‘Special’ session

As the governor went his own way again, legislators worked together to squeeze the budget

It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the first day of the special session of the Nevada Legislature, when someone handed Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County, the Republican floor leader, a printout of a Reno Gazette-Journal story. As he read over the article, Raggio was floored. It recorded comments Gov. Jim Gibbons made on Sam Shad’s Reno television program.

“I want to work with all of them,” Gibbons said of members of the legislature. “And over the course of the past several months, we have given them every chance, including Sen. Raggio, including Sen. [Steven] Horsford, and all of the members of the Legislature, to meet with me and see what is going on with the budget. … We have briefed them time and time again in my office here in Carson and in Las Vegas. We have gone over to listen to their ideas. We have worked together through this process so it has surprised me that Bill Raggio has never showed up at most of these meetings.”

The notion that Horsford and Raggio need briefing on the state budget was a new one. They both sit on the Senate Finance Committee. In the last 37 years Raggio has helped write 19 state budgets line by line, a process taking weeks each time. Though Gibbons himself often needs assistance from his aides in budget discussions—he once began a budget news conference alone at the podium and ended it surrounded by three aides—Horsford and Raggio do not.

Word of the governor’s comments shot through political circles around the state with the speed of sound. As far as anyone knew, the incident was without precedent. Gibbons’ shot at Democrat Horsford was not all that unusual, but no one could remember a governor attacking his own party’s leader in the Senate, and the full legislature, on the opening day of a legislative session—not in Nevada, not anywhere.

Former Gov. Richard Bryan was at the legislature: “Bill Raggio and I served together when both of us were elected to the state senate in 1972. I think he’s been a consummate statesman. Have not always agreed with Bill, and he certainly did not always agree with me. I think he has been very deferential and respectful to governors from both parties. I think he has been specifically very restrained in terms of comments about Governor Gibbons, [whom] I know he has disagreed with in the previous session, so I was frankly shocked to see the attack and I don’t think that bodes well in terms of us getting out of here early with a solution.”

To Raggio’s credit, he said nothing and slept on it. But by the next morning, and with a cooler head, he decided the governor’s comments could not go unanswered because those comments had indicted all legislators, threatening a working relationship between Republicans and Democrats. In the Senate hall, there is usually a murmur of background chatter, but when Raggio began speaking, and it became apparent what he was discussing, the hall fell silent:

“Either the Governor’s memory is failing, or he has been misinformed, or he is intentionally distorting the facts. … I do not understand why he wants to pick a fight with me, unless it is for political reasons because I am supporting his primary opponent. But my commitment has been at all times to have the legislature work together with the executive branch to reach a consensus, if at all possible, on how to deal with the excessive shortfall of $890 million.”

Raggio said he has worked with six governors of both parties with no major difficulties until Gibbons.

That wasn’t the only Gibbons-related incident that first day.

A day earlier, a Las Vegas television crew had shown up to meet the governor, returning from a governor’s conference in Washington, D.C., at the Reno airport. A reporter asked him if he had taken a woman, named as his mistress in a divorce action, with him to the nation’s capital. Gibbons turned a rather juvenile one-day story into a major news event by lying to the reporter, denying that the woman had been along with him. The story—and photos of the governor and the woman in D.C.—soon showed up everywhere from the Washington Post to YouTube. On Tuesday, Gibbons admitted the lie. Moreover, the attention thrown on the governor’s travels had another effect. At least one GOP legislator was enraged to learn the governor had left the state during a crippling budget crisis and said, “He should have skipped the governor’s conference.”

Also on Tuesday the governor’s aides were briefing legislators in full-house sessions and Gibbons, watching the proceedings on closed circuit television, pulled his aides out of the sessions because he did not like the questions they were being asked.

Assemblymembers listen to a budget official testifying in the well of the hall.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Given the governor’s tour de force performance on opening day of the session, the legislators stayed remarkably focused on the budget.

Getting up to speed

In the legislative gift shop, souvenir mugs were available for $4. On one side they read, “26th Special Session 2010.” On the other side, there was an outline of the state with a dollar sign imposed over it.

One peculiar gesture was the delivery by a liberal group of a Depends adult diaper with a note—“We’re DEPENDING on you”—to many lawmaker’s offices. “I guess it has something to do with the adult daycare funding,” said one legislator.

Assembly Republican floor leader Heidi Gansert of Washoe County told reporter Sean Whaley, “There are a lot of pieces that seem to be coming together. We’re really trying to figure out what the whole package is.”

Her comment applies to a lot of legislators, but not to Gansert herself. She has a good idea of the whole picture. She spent a dozen weeks in 2009 scrutinizing the budget as a member of the Assembly’s budget committee. Only 14 of the 42 assemblymembers and seven of the 21 senators have had that opportunity, so in the first days of the special session, the two houses were set up as 42- and 21-member committees so all the lawmakers could be briefed on the budget and ask questions, a procedure known as “committee of the whole.”

