Off the records
Guy Louis Rocha has played the part of Sisyphus against Nevada’s budget system for nearly three decades. Now he’s giving up.
Guy Louis Rocha may be the only state agency chief in Nevada’s capital who has twice experienced his agency being targeted for total elimination by two different state budget directors.
“They wanted to pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” quipped Rocha, referring to the Joni Mitchell song, in which she sings, “That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone.”
For more than a quarter of a century, state archives administrator Rocha—like many state agency directors—has been Sisyphus, pushing his operation into the 20th century repeatedly, only to have it roll back down under the pressure of chronic budget crises or intramural state government politics. He was never able to push the agency into the 21st century.
In 1981, the Nevada Legislature shifted state government from reliance on the property tax to the sales tax, making the state more vulnerable to economic downturns. Within weeks a major recession was underway, triggering a budget crisis akin to the current one. Gov. Robert List ordered all state agencies to make a first round of cuts at 10 percent. The archives were then part of the state library, and List’s budget director, Howard Barrett, told State Librarian Joe Anderson, “You got to make 10 percent cuts. You got the archives, you got three positions over there, you shut down the state archives, you got your 10 percent.”
Offended by the notion, Anderson replied, “That’s not how I’m going to find my 10 percent.”
A few years later, the budget director under Gov. Richard Bryan, Bill Bible, threatened to close down the archives in retaliation for Anderson seeking legislative approval of a new position. “Why do we need all those old papers?” Bible said.
Bible’s sentiment is not all that unusual. Nevada didn’t even get around to establishing an archives until a century after statehood. Before that, officials gave its historic documents away as souvenirs, burned them, or let them rot. Records belonging to the Nevada public are commonly sold on the rare document market as Western memorabilia and command high prices. Nevada Secretary of State William Greathouse (1923-1937) once held a huge bonfire of documents previously stored in the capitol basement, and a later fire in a leased hotel also destroyed a large cache of records.
In 1964, the state finally formed a Nevada State Archives under the secretary of state’s office, later moved to the state library. But comments like Bible’s are still heard.
Reactionary activist Chuck Muth, for instance, referred last month to “the non-essential state archives.”
That’s what everyone thinks until they need those old papers.
When California in 1977 sued Nevada over the proper placement of the boundary between the two states, the first place Nevada officials turned was to the Nevada State Archives. When the state needed ammunition to fight the proposed dump for high level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain, the lode of records in the Nevada State Archives was mined. When in the 1990s someone produced an old 19th century Nevada state bond and sued to demand payment and interest that would have bankrupted the state, the Nevada State Archives produced proof the bond had already been cashed. Businesspeople use the agency incessantly.
“The rights of the people of Nevada are stored here,” Rocha once said.
From nuisance to institution
Not many would have cast the young Rocha in his present role of archives administrator and community institution. He arrived in Nevada in 1955 at age 3 with his sister when his mother moved to Las Vegas to get a divorce. He was a troubled teenager in racially violent Clark High School and later became a student radical at Syracuse University. History’s pull was always strong and became his calling.
On Dec. 20, 1976, he joined the Nevada Historical Society as curator of manuscripts. He eventually became acting assistant director of the NHS and then acting director. But on Feb. 2, 1981, he moved to Carson City to become state archivist.
He was the second person to hold the post. The first, Fred Gale, had spent a good deal of his tenure on acquisition—gathering records as fast as possible before they (like so many state documents) were lost forever. When Rocha took office, he had to begin widening the scope of the job, proselytizing the archives mission to the community, seeking better facilities, trying to get more employees. (The agency had two employees when he took over.)
“He used to drag this big old book over to the legislature to prove his points,” Associated Press capitol bureau chief Brendan Riley once said.
This was a gigantic ledger-style record book, measuring perhaps 2 feet by 3 feet and about 7 inches thick, that had sat for years unnoticed, an overhead pipe dripping on it year after year, slowly hollowing a hole out of the middle of it like a reverse stalagmite. It helped him make his case in budget hearings, but progress was achingly slow. He describes 1985 to 1991 as his best years—six years during which there were no budget crises.
But no matter how much progress Rocha made, inevitably events conspired to cancel some of it out.
In 1991, the archives reached their peak under Rocha—he had, in previous years, slowly built up his staff, and the addition of one full position by the ‘91 Nevada Legislature gave him 12 positions in the combined archives and new records management program. But the new position was never filled. Another recession and another budget crisis hit, and the operation started stalling.
