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August 29, 2014

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Coming season of hope makes one sanguine on leaders’ readiness to tackle budget woes

The holiday season is upon us, thus the time is right for passing out presents.

So today, I give the gift of optimism, one delivered without sarcasm or irony, one delivered in the spirit of the season.

Yes, there is some Assembly required. Yes the upper housing component is very, very tricky. And, yes, the governor on this machine sometimes doesn’t work too well.

But if last week’s meeting hosted by Gov. Jim Gibbons and attended by key legislators is any indication — again, suspension of cynicism — this gift can operate, the gears can mesh, progress can be made.

Sources tell me Gibbons appeared to approach the lawmakers in good faith, was willing to listen to suggestions and wanted to build consensus for a Dec. 8 special session to deal with a current budget hole of about $300 million.

Perspective note: That gap is for the budget approved by the last Legislature — a budget that has suffered cuts of $1.2 billion. The longer-term problem, the one lawmakers and Gibbons must address next year, involves a potential 10-figure cut from the next biennium’s budget. So this is not the end, but the beginning of a long process of dealing with the state’s fiscal nightmare.

I don’t have unrealistic expectations for the special session if it comes together next month — Gibbons and lawmakers are meeting again Tuesday, so this could fall apart. If they convene to help the state pay its bills and close the budget hole, Gibbons and the Gang of 63 will do what they have almost every legislative session in the past 20 years: They will employ fiscal gimmickry and legislative legerdemain to move money around and stave off disaster for a while.

This government by procrastination is what got us here, putting off during one session what can be taken care of in the next. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next.

I take Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio at his word that he believes cutting $300 million would do untold harm and “devastate” the state. Democrats surely feel the same way, and so long as Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Speaker Barbara Buckley keep Raggio in the tent, he will work with them.

But that kind of early cooperation is not the only reason I can suspend any cynicism. This is the first time in all of the budget peaks and valleys over more than 20 years that I have seen an ever-expanding recognition of just how serious the problem is and just how unwilling people are to continue to slash away at the state’s infrastructure, which is hardly first-class and devolving toward the Third World.

Hundreds upon hundreds of parents showed up last week at town hall meetings and made like Peter Finch in “Network.” They are not just mad as hell but they are declaring publicly they won’t take it anymore. If they can stay mad, they could affect the debate next year.

Add in local governments meeting with public employee unions, which met their requests for concessions with an arctic reaction. But the door is now open for dialogue as the budget crisis deepens. The trickle-down effects of these budget cuts, including at the county hospital, have angered a lot of people. Once again, sustaining that fury could help in the regular session.

There is more to come as the cuts continue and as the effects of another billion and a half dollars lost could have on the state. The notion of Gibbons presenting a budget that is $1.5 billion less than last session’s is not just inconceivable, it is nearly impossible — no-new-tax pledge or not — lest he propose ballooning class sizes, disappearing mental health services and shuttering prisons, among other disasters.

I actually believe Gibbons may look beyond his three-word mantra and try to do something constructive on Jan. 15 in his State of the State. And that should tell you just how optimistic I am today.

Much still has to occur. The Jurassic Chamber of Commerce has to be willing to talk about a business tax if lawmakers talk about reforming public salaries and benefits. Republicans have to be willing to talk about more money if Democrats talk about more accountability. And gaming, of course, will have to lead the way by offering to pay more.

The perfect storm has arrived and more people than ever want to come in out of the rain. I think, ray of sunshine that I am, it could happen.

As for that gift of optimism, I may have forgotten one thing: It has an expiration date. I just hope it doesn’t arrive for a while.

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