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July 29, 2014

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Guinn proud of first three years in office

CARSON CITY -- Gov. Kenny Guinn says his administration has made "great progress" in his first three years in office, but some political observers would beg to differ.

The governor ticks off showcase items such as the Millennium Scholarships for Nevada students, a drug prescription insurance policy for low-income seniors and turning the state Employers Insurance Co. of Nevada over to private ownership, which eliminated a $1.5 billion potential state debt.

The health insurance program for children of the working poor has been expanded dramatically, state workers got a 4 percent raise, foster parents received a raise in their monthly grants after years of waiting, and more money has been set aside for health issues.

Guinn quickly stepped up to the plate to help about 15,000 displaced workers in Clark County after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, making them eligible for welfare and unemployment benefits simultaneously.

All without a tax increase.

Despite Guinn's list of accomplishments, his administration has put in a "pretty low key" performance, University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Erik Herzik says.

"There have been no bold policies. It's geared to running the state rather than major new initiatives," Herzik said.

There's no big ideological difference between Guinn and his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Bob Miller, Herzik said.

"I call him 'Kenny Miller,' " Herzik quipped.

Guinn, however, is a more "hands-on" governor than Miller in directing the day-to-day business, Herzik said.

That's not necessarily a good thing, according to state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas.

"He's politically powerful and personally popular, but I'm disappointed he's not done anything bold and innovative," said Titus, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "People are worse off today than three years ago when he was elected.

"There are higher (high school) dropout rates, higher insurance costs and higher power bills. And these things can't be blamed on Sept. 11. He's not willing to do anything innovative to solve a problem.

"It's so discouraging. What's the point of having that power and not using it?"

Last year Guinn crisscrossed Nevada, pounding home the theme that the state faced a $1 billion deficit in eight years unless things changed. Guinn, however, never made any recommendations to the 2001 Legislature to solve the problem and presented a budget in which every penny was spent.

Herzik said Guinn created a "sky is falling" scenario.

"If there was a big problem out there, he didn't do anything to act on it except to say, 'We're going to study it,' " Herzik said, noting results of such studies wouldn't be released until after the election next November.

Guinn says he has some ideas on new taxes, but won't make any suggestions until after the election.

Sounding the alarm, then offering a study, was only one of the mixed signals the governor has sent.

But overall, Herzik says, it's been "a fairly professional administration." It inherited some problems and improved them, such as long waits at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The governor stepped in and helped the state avoid huge federal fines for the failure of the state Welfare Division to develop its new computer system -- Nomads -- by the deadlines.

In his three years Guinn has repaired a state mental health system that was hard hit by the cutbacks made during the economic downturn in the early 1990s.

He twice delayed deregulation of the electric industry in light of the financial crisis experienced in California.

His administration conducted a "fundamental review" of state agencies. He candidly admits it probably didn't save any money, but it allowed him to shift funds from some departments into health initiatives.

"I felt an obligation to restructure existing dollars before we go out to the people and say we have to have more money," he said. "We have proven we're much more efficient."

After estimates showed the state would be short $1 billion by 2009 if the current tax structure remains the same, the 2001 Legislature created a task force to study a new method of collecting state revenue. Guinn, who appointed the eight members last month, will be get their recommendations in next November.

Two sources currently supply the lion's share of the state's revenue: property taxes, and the gaming industry with its 6.25 percent gross gaming tax, Guinn said.

"This commission will take a look to see if others are paying," Guinn said.

During the next 12 months Guinn intends to focus on the economy and the fight the construction of a high-level nuclear waste respository at Yucca Mountain.

"I'm going to spend more time with the budget to make sure that if the revenues are coming in at a lower level, we don't get into trouble," he said. He has taken quick action to keep the state within its means. The week of Sept. 11, he implemented a hiring freeze before it was fully clear how the terrorist attacks would affect the state's economy.

He said he doesn't want to wait until three-fourths of the budget is spent and then end up having to make major reductions.

The Yucca Mountain issue will be a "lot more time consuming," he said, as President Bush is expected to make his recommendation to Congress next year. "We're working to see the best strategy," said Guinn, who convinced the Legislature to set aside $4 million to help in the fight to stop the repository.

Guinn led Bush's campaign in Nevada. The candidate said he would base his decision on science and not political factors. When Bush named Spencer Abraham as energy secretary, Guinn said, "I'm certain Abraham will continue the position of President-elect Bush to base any decision on nuclear waste storage on science rather political expedience."

But now Guinn and the state have filed suit, complaining the U.S. Energy Department under Abraham is not following the law in setting the location guidelines.

Looking ahead, Guinn says that if re-elected next year, he will make public schools the "super priority" in his next budget, followed by the University and Community College System of Nevada.

During his term the amount of the state's budget going to public schools declined slightly from 33.3 percent to 33.1 percent in the current biennium. And the university's share has dropped from 19.7 percent to 18.9 percent.

Overall most people, including his critics, concede that Guinn is popular with the public. He has raised more than $1.5 million in campaign funds already with a good chunk of that coming from Las Vegas gambling casinos.

And the Democrats have failed, so far, to put up a viable candidate to challenge him.

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