In 1988 Rocha stumbled on a new way of spreading his message. He and this writer published a Nevada Magazine article, “Ten Great Myths In Nevada History.” Myth busting became an avocation that won him more public attention and more invitations to speak to community groups, which enabled him to gain exposure for his agency and seek support for its mission. That same year, he began hosting a radio program on Carson City station KPTL. Titled the History for Lunch Bunch, it lasted for 12 years. (It will entertain those who have felt the sting of his myth busting to know that his 2000 claim that History for Lunch had been the longest running radio show in the state turned out to be incorrect.) There are now 138 Rocha-disproven myths on the archive’s website (though some of the later ones are more pretexts to tell interesting tales than myths).
Rocha used his moderate celebrity and public missionary work to give the archives greater visibility and more of a public identity than state archives normally have. There is probably a larger percentage of Nevadans than, say, of Carolinians or Montanans, who can name their state archivist. (Though he is usually called the state archivist, that has not been his title for many years. No one actually holds that title, but Rocha has said many times that his deputy Jeff Kintop functions as the real state archivist. Rocha’s actual title is assistant administrator of the State Library and Archives.)
The biggest gain was a new capital facility, housed in the same building as the Nevada State Library. It includes compact shelving and climate controls.
On one occasion in 1985, he spoke at a gathering in Yerington where Jeanne Dini, wife of Nevada Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, was in attendance. Rocha, who had never met her, was approached by her after the meeting.
“I didn’t know who she was,” he said. After quizzing him on his needs and hearing of the archives’ puny staff, Mrs. Dini spoke to Mr. Dini, and Rocha soon ended up with two new positions.
But the victories became fewer all the time, and it became less a fight to make progress than to tread water. A decade went by without much gain for the agency, though it continued to pick up additional assignments, such as micrographic reproduction and records management.
A records center in Las Vegas that was planned for 10 years has been cancelled more than once, even though most of the state’s citizens and businesses are there.
There were also various political obstacles to Rocha making his case.
For a long time, legislators were better able to ask intelligent questions of agency chiefs in hearings on their budgets. But under Gov. Robert Miller, the format of the recommended budget sent to the legislature was changed. Previously, lawmakers had more information. One column showed the agency’s budget requests, another showed the governor’s recommendation for that agency. The contrasting figures gave lawmakers more information to use in scrutinizing the budgets—"What is this for?” “Why is this figure different?” It also helped the lawmakers obtain information from those who actually knew about agency functions instead of a budget director whose knowledge of agencies was limited.
As part of the then-latest “reorganization” of state government, Miller budget director Judy Matteucci removed the column of agency requests. That single change made it possible for governors to withhold huge amounts of budget information from legislators and made it more difficult for lawmakers to ask the kind of penetrating questions they needed to ask in order to understand state government. Lawmakers complained about being denied information but were too timid to defend their right to information and enforce their will on the governor.
“When I had an opportunity to advocate either in committee or behind the scenes … I could point out in the budget document what we wanted.” Rocha said. “It was right there. Once that was removed … [Matteucci] really put us at a disadvantage.”
It also was one more step in unbalancing the separation of powers, making it more difficult for legislators to do their jobs and easier for governors—who have often been suspected of manipulating budget figures for favored programs—to dominate the legislative branch.
Another budget change was that governors no longer listed each position in a state agency, so it was no longer possible for legislators to see, for instance, how many public relations people there were in an agency or what the ratio of administrators to staffers was.
Other administrations had other techniques. Some interfered with agency liaison with legislators. Rocha holds former governor Kenny Guinn in particularly high regard, but notes that some of Guinn’s aides obstructed agency contact with journalists.
“See, I was muzzled during the Guinn administration. I had to report every contact I made with the media. I couldn’t initiate any, and if they [reporters] contacted me, I had to report it.”
If news coverage of Rocha’s agency seemed likely to help the archives, Guinn’s aides “would undercut it, because [the publicity might] undercut the governor’s budget [recommendations].”
Phil Ochs syndrome
Three recessions and budget crises over the years pushed the archives back down the hill, and each time set Rocha marching uphill again. Now there is a fourth budget crisis, but he’s not marching anymore. He will retire on his 28th anniversary as archivist.
“I’ve grown tired. I’ve grown tired,” he says. “I don’t have a lot to show for the last 10 years, don’t have a lot to show for it. You know, I’ve essentially kept things going. We’ve tried to do as much as we could with the resources we had. … There’s just so much more that could have been done, and not with a lot of money, just with some money.”
Meanwhile, archives in other states leaped ahead, putting state records online and making documents available digitally where they could be more accessible to businesses and the public.
