Raggio at work

In an unusually direct interview, the top Republican legislator says Nevada’s survival—and the GOP’s—is at stake

Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County has weathered 36 years in the senate, with both Republican and Democrat majorities. Now in his final term, he says both sides have major work to do for the sake of the state.

Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County has weathered 36 years in the senate, with both Republican and Democrat majorities. Now in his final term, he says both sides have major work to do for the sake of the state.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County, first elected in 1972, has been in the Nevada Senate when his Republican Party held as few as three seats (out of 20, in 1975) and as many as 13 (out of 21, in 1989 and 1995). He has been Senate Republican leader since 1977, recruiting GOP senate candidates to run and raising money to help pay for their campaigns, all while maintaining good working relationships with most Democratic leaders in the legislature and governorship. In recent years, he has been challenged by some in his party who treat programmatic matters like spending or taxes as moral issues rather than public policy issues, with the result that some Republicans consider compromise not as a necessary legislative tool but as ethically wrong. The consequence is that some GOP legislators in the Senate and especially the Assembly have been dogmatic and inflexible, slowing the workings of the Nevada Legislature and testing the leadership skills of many legislative leaders, none more so than Raggio. One of them, Sharron Angle, mounted a fierce primary election campaign against Raggio this year. Though it was expected to be close, Raggio ended up winning by 6 percent, 4,875 to 4,327. He is now serving his final term under term limits. When we interviewed Raggio, he had just met with Gov. Jim Gibbons and other legislative leaders in both parties. Raggio has seen a lot of budgets come and go—he chairs the Senate Finance Committee—but the numbers he heard in that meeting shocked him and other lawmakers.

Q: How do you think the new configuration of the Senate is going to affect the budget process?

Raggio: Well, it’s going to be far different because you’re going to have new people on money committees. You’re going to have one party controlling both houses. Ultimately, it still requires the consent of both parties because you have to pass a budget—have to have a two-thirds vote. And so, you know, we’ll have to work together. And, you know, this is an unusual time. … I’ve been there, what, 36 years? Going into my tenth term. We just found out today—we’ve already cut $1.2 billion out of this fiscal year budget—today we came together, both the legislature and the governor’s office, and in agreement that we now have another $300 million shortfall. That’s since June, that’s since the special session. It can’t be done with deeper cuts. It cannot be done with deeper cuts. So we’ve got several issues. One, can the state go through the next few months and deal with this when we get into the regular session? Doubtful. Three hundred million dollars would be very serious. You’d be looking at cuts like 33 percent more in these budgets. That would decimate these things like corrections, health and human services, not to mention education.

Q: So we’re not talking about the state arts council or—

Raggio: No, you are talking about serious cuts. And, you know, I think the governor recognizes it. What are the options? One, do we have cash flow that we can survive between now and when we have to deal with this otherwise [in the regular legislative session]? Doubtful. So we’re probably going to have to come up with some plan. Whether it’s, I don’t know, short term borrowing, whether that’s even available or whether we’re going to be looking at some revenue enhancement. You know, everything’s on the table. Now, obviously, the next question is, “Well, are you going to support taxes, increased taxes?” I think, you know, everybody’s going to be reluctant to do that in this kind of a fiscal crisis. But the option could be survival of the state. And any governor, whatever his or her position could be on, generally, on tax increases, or a legislator, is going to have to say, “Wait—what’s the highest priority—survival of the state, you know, or whether we do something to enhance revenues?” And, you know—so those are all on the table.

Q: How do you make a dry cleaner or a barber understand that they have a stake in—

Raggio: No, that’s—you’re right. First question. And I’ve asked that. We are going to have open sessions, soon, to have the agencies come in and tell us what they will have to do if they have to cut any further, whether it’s 1 percent or 5 percent or 10 percent or 30 percent. And the public will have to have full information before they, obviously, are going to be supportive of anything that’s planned. If there ever is some kind of a revenue package that’s necessary, the public’s going to have to be assured that it’s used only for essentials and not for fluff and not for people’s pet projects or stuff like full-day kindergarten or empowerment [schools] or new programs. We’re talking about survival of the state. And you know, I can’t stress that enough.

Q: You may recall the last time the Democrats had a majority in the senate—

Raggio: ‘91.

Q: —it was not friction free.

Raggio: No, no. Let me tell you, this one, to the extent I am involved, will be friction free unless it comes to the other side.

Q: What I was getting at is, you’ll recall how reapportionment was railroaded through.

Raggio: I think that we had that added problem, in ‘91, dealing with reapportionment.

Q: But I don’t get the feeling that [new Democratic floor leader Steven] Horsford is that kind of a player.

Raggio: I’m not going to speak for him. You know, there have been flare-ups in the past. Now, the ball is in their court. So I obviously’d be interested in seeing the playbook.

Q: Everybody talks about bipartisanship, about working together.

