Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When state Sen. Bob Coffin this week asked his colleagues to consider suing the governor to compel Jim Gibbons to include lawmakers in budget-cutting decisions, I doubt the chief executive batted an eye.
But my guess is Coffin’s 62 fellow legislators were cursing privately that the veteran senator would have the nerve to suggest they should do their jobs and hold the governor accountable. In his futile letter to Legislative Commission Chairman Randolph Townsend, Coffin intimated that he had been told by a colleague to “let the governor take all the heat.”
That is, these lawmakers who supposedly are outraged about the proposed cuts would prefer to stand on the sidelines and let Gibbons get pummeled by the liberal media and special interests. They want no part of a lawsuit against the governor or even a special session to discuss the budget — they just want Coffin to shut up.
This story of pride and cowardice is illuminated by the lack of a line forming behind Coffin — and Townsend’s quick, dismissive letter back to his colleague saying the governor is simply doing what the Legislature allowed him to do by law. But this tale no longer is about the governor, who has displayed the communications skills of a deaf, dumb and blind man.
Gibbons has made pronouncements about cuts, and then withdrawn them. He has made decisions without any counsel from legislators or their budget analysts, who know the fiscal picture better than anyone. And he has taken the state’s strong executive powers to Bushian levels of authority — and he is the worst kind of would-be dictator: an inept one.
In his missive, Coffin asserts the Legislature’s near-unanimous vow of silence will “ratify what amounts to an unconstitutional line item veto of our budget by the Governor. The Nevada Constitution does not give the Governor that authority, and we cannot allow him to claim that authority by legislative enactment. So, if the Legislature fails to stand up for the Constitution we will have failed in the oath that all sixty-three of us take to defend it.”
The truth is that unless the state’s reserves fall below $80 million, the governor, thanks to a state law passed after 1991 budget cuts, can act unilaterally. Coffin rightly believes that the governor will do all he can to avoid reporting to the state Board of Examiners, despite a worsening economic picture, that the $80 million threshold has been crossed, especially because the other two members are Democrats. And Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto already are jousting with Gibbons over prison cuts.
Coffin may be wrong on the law — and I am sure few want to find out because the entire system could unravel. But the senator surely is right on how both the governor (manipulating the reserves) and his colleagues (I can’t hear you?) are behaving.
I have little doubt that many observers are out there saying to themselves, as one said to me, and I am only slightly paraphrasing: “Gibbons may not know what he is doing but I don’t want those idiots (lawmakers) up there mucking it up.”
Fair enough. But this is less about those who occupy the offices than the principle at stake and the needed exposure of 63 poseurs, minus Coffin. Only the governor has the power to call a special session. But in his letter, Coffin correctly deduces Gibbons’ mind-set and intuits that he is counting on lawmakers to remain cravenly mute.
“Because the Governor knows that if the Legislature does not unite and stand up for its own place in the Constitution then he will see no reason to call us into session to do something he does not want to do,” Coffin wrote.
So for all of you angry about how the cuts will lacerate the state’s lower and higher education systems, decimate an already shaky human services infrastructure or exacerbate the problem of a bursting prisons system, take it out on the governor if you will. But he is hopeless — and, worse, not up for reelection until 2010.
As you listen to Bob Coffin yell about the unfairness and a few other quieter legislative voices mumble displeasure, notice how most of the Gang of 63 are huddled in silence, happy to let Gibbons take the heat and thrilled they can keep their jobs. They are cowards — but the difference is that five-sixths of lawmakers will be on the ballot this year.
And as long as they are mute, they should be disqualified from reelection.
Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the daily e-mail newsletter “RalstonFlash.com.” His column for the Las Vegas Sun appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Ralston can be reached at 870-7997 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.