Still, workers in the Nevada Archives went on doing what they could. When a Douglas County rancher needed historic records to prove his right to water on his range, the archives found them. When a Nevada veteran needed to prove his status to get treatment at Reno’s Veteran’s Hospital, the archives produced proof of his honorable discharge. (Nevada draft records are also held by the archives.) When U.S. citizens stripped of their property and interned by the U.S. government needed to prove their cases to be compensated, the archives found the necessary records. When former residents of the Nevada orphans’ home looked for evidence they were victims of Cold War fallout experiments, they turned to the archives.
Rocha’s departure is part of a brain drain that has recently cost state government some of its best public administrators, who have gone into retirement or local government or consultancies. In one case, a state agency head resigned and now consults for her old agency, but is relieved of the tensions and daily battles.
“A lot of my long-time colleagues are gone,” Rocha says.
The state archives is not alone in all this, and that’s one of Rocha’s messages. What the state archives has endured for three decades has also happened to other state agencies, some of them with greater and more important daily impact on the state’s citizens. Each week during this budget crisis, there is more bad news. (Last week, it was a blow to child care for the working poor.) Rocha praised prisons director Howard Skolnik, a state agency chief who has spoken up against draconian budget cuts because, as he said, “I don’t want to go to funerals.”
For state agency chiefs, there is no realistic hope that the Nevada Legislature will do anything to end state government’s boom and bust cycles that have ravaged the public’s programs. Four budget crises since the 1981 tax shift is a pretty strong message, yet the lawmakers seem to be on a slow learning curve. They’ve ordered up studies of how to make the tax structure more stable and more predictable, but never acted on them. State agency directors aren’t necessarily looking for more money—just more stable sources for that money. The 2009 legislative session is making no plans for reform, except to order another study.
So why should agency directors stick around when there are more attractive opportunities elsewhere?
Rocha read the last Nevada taxation study, produced jointly by Price Waterhouse and the Urban Institute (Fiscal Affairs of State and Local Governments in Nevada, University of Nevada Press, 1988) and came away convinced the Legislature would never muster the will to enact its recommendations. He was right. He is particularly critical of a legislative attitude of trying to support the state on other people’s money and of not treating the state’s own residents as patriotic citizens willing to pay their way. There is also a strong feeling that legislators were not willing to support the people they ask to run the government.
“And when I read that report, what I had kind of experienced and was uneasy with was very clear to me. At that point, I knew that our state was going to always be in trouble. It was just a matter of when. When was this going to hit again? That very good people had come from the outside, had looked at what happened … and then I knew. It was like, OK, we’re not recession proof, and now we’ve got this real narrow base, and I’ll fight my good fight. … This attitude [other people’s money] that had evolved in Nevada, that somehow the way we do it here, is the bulk of how we finance our government, is going to be on the backs of someone other than ourselves. And as I watched this play out, I said, ‘This is irresponsible.’ That can be a supplement, but if that’s going to be essentially a dominant theme, how long can we ride this wave? And that’s when I began watching the expansion of casino gambling a lot closer and began to realize at some point this is going to change dramatically. And it was tribal gaming that I began to [ask]—what is this going to mean?”
With a historian’s sensibility, Rocha says Nevada lawmakers continue to allow foreign mining companies to ship the state’s riches elsewhere, a chronic problem since statehood and before.
“It’s amazing how much mining takes out of this state. … If you were to put those operations … in New Mexico or Colorado or Montana or Wyoming or Idaho, in all those intermountain states, you would find that they pay more in those states. New Mexico has a royalty, for example. My point is, a mining corporation—in terms of operations—pays the lowest overall taxes [in Nevada] for any precious metal mining operations in this country.”
When his retirement was reported, Rocha used the occasion to criticize the state’s tax structure, drawing criticism (Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Mr. Rocha has been an invaluable resource to the state for nearly three decades. … But he should spend more time reflecting on what has allowed Nevada to grow and prosper over the past century. It’s not higher taxes."). Some wondered why he would spend his good will that way. He thinks the public needs to know that what has been happening chronically since the 1981 tax shift is getting worse.
“These cycles, you know, ‘81-'82, ‘91-'92, and ‘01… they were 10-year cycles. Now they’re five-year cycles. … I’m saying, it’s not working. And gaming has gone nationwide. We’re surrounded except for Utah, plus it’s gone worldwide. You can’t keep riding this the way you have. … I look at the year 2009 and that legislative session, and I say, ‘This should be a threshold session. What’s being confronted here now and what should be addressed is profound. Nevada has to rethink what it is.’ … I think they’re looking for Band-Aid, bubble gum and bailing wire again. I think they’ll take on the governor to some extent but not systemically, not strategically—but incrementally, again: How do we get by until 2011?”
Just to tie everything together neatly, during the current budget crisis, Rocha heard from his superiors that Gov. Gibbons’ budget office was considering eliminating the state archives altogether. That’s three times.