Gibbons speech to cost $20,000-plus

What if the governor gave a speech and nobody came?

In the hallway outside the Nevada Assembly chambers, Gov. Jim Gibbons cracked up Las Vegas publicist Steve Schorr. Moments later, Gibbons entered the chamber to deliver his 2007 legislative message.

In the hallway outside the Nevada Assembly chambers, Gov. Jim Gibbons cracked up Las Vegas publicist Steve Schorr. Moments later, Gibbons entered the chamber to deliver his 2007 legislative message.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Gov. Jim Gibbons is summoning the members of the Nevada Legislature to Carson City for one hour on Jan. 15 solely to hear his legislative message, even though the state is near the end of its cash flow.

The lawmakers will journey to the state capital on Jan. 15, just 18 days before they go into regular session, at a cost of $20,000 or more. Most lawmakers must travel from Clark County.

In announcing the date of his speech (informally known as the “State of the State"), Gibbons issued a statement saying that “Traditionally the Governor’s State of the State address takes place two weeks prior to the start of the Legislative Session.”

There is no such “tradition.” Only one governor—Gibbons’ immediate predecessor, Kenny Guinn—did it that way. The tradition for all other governors has been to give the speech after the lawmakers go into regular session.

Guinn began giving an earlier speech after voters enacted a 1998 ballot measure requiring the governor to submit budget recommendations two weeks before the regular legislative session begins, and Guinn wanted to be able to put his own spin on those recommendations before they were actually delivered to lawmakers. Or, as one legislative staffer said this week, “[T]he Governor doesn’t want the money committees reviewing the budget until he’s had a chance to explain it in the State of the State.”

The question now is whether the state this year can afford the travel, lodging, and staff expenses involved in calling the entire legislature to Carson City for an hour during its biggest budget crisis in years in order for the governor to put his own marketing message on his proposed budget.

Two weeks ago, Nevada Senate Republican floor leader William Raggio was asked, “Can you get from here to February without a special session?”

Raggio replied, “I don’t know. I raised that issue. I don’t know if we have the cash flow. I mean, if we don’t have the cash flow, we’d have to do something immediate.” ("Raggio at work,” Nov. 13, 2008)

Gibbons deputy chief of staff Mendy Elliott said, “The protocol is that the State of the State talks about what’s in the governor’s budget, his vision—his or her vision—and without any explanation, it’d be difficult, I think, for the legislature to understand the roadmap that the budget represents.”

She said legislators can choose whether to attend.

Constitutional change
In 1998, Nevada voters approved a ballot measure proposed by the legislature that shortened legislative sessions and required governors to turn in their budget recommendations before those sessions: “The Governor shall submit the proposed executive budget to the Legislature not later than 14 calendar days before the commencement of each regular session.”

However, the budget is only one of many subjects that the governor’s message touches on, and Gov. Guinn endured some criticism for moving up the message date. The constitutional change does not link the proposed budget with the message in any way nor does it prescribe any date for the speech. It also allows the governor to send his budget to the lawmakers earlier than 14 days before the legislative session.

Gibbons apparently planned to give his speech on Jan. 19, the date this year of Martin Luther King Day, so he chose Jan. 15 (King’s actual birth date) instead.

Two years ago, the cost of not waiting until the regular legislative session was more than $20,000. The state paid out $7,800 in pay to lawmakers and $13,279.70 in per diem to lawmakers (three of whom did not attend). That doesn’t count whatever inside-the-legislative-building costs were incurred for the occasion, such as extra staffing and security. Some of the legislators in 2007 were also at the legislature to begin budget hearings, but that will likely not be true this year because of the King holiday and the departure of many Democrats for the presidential inauguration in the District of Columbia. They will be there solely for the speech.

That amount will rise this year, since the $130 pay rate then has risen to $137.90 this year (it is tied to state workers’ salaries). Per diem may come down, since the price of gasoline has fallen, though what that price will be in January is unknown. Per diem rates paid in Nevada follow a formula used by the U.S. General Services Administration (www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/contentView.do?contentId=17943&contentType=GSA_BASIC).

Washoe County Assembly- member Sheila Leslie, a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, was first elected in 1998 and did not realize the practice of detaching the governor’s message from the regular legislative session was new.

“Really? I thought it was a longstanding tradition,” she said. “I didn’t know that. Oh, it’s definitely going on my list.”

Indeed, there is some constitutional language that can be read to say that governors must wait and give the speech during the regular session of the legislature. Article 5, section 10 reads, “He shall communicate by Message to the Legislature at every regular Session the condition of the State and recommend such measures as he may deem expedient” (emphasis added).

Leslie said she was planning to raise the issue at a budget meeting on Tuesday, after the deadline for this edition.

Legislature’s decision
The governor can schedule the speech for any date he wants, of course. The decision on whether to hold an early joint legislative session for it that lawmakers attend, however, is up to legislative leaders. In the past, it has always been a courtesy extended to the governor, but whether it is a courtesy the state can afford at a time when state agencies are having to put off requisitioning photocopy paper makes that decision one of greater import than usual. Leslie says the budget crisis is genuinely dire.

“It’s getting that bad,” she said. “Oh, yes, it is definitely getting that bad. It’s horrible. I just got some information on the list of this latest round of cuts, and some of it I just—I can’t even stomach. Just horrible. Horrible. Horrible. … The services side of it is really pathetic, the cuts that we’re making. Because, you know, we’re last anyway [in national rankings]. Now we’re just digging that hole deeper and deeper and deeper.”

Gibbons’ own budget director, Andrew Clinger, has called the fiscal situation “ugly.”

Gibbons has alternatives. If he chooses to hold his speech in advance of the legislative session, that does not mean he has to give it in front of a joint session. He can send the written text to lawmakers and release it to the public, as most presidents (25 out of 43) have done with their “State of the Union” messages, most recently Lyndon Johnson in his last such speech. Nothing in the law requires that Nevada governors deliver the message verbally or personally.

Or Gibbons could deliver the speech in his office and ask television stations to carry it, making the attendance of the legislators unnecessary and saving that $20,000-plus.

Or he could stream or post the speech online.

The governor may not have known he had flexibility in when to give the speech. When comment on this report was sought, a Gibbons staffer said it was her impression that the speech is legally required at least two weeks before the legislative session.