Raggio: I think you know me well enough that—in my last session—I’m here to deal with the state’s problems. I’m not going to be an obstructionist, I’m going to be open, I’m going to work with this governor, and I’m going to work with the other party to the extent they want input. And, you know, I’m sincere in that. My desire after serving this length of time and having this privilege to serve is not to go out looking like a mean, angry individual. You know, we’ve got less voice here in Northern Nevada now.

Q: You don’t worry about being called a RINO [Republican in name only]?

Raggio: I don’t at all. As a matter of fact, I’m going to say it now: If the Republican Party continues to be the party of the far right, rather that what I term “Reagan-type conservatism,” the party will never elect people. We cannot be the party of the far right. That doesn’t sell. And if that means moderate or RINO in some people’s eyes, so be it. But they ought to be aware of what happened across this country and in this state. Washoe County is now a Democrat county, for all purposes. Am I retreating from Republican principles? Emphasize not. I believe in free enterprise, I believe in limited government, and I believe in fiscal responsibility. But in Reagan’s eyes, that meant a lean government, not a mean government. And it also, if I recall, meant everybody was welcome under the Republican tent, even if you didn’t agree on everyone’s social issues. And I want to emphasize that. I helped resurrect this party with a fellow named Paul Laxalt in the early ‘70s when the John Birchers had taken over this party. Took us 10 years to dig out. I’m not going to let all that effort fall by the wayside and let radicals take over the Republican Party. Not while I’m in it.

Q: You think the Democrats will be able to get a lottery going to fund education shortfalls?

Raggio: Well, that’s a hard sell. You don’t have full support for it; you have a lot of opposition to it. First of all, it’s not an immediate answer. It would take two, four years at best, I think—three or four years—if it could be approved by voters. It has to be approved by the voters because the restriction [on lotteries] is in the constitution. And, you know, I don’t think it produces that much unless you’re involved in a multi-state lottery. And in this fiscal crisis, I don’t have information, maybe you do, as to how good lotteries are doing. I would bet they’re falling off a lot. You know, people don’t have a lot of extra money to throw around. And you know, money that ordinarily goes to lotteries comes from residents, and that’s money that otherwise would probably be going into retail sales somewhere, and our retails sales are plummeted. So I don’t know that people are going to throw their money at a lottery, particularly when they can pump them into slot machines or videos.

Q: Well, let’s talk about that. There’s this reliance on durable goods as a revenue source. I looked it up, and there’re only five states that have a higher sales tax than Nevada. And some [Nevada] counties, with the add-ons, have higher sales taxes than California.

Raggio: Well, you’re pointing on one tax, sales tax.

Q: But, I mean, you can’t keep going back to that well again.

Raggio: Well, I’m not suggesting—you didn’t hear me say sales tax. You know, we had something on the ballot here for sales tax, and it got turned down.

Q: My point is, are we already relying on it too much?

Raggio: Well, look—I don’t want your article to have me championing high taxes or new taxes. I’m telling you what the problems are and what the options are. First of all, contrary to what a lot of these political candidates throw out there, including the one that ran against me, Nevada is not the fifth or sixth highest taxed state in the country. According to the Tax Foundation, we are the second lowest in the nation on tax burden per capita. We’re second. Alaska’s lower than us by only a little bit. But you know, we don’t have a state income tax, we don’t have a corporate income tax. I got chewed up for saying we’re over-taxed—that we’re not over-taxed, excuse me. Sales tax—there’s other sources of revenue. And there’s sunsets that can be put on them, and there’s restrictions. I wouldn’t vote for any increase in taxes that wasn’t, as I said, limited to either where the public approved it or had the information as to why it was essential and necessary and that it wouldn’t be used for anything other than for essential services.

Q: Can you get from here to February [when the 2009 Legislature begins] without a special session?

Since becoming Senate Republican leader in 1977, William Raggio has often found his footsteps dogged by reporters.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Raggio: 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. And you know, immediate takes it—it’s like turning an aircraft carrier around. If you’re looking for enhancements or additional revenues, you know, you don’t just pass a law and have them happen overnight.

Q: Now, it’s not like the legislature didn’t have warning of this. We had a budget crisis in ‘81, another one in ‘91, another one in ‘98—

Raggio: Yes, but they were short-lived. … This has been the most sustained economic downturn in my memory. Those were relatively short-lived.

Q: But essentially what was happening then is happening now, only deeper.

Raggio: Yes, but what did we do? We did several things. We put in place, and you’ll remember, I’m the author of the Economic Forum because I didn’t want people fooling around with phony revenue pictures, projections. [The Economic Forum is a panel of financial-wise people that provides the legislature with revenue predictions independent of those provided by the governor or the legislature’s fiscal division.] So we put that in place. I was one of the co-sponsors of a rainy day fund, stabilization fund. Fortunately, we had that on two occasions, or we’d have really been in deep problems. So, you know, we’ve done everything we could, knowing that this could happen again.

Q: You’ve talked about doing a thoroughgoing study of the tax structure.

