the legislative halls engendered endless speculation. There were those who said it was a good thing, that he lacked both the political power to enforce his will and the charm to coax agreement. Others believed his absence, together with the incessant veto threats, made him appear standoffish and disdainful of the lawmakers.

In addition, Gibbons committed blunders that made lawmakers wonder about his competence. He complained that the legislature’s repeal of an environmental tax break would create uncertainty for those businesses already in the pipeline seeking the break. Almost no one agreed (those who had already applied would get the break, those who hadn’t would not) and Democrats thought he was being disingenuous anyway—his real objection being that he considered repeal of a tax loophole to be a tax increase. But he ended up vetoing repeal and then issuing a novel “executive order” suspending the tax break. Governors don’t normally have the power to suspend state laws (that’s a legislative function), so Gibbons wound up creating the uncertainty he said he wanted to avoid. Some Republican members were uncomfortable defending this amateurish performance, since it required them to defend erosion of their own functions as legislators.

By contrast, Democrats managed to spin disputes their own way and maneuver Gibbons into stances his conservative base did not like—the kinds of things they can never seem to do in election campaigns. Again, Gibbons’ role in this was essentially passive—the mere presence of a governor who so dogmatically opposed everything they supported energized Democrats in ways they have not experienced in years.

Uneasy relationship
On the last day of the legislature, Gibbons appeared in the legislative building at midday. Television news crews that had ignored most of the legislature had appeared for the last few days of the session, and they trailed along behind Gibbons like a tail as he walked through the Senate hall to shake hands with each senator and then headed for the Assembly.

When he reached the Assembly hall, the assemblymembers went into session, making it impossible for him to greet the members as he had the senators. It was not clear whether he had phoned ahead to let them know he was coming, but it may not have made a difference, since he made it clear that he wasn’t there for substantive conversations: “We’re down to the 120th day and I wanted to come over and just kind of tell these people thank you because, you know, they’ve been putting in a lot of hours and moving legislation, and a lot of times they don’t get thanks. So I’m here to not only encourage them to finish up in the 120th by midnight, but to thank them for all the hard work.”

Their uncertainty about Gibbons’ reliability was one of the reasons the lawmakers came so close to staying within the 120-day limit on the legislative session. Assembly leaders did not want additional authority in the hands of the governor, who controls the agenda of a special session.

Without a good working relationship with the lawmakers, the governor continued to be seen as he had been in the 2006 campaign—Democrats opposed him, Republicans supported him, both more or less from habit and party instincts. Senate GOP leader William Raggio had one of the most awkward jobs—translating the wishes of a basically unsympathetic governor into legislation in a body that felt no personal bond with the chief executive.

Nickeled and dimed
That lack of a relationship with Gibbons coupled with his weakened political strength meant that his budget was ravaged by the legislature—not always in big ways but also in small changes here and there. His recommendations were nibbled to death by ducks—and not just by Democrats.

It wasn’t just the legislators who were tired. The hallways were full of people who had to be in the building whenever the legislators were there—lobbyists, staff people, journalists.

Photo By David Robert

In one budget after another favored by Gibbons, one or two positions were sliced away. Nevada Taxpayers Association director Carole Vilardo said, “I know sitting through some of the Senate Finance committee meetings, I saw that. I saw that.” Concomitantly, in one budget after another opposed by Gibbons, funding was restored. Leslie said, “My feeling is we combed the budget more than I’ve ever seen us do to really not approve some extra positions. Everybody took a little bit of a decrease in order for us to do some of the—public education is where the big increases are.” Repeatedly, the governor had to yield or agree to a compromise, if he was consulted at all.

A plan by Gibbons to help fund more than $6 million of construction of a White Pine county court house was slashed to less than $2 million.

Tax dollars intended by Gibbons for charities created by powerful lobbyists were dramatically reduced by the legislature. More than $25 million Gibbons intended to go to projects started by Sig Rogich, Lou Ruvo and Harvey Whittemore was cut to less than $10 million.

The principal concession Democrats made to Gibbons came over the Modified Business Tax. A temporary 2 percent cut in the business tax by the 2005 legislature was set to automatically return to 0.65 percent from 0.63, but Gibbons wanted the temporary cut made permanent, and the Democrats went along, reducing the tax burden of businesses by an estimated $9 million a year. But even this concession came at Gibbons’ expense—the lost revenue was taken out of his pet programs instead of programs favored by the legislature.

In one of his few instances of economic populism, the governor proposed cutting the share of the room tax given to Clark County tourist promotion and instead spend it on highway and street construction. Some Democrats have long questioned why taxes should be spent on convention center construction and advertising that the hotels and casinos should do for themselves (the Las Vegas Business Press reported that 47 percent of the Clark room tax is spent on tourist promotion compared to 6 percent in San Diego). But it was not enough to win him many fans among Democrats, who themselves are beholden to the casino lobby.

Health care programs were beefed up in the way Leslie described.

Cuts made by Gibbons in the state’s higher education system after revenue predictions went south were restored by the legislature.

In fact, the legislature approved a whopping $63 million in funding for education over what Gibbons recommended, and most of the money to pay for it came from cuts in Gibbons’ proposals. After the session, he embraced it as his—"I think when you look at the budget for the state of Nevada, increasing education 18 percent for K through 12, 16 percent for higher education, empowerment, my national guard youth challenge program. … Those are all great victories for the kids, for the people of Nevada.” It was a strategy of declaring victory no matter what happened.

The Democrats did not exploit every opportunity that came their way. They missed some good chances. But not many. It may be that there was a bigger difference between the governor’s budget recommendations and the legislature’s final budget this year than in any recent legislature, though that will not be known for certain until some analysis is done. Vilardo, one of the state’s top government finance experts, said Guinn’s second budget—after Guinn proposed a basic reorganization of state government—was substantially different after being processed by the legislature, which resisted part of his reorganization. But the Gibbons case is definitely in the running.

“I know he didn’t get what he wanted on [school] empowerment, he didn’t get what he wanted on the business tax, he didn’t get what he wanted on the payroll tax for … financial institutions,” Vilardo said.

Gibbons’ weaknesses had impact outside the budget, too. Toward the end of the session rumors circulated that Gibbons might veto a measure cracking down on payday loan businesses, which have virtually made war on the working poor—a Democratic constituency. KLAS News in Las Vegas reported that one third of the 60,000 civil lawsuits filed in a year in Clark County were filed by payday loan companies against debtors. The problem has become so serious that North Las Vegas residents voted to bar the companies from the city, and Henderson and Las Vegas were also considering action against the companies. Buckley, the bill’s sponsor, had deftly shifted the issue from victimization of the poor to victimization of military servicepeople, bringing the commander of the Fallon Naval Air Station to Carson City to testify about the exploitation of his people by payday loan joints. Gibbons approved the bill.

When the legislative session finally ended with a little burp of a special session, Gibbons called a news conference where he declared victory on nearly everything—"I got just about everything I had asked for in my State of the State speech. I can’t think of many things I would have done differently.”

Democrats were diplomatic. Leslie: “Who lost? That’s a good question. There’s never a direct line between who won or who lost, but if we hadn’t done that [sliced up Gibbons’ budget recommendations], what would have happened to that money? It might have gone into other things. I mean, there’s a balancing act between the major areas of the state budget, between public safety and prisons, between health and human services, and [between] public education and higher education.”

After Gibbons declared victory, one Democrat who was cleaning out his legislative office quipped, “I hope he has a lot of victories like this.”