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October 25, 2014

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Jon Ralston questions Nevada legislators’ reasons, in this time of financial crisis, for not wanting to legislate

Faced with the worst budget mess in Nevada history, state legislators can oppose a special session only if they have faith in the governor to handle the disaster.

So under the safe assumption that that is not the case, lawmakers can be against the session only because they either don’t want to legislate, the job they were hired to do, or are simply petrified they might have to legislate and thus lose the job they were hired to do.

The difficulty for the Democrats in the Gang of 63 is that the politics here may not dovetail with the policy they espouse. Many of them oppose putting off raises for state workers and teachers — the short-term fix proposed by the governor who was against it until he was for it. Many legislative Democrats also believe in a broader tax base and fear a gutting of education and social services if the cuts continue — but they have been loath to say so because they might be labeled taxers and spenders.

This is opposite from the dynamic the governor confronts because he is bereft of any real policy grounding beyond blurting “no new taxes,” and he can simply hew to that and sit back and watch the lawmakers cannibalize themselves a week from Monday. Although I have long argued for a special session — thank goodness the governor finally listened to me — the rightness of the course does not obscure the politics at play.

Gibbons called for a special session a few days into his Textgate nightmare and on the same day a poll conducted by the newspaper that has been blindly sycophantic showed him with some of the worst approval ratings in the history of polling — nearly four-fifths of Nevadans don’t think he is doing a good job as governor, according to the Mason-Dixon survey.

For a governor who is flat-lining, a change-the-subject special session is like a defibrillator and explains why the Democrats are having heart attacks.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” Speaker Barbara Buckley told the Associated Press. “It’s apparent that the governor wants to change the message away from his text-messaging, because this idea makes no sense.”

Buckley is suggesting — correctly, I might add — that only $30 million needs to be cut from the rest of this year’s spending, so why call a session now after Gibbons cut $900 million without the full Legislature’s collaboration? One answer: To create new revenue streams before next biennium to head off even worse carnage.

Gibbons is using the fig leaf of the state worker/teacher raises as justification for a session because they require legislative ratification to enact. Once he gets the Gang of 63 up there, I’d guess, it’s full-on posture time to try to boost his poll numbers.

But rather than lambaste this as the obvious political ploy it is, the Democrats should embrace the opportunity — especially because Gibbons is, accidentally, in the right here.

Buckley is understandably worried about the political consequences to her caucus. But maybe the time has come for those who have hissed about the devastating cuts and whispered about the long-term effect to raise their voices.

I know the response — sounds great in a vacuum, but you know the Legislature and you know how simple-minded voters can be when it comes to taxes. Such cynicism! Is it possible that few voters will swallow the sweet-tasting “no new taxes” candy served up by the governor and are willing to swallow a little castor oil if they can be assured of its palliative effect?

Yes, Gibbons and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, who just 24 hours earlier opposed a special session, have shown that consistency is the hobgoblin of nonpartisan minds.

Indeed, the dynamic of this session is fascinating — with one leader an unannounced gubernatorial candidate (Buckley), the other in the primary of his life (Raggio) and a governor desperate to talk about taxes rather than texts.

I see this as a chance for Buckley to audition for the governorship, to show what people have said about her abilities is true, to lead when no one else is willing. Otherwise, this session will disintegrate into the usual morass of partisan sniping and name-calling as every special interest in the state arrives looking to protect its bottom line.

The political pitfalls notwithstanding, for Buckley, Raggio and the rest, it’s quite simple: If the greatest financial crisis in state history — not just this biennium with 15 percent of budget at risk, but yet another billion dollars in the next cycle — does not merit a special session, what does?

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.

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