Raggio: Yes. I have that bill in [the bill drafter’s office].

Q: What guarantee is there that it wouldn’t meet the same fate as the Urban Institute study? [In 1987, the Nevada Legislature commissioned a major study of the state tax system by the Urban Institute and Price Waterhouse at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars. It was ignored by the 1988 legislature.]

Raggio: Well, I was careful to say I didn’t want to call it a study. I want to call it a complete analysis, or whatever you want. Studies, as you say, end up on a shelf. I want one that is justified, is objective, can be accepted as valid, has credence. The one that Price Waterhouse did didn’t need to be in place immediately. They projected something like a 10-year period before taxes would be necessary or revenues or change in policies. And, you know, of course it got forgotten because we had good times. Things kept rolling in and we were doing retroactive stuff, [catch-up] pay raises, retroactive.

Q: But isn’t that when you repair the roof, when the sun is shining?

Raggio: [Laughs] OK, yes. You know, I’m one legislator. I think over the years I’ve been rather conservative. I think you’ve even accused me of that a few times.

Q: Would you still have run if you’d known you would no longer be the majority leader?

Raggio: Oh, yes. I didn’t run for the title. … It’s not an ego trip for me. And I hope you know me well enough by now. I ran after considerable reflection, knowing my age and limitations, whatever they might be, because I felt that Washoe County, Northern Nevada, needed strong voices in this critical time. I felt that I could still offer that. And, you know, obviously, I’m disappointed that my role is different, but each legislator still has one vote. I still have a group of Republicans that are important to the process … I’m not going to sit there in my remaining time in the legislature and be looked on as someone who’s trying to wreck the train. I’m going to try to help run the train. Unless it gets off track, I’m going to try to help run the train. And you know, if they ask me for input, I’m going to give it. If they don’t ask, I’ll still offer input and, you know, I think we all have a role to play. You know, I’m not new to this process. I was in the minority 16 years. So I’ve been there.

Q: On the wall out there, you’ve got pictures of some of the people you’ve met over the years as you were coming up. They include people like Charles Percy, George Romney, people who did work with Democrats. Do you think you can bring some of the members of your caucus along to where you have that kind of thing?

Raggio: Well, I think the message I’ve given to my caucus—we are nine votes, at this point, and that we’re essential to the process and that we should work together as fully as possible. And that’s always been my message, whether we’ve been in the majority or the minority.

Q: But you talked about—during the 2003 session—about the extremism of some of the Republicans who were down there then.

Raggio: Yes, I think in reflection, I think they were wrong in taking that stance.

Q: Why would they come along now when they didn’t then?

Raggio: Well, they aren’t there. Who’s left?

Q: A lot of them are still—

Raggio: I’m not going to name names.

Q: I understand, but there’s a lot of them that you have got are still social conservatives.

Raggio: Oh, yes, but, you know, the social issues are one thing. The fiscal problem is overwhelming, and that’s got to be dealt with.

Q: A lot of them see those, particularly tax issues, treat these kinds of battles not as [political] struggles but as fights between good and evil. I mean, the opposition isn’t the adversary, they’re the enemy.

Raggio: Well, then, they don’t belong in the process, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. Legislation is still the art of compromise, and over the years that’s been my mantra. You know? I’ve had to deal consistently with a house of the other party. And we would have gotten nowhere if we weren’t willing to compromise, and if we were going to put good and evil labels on things, we might as well not have shown up. Now, there’s some that still feel that way. I think they’re an impediment to accomplishment.

Q: Anything surprise you about Tuesday’s election?

Raggio: No, I predicted it about a year ago. Did I want it to happen? No, but I predicted that the likelihood was that I would face opposition in the primary and from the one [Sharron Angle] that ran against me. I predicted that we would have a tough time with the two races in the south in the Senate [incumbent Clark County Republican senators Bob Beer and Joe Heck were defeated]. I predicted that there would be a national Democrat trend. Whenever you have a recession, the party in power usually loses. And on top of that you had a Democrat tsunami. You had a perfect storm. You had an unpopular president. You had a war that no longer got supported across the nation. You had the impact of a hurricane. You had 9/11. You know, in fairness to George Bush, no president has ever been faced with anything that severe, I think, unless it was Abraham Lincoln or maybe World War II, Roosevelt. And in this state, the governor may have his own personal issues, but no governor in my memory has had to face the kind of issues, the problems, that have faced his administration.

Q: Do the election results last week represent a fundamental ascendancy of Southern Nevada, and what does it mean for Northern Nevada?

Raggio: Oh, there’s no question. Absolutely, sure. You know, it’s been building. You know, you’ve got over 70 percent, I guess, of the vote, registered voters in Clark County. So there’s the population, obviously. So the needs are greater. Their demands are greater. Their expectations are higher. And, you know, we’ve been, through strong representation here, been able, I think, to see to it that the rest of the state has also received a fair share. I hope that continues. But it’s going to be a difficult process. You know?