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October 30, 2014

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Shifting politics, Senate gig reduce BOB to just Bob

CARSON CITY - Four years ago Bob Beers was an original.

The Republican assemblyman had a name made for billboards. The media fawned over his invective wit, a welcome change from the bland statements of lawmakers who took their lead from vanilla Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Beers was the articulate hero of libertarian anti-tax types. They relished watching him slice up Guinn and others in a bruising 2003 debate that ended in a state-approved tax increase of nearly $1 billion.

To the faithful, Beers became more than just Bob. He was BOB, the guy who shared their belief that government spending and regulation couldn't solve many problems.

Much has happened to Beers since those heady days. BOB ran and lost a race for governor. He watched as the courts tossed out his ballot initiative to limit state spending to the combined rate of inflation , plus population growth. He was supplanted by Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons as leader of the tax-averse crowd.

Beers did have one victory. He moved up to the Nevada Senate. But by any measure, Beers is in eclipse today. Although he may someday reemerge as the leading light of Nevada libertarianism, for now, BOB is just Bob, his stature diminished by budget realities, shifting politics and the demands of his role in the Senate.

He still fulminates, mostly via an Internet blog, and he is still as likable as ever, still an original. After four of his anti-tax bills died in committee this legislative session - in part because of decreased revenue predicted by state number crunchers - Beers blamed his colleagues .

"The Legislature has worked hard to crank up Nevadans' tax burden and has no intention of reducing it," he blogged.

Language like that continues to earn great press from the conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal, which devoted a front-page story to Beers' destined-for-oblivion proposal - based on a shooting in Russia - to allow schoolteachers to carry guns.

But most other Nevada media pay less attention.

Outside his office last week, Beers admitted that he never thought his tax bills had a chance. "They were dead going in." Translation: They served only to renew his libertarian credentials.

Much of Beers' other legislation served a similar purpose, and met the same fate.

His bill to allow teachers to bear arms in school? Dead. Repeal the helmet law? Dead. Limit the salaries of school administrators? Vamoose.

Others that died: a bill to grant Millennium Scholarships based on ACT and SAT scores, not grade-point averages, and legislation to increase the number of mental health professionals by allowing a new form of licensing for those with less training.

To be sure, some of Beers' bills remained alive: one ordering a study of the effect of breaking up the Clark County School District, another requiring school administrators to teach one day per semester, a third prohibiting the number of standardized tests taken by K-12 students, and a fourth giving motorists registering their vehicles an option to voluntarily give more money to the state's highway fund.

Political observers who have watched Beers over the past decade say BOB became Bob partly out of necessity. He is no longer one of a jumble of anonymous assemblymen struggling for attention.

Instead, he is in the Senate and serves as vice chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. At this level of play, walking quietly is more respected than throwing bombs.

"I think he wants to get a little more into the mainstream," said one conservative lobbyist, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. "When you're in the majority and a senator, you can't be effective by just beating one drum. So, I don't know that he is ultimately changing anything about himself, but I do think he's trying to be a bit more relevant."

A former top Republican official said the state's budget needs are so great that Beers' rants against spending have become an anachronism. How can you argue against spending, the former official said, "when 37,000 new kids show up for school this year, and they deserve the same teacher, desk and classroom that the 37,000 the year before them and the 2 million in the 10 years before that received?

"When you're growing like this, the state budget is going to grow whether you like it or not. So, all these ridiculous discussions about curbing the percentage of growth have no relevancy. It sounds good but it's not based in reality."

A lobbyist on the Democratic side speculated that Beers fears for his job. "I think he might be worried about being targeted" by unions, especially teachers, when his four-year term ends in 2008, said Dan Hart, who works on teachers issues. The teachers union spent upward of $300,000 to help defeat Republican Sen. Sandra Tiffany last year.

Tiffany's defeat, Hart said, has had a "quietly dramatic" effect on some legislators.

"I think there's an underlying practicality that's coming through," Hart said. No lawmaker, including Beers, wants to find his photo on the dartboard at the teachers union headquarters.

Beers isn't a target, Hart added. Yet. "It's too early to tell," Hart said, noting that none of the important education bills has been voted on .

Certainly this is a difficult time to be Mr. No.

Gibbons is struggling with his no-new-taxes pledge in a year when state revenue is lower than expected and expectations are higher, especially in Southern Nevada.

Educators in the south are seeking more money for new schools to keep pace with population growth and to improve education in a host of ways. Business leaders are demanding that the state build or expand highways to ease traffic . Higher education has a long list of needs forcefully advocated by university system Chancellor Jim Rogers.

Beers disputes that he is an enemy of public education, even if he does regularly take shots at the Clark County School District administration. The senator notes that his mom was once a schoolteacher and his wife coordinates the parenting project for Clark County's Family and Youth Services Division.

He also has laid much blame for education failures on parents, not teachers - but he did so with an inartfully broad brush when he wrote that casino workers couldn't care less about education.

"The many children they sire grow up not valuing education, either," he wrote in an e-mail four years ago that was widely reported. "These youngsters are prone to dropping out of school, reproducing illegitimate children, often while little more than children themselves, abusing drugs and alcohol more frequently and even killing themselves more often than people who do value education."

Asked this week about his 2008 race for reelection and the bull's-eye he may or may not have on his back, Beers turned a bright shade of red.

"I was endorsed by the teachers in one election," he said.

When?

"In '02."

That was a year before the brutish tax battle that branded Beers as Nevada's No. 1 libertarian.

"When the voters are ready to call me home, I'll be comfortable with that," he said. "I enjoy this, but it is public service, and substantially unpaid."

Then he dashed into the hearing room where the Finance Committee was holding court over the future of the state's education budget.

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