The maneuver worked. Some legislators who had been smug about the budget crisis were jarred by the depth and severity of the crisis, and they gained more of an appreciation for the dedication of state workers. At one session, a senator was impressed by the agony of higher education officials over the dismantling of their system and by Provost Marc Johnson’s determination to “manage our way through this.” At that same session, questions about the expense of benefits and tenure educated legislators to the fact that if Nevada failed to offer them, it would become, as Horsford put it, “harder and harder for us to compete” with other states and nations that did offer them. One senator privately regretted previous “glib” statements on the subject.

The committee of the whole meeting focused the minds of legislators fast.

Gibbons proposed raising mining taxes by $50 million, an idea that put him and his liberal critics outside the legislature on the same side. (It also freaked out his diehard supporters in northeast Nevada, where mining ships the state’s riches to Canada.)

Another Gibbons idea, a little-tested commercial plan to use traffic cameras to catch uninsured motorists that the firm claimed would raise $30 million, was rejected, prompting another Gibbons attack on the lawmakers.

For the first half of the special session, the lawmakers watched discussions among casino and mining folks. They hoped the two industries would provide more in taxes, preferably voluntarily.

The idea was for casinos to pay $32 million annually for state casino regulation. There were questions about the propriety of having the casinos pay for the system that regulates them. Nevada already faces doubts about its sometimes casual casino regulation compared to some other states.

The governor

Shortly before the special session began, Gov. Gibbons’ office let it be known that he had spent $15 for a new veto stamp. It was the kind of showboating pose and cosmetic “leadership” that drives earnest legislators crazy. For one thing, no rubber stamp is needed to veto, only a signature. (One former state official wanted reporters to find out if the $15 spent on this unnecessary item was taxpayer money.) For another, it indicated in advance, before a single bill was drafted or a single vote cast, that Gibbons again intended to take an adversarial stance toward legislators.

Some of the most conservative members of the Assembly Republican Caucus gathered on the floor of the Nevada Assembly.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Gov. Jim Gibbons is a little like a nutty, foul-tempered uncle who lives with the family and has lots of money. The money, in this case, is his veto and his legal control of the agenda of a special session. Everyone is being as cordial as necessary to keep him happy, but after years of his abuse of legislators, he inspires no affection. Most Republicans do nothing that might alienate his base but will do nothing to make him look good. He has lost that essential quality in a parliamentary setting—trust.

“We’re not going to let him be any more of a player than the law requires,” said one. “There’s too much water under the bridge. He can’t be counted on to do what he says, like the room tax.”

This was a reference to a voter-approved tax that Gibbons supported in the 2009 legislature and then vetoed. Something similar happened associated with this special session. In November, Gibbons said if he called the legislature into special session he would ask them to repeal a state schools law that prevented Nevada from having access to “Race to the Top” funding, the latest fad in federal education programs. This month, Gibbons put the item on the agenda so legislators could take action on it, but he changed his position and said he would veto it.

Gibbons barely had a political base left among legislative Republicans, and those who did support him were the least influential. Paradoxically, Gibbons achieved a kind of bipartisanship that is rare these days as the two parties were united in their hostility to him. The Las Vegas Sun’s Michael Mishak wrote that both parties were “working aggressively to muddy Gibbons’ conservative credentials” by spotlighting his recommendations for fee and tax increases.

Gibbons’ fiscal inexperience showed up fast during the special session. He had no financial business experience. As a state legislator, he never served on a money committee and so he was unfamiliar with the style of probing in those committees and objected to it when he saw his aides being questioned in the committee of the whole.

Some legislators faulted his calling for 10 percent across-the-board cuts for most state agencies, arguing that one size does not fit all. “That’s a shotgun approach,” said one. “You can’t convince me that—I don’t know, prisons, tourism and cultural affairs—that they all warrant the same sized cuts. He’s not a serious person.”

Then there was the list of agency budgets Gibbons submitted, recommending that they be “swept” for reserve funds that could be transferred to higher priority programs. It was discovered that it was illegal to transfer $23 million of those agency budgets.

Halfway through the week of the special session, the governor suddenly changed tactics and started walking across the capital mall to meet with legislators. The gesture had little impact. Several walks did not cancel out months and years of attacks. “He didn’t just attack Raggio in that interview,” said one assemblymember. “Read it—he went after all legislators.”

Working together

It was an indication of the depth of the state’s budget problems that the $23 million of unswept funds was barely significant in the overall picture. Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County: “When we’re looking at almost $900 million … I’m not going to get upset about [losing] $23 million.”

As the methodical scrutiny of the budget wore on, members of both parties—sensitive to the way cooperation can be thwarted by misunderstandings and wary of letting the governor pit them against each other—cautiously took action to block impediments to working together.

On Wednesday of the special session, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported a “threat of a coup” among Republicans against their floor leader in the Assembly, Washoe County’s Heidi Gansert. The RG-J story was thinly sourced—a single quote from GOP legislator John Hambrick of Clark County, who told the newspaper, “Some feel the need to compromise to get things accomplished, and I beg to differ.”

Republicans moved quickly to make it clear that Hambrick was speaking only for himself. Assemblymember Joe Hardy of Clark County, one of the 2003 “Gang of 15” that had held up the legislative process for several weeks into two special sessions in a battle over a tax increase, seemed to have no appetite for renewing that kind of politics. Asked about Gansert, Hardy made a thumbs-up and said, “I think she is standing up for good Republican principles, and she works the system and she works hard. And she not only works hard, she’s able to work with people whom she disagrees with. She is a talented lady.” Another said, “And Hambrick may want to look like the ‘party of no’ Republicans in Congress, but I don’t.”

On Wednesday, Sens. Dean Rhoads and Randolph Townsend and Assembly GOP leader Heidi Gansert waited for Sen. William Raggio and then walked him down to the Senate where he denounced Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Photo By Dennis Myers

In another instance, Raggio picked up a hint that Democrats might hold up action on one of his pet programs until he agreed to vote their way on revenues. In Nevada, justices of the peace do not have to be attorneys, and it is not uncommon for rural JPs in particular to be “civilians.” The state has set up a program at the National Judicial College for training Nevada JPs. Raggio said no one should think “this is something that I’m going to be held hostage for.” Democrat John Lee, a Clark County senator, fearful that Raggio could be alienated by such stunts, quickly spoke up to oppose cutting the training program and reassure the GOP leader. “I so value this [program], as Senator Raggio said, that this [cut] is something I cannot ever support,” Lee said.

As the week passed, there were a number of such fires that were put out and pitfalls avoided as the two parties worked together. And legislators tried to give on some points, straining their own ideological stances.

Some Democrats were wearied by the constant self-righteousness of the education lobby. “I am tired of hearing that education is entitled to consideration just because they’re education,” said one. “Education has to make its case like any other group—more so, probably, because it gets more consideration in good times than other groups.” The italics were in the legislator’s voice.

On Thursday, the Assembly Republican caucus announced its own plan for solving the budget crisis. It made concessions on funding for education. It provided compromises on cuts and even possible revenue increases. Facilities that Gibbons wanted closed would stay open. The mining industry would pay $62 million more.

The plan included proposals that the Democrats had espoused in somewhat different forms or rates, an unexpected gesture of bipartisanship. The Democrats, taken by surprise, initially missed their cue and fell back into conventional politics, attacking the plan. But they quickly backed off. (News coverage of the plan was very conventional, focusing heavily on the political advantages or disadvantages.) As part of the price for their concessions, the Republicans wanted teacher salary negotiations brought under the open meeting law.

Though Speaker Buckley and Assembly Democratic floor leader John Oceguera had a lot of freedom, given the size of their majority, to bait the Republicans in time-honored fashion, they did little with it.

The developing cooperation was one of the reasons Gibbons could not get much traction in discussions with legislators on dealing with the budget crisis. His shifting positions on issues and adversarial style posed serious threats to working relationships among legislators. If he started trouble, Republicans would feel forced to support him. So he was treated with respect, he gave hallway news conferences after his meetings with legislators, his veto power was dealt with, but his influence in the budget negotiations was severely restricted and he had to do much of the giving if he was able to appear at all able to govern (which is essential to his race for reelection). Gibbons had become a luxury Republicans could no longer afford.

The Republican plan came at a good time, because that same day the casino industry representatives said they had not been able to agree on aid for the state. Casino lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis announced their decision, comfortable in the knowledge that, thanks to the governor’s veto and the casinos’ lobbying power, the casino industry could not be tapped without its own consent: “I’m sorry to say, this year, for the first time, we just can’t help.” The mining industry, mostly foreign-owned, does not enjoy that kind of lobby power.

In the end, after meetings on how to avoid vetoes and concessions from the governor, an agreement was reached and announced by the legislative leaders of both parties and the governor in front of the legislative building: A four-day work week for most state offices, a 6.9 percent cut to education ($116.8 million for K-12, $76 million for higher ed, closer to what Assembly Republicans proposed than what Democrats or Gibbons wanted), a $10 million cut in consultancies and professional contracts. Some money was even provided for local bond issues for road and highway work to create jobs.

On the revenue end, there will be $25.7 million in mining claim fees, the foreclosure filing fee for banks will rise from $50 to $200, approximately $197 million in agency reserves will be diverted, and there are optimistic plans to collect $20 million in unpaid taxes.

The Nevada State Prison and Casa Grande prison camp, which Gibbons wanted closed, will continue operating. The governor may still veto the education change, but at press time he seemed to be backing off.

The closing hours involved long periods of waiting while legislation was drafted, and negotiations went on among leaders. The camaraderie of people closely confined together made itself felt. Some watched the Canadian and United States men’s hockey teams play for the Olympic gold medal.

The special session was a difficult adjustment for legislators, who are accustomed to sessions in which they try to accomplish positive ends, and they either win or lose. This was a session in which no one would win—there was no way it would end well. “It’s not so much good ideas right now, [but] which is the least of the worst ideas,” Hardy told reporter Sean Whaley in one of those arrows of a sentence that nails a situation. Opting for a lesser disaster is not normally what political leaders do.

The budget problem is solved for the moment, and some health and human services are partially restored, but it’s a long time until the next regular session of the legislature. In those months, good working people who paid their taxes in prosperous times for human services that they might need in bad times may still find that the services they paid for are missing just when they need them most.