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October 21, 2014

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Budget mess is Dems’ first test

As Democrats vote in record droves in Nevada’s urban counties and Republicans cling bitterly to the prayer that the other 15 can save John McCain, is the state about to undergo an unprecedented realignment?

And if it does — still an open question for a week — will the Democrats significantly change the state’s direction, or settle for the incrementalism that has brought the state to a fiscal precipice?

The Republicans have enjoyed hegemony in Nevada since Democratic Gov. Bob Miller retired in 1998. For a decade, Republicans (Kenny Guinn and Jim Gibbons) have occupied the mansion (or, in Gibbons’ case, at least been there occasionally), and state Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio has been the lord of the Legislature for even longer.

Until the day that changed the Nevada political world — Jan. 19, the presidential caucus — the Republicans had every reason to believe their reign would continue. But with the 100,000-plus Democratic turnout that has now resulted in a 100,000-plus voter edge in the state, the dynamic has been radically altered.

This has been a red state with a few streaks of blue for a long time. The Democrats will reverse those colors come Election Day, if the early-voting numbers and polls are correct — the only question left is just how dramatic the difference will be.

No matter what happens, after the obnoxious campaign ads are gone and replaced by obnoxious product ads, after spin and distortion take a brief holiday, Gibbons and the Gang of 63 will have to begin to confront the realities of an imploding state budget.

That discussion will not be much affected by who controls the state Senate. The Democrats may well knock off either Joe Heck or Bob Beers and replace them with empty vessels named Allison Copening and Shirley Breeden. But those who favor a real discussion of the state’s fiscal future and not just an incantation of the Gibbons “no new taxes” mantra will still need a few Republicans to depart from the gubernatorial script.

Gibbons will not suddenly become a visionary leader. Indeed, Republicans who care about maintaining — or regaining — their rule are plotting to kill the king — they just don’t know who should do the shooting. Gibbons has been a lame duck for months, whether he knows it or not, and some ambitious Republican will be tasked by the party to go duck-hunting in 2010.

But, unless Chancellor Jim Rogers or someone else reconsiders a recall, Gibbons still will be around in 2009, perhaps confronting a veto-proof Democratic majority in the Assembly and one or two more Democrats in the state Senate.

If indeed they make gains in the Legislature, the Democrats will have to answer what “The Candidate” Robert Redford asked his campaign manager after he won: “So, what do we do now?”

I was both heartened and dismayed by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley’s announcement Tuesday that she had persuaded (as in, “You will do this!”) Interim Finance Chairman Morse Arberry to hold special hearings after the election on the budget. Coming shortly after Gibbons’ published musings on a possible special session before the regular festival begins in February, I interpreted Buckley’s maneuver as both an extension of her middle finger toward the man whose job she covets and a way to seize control of the debate.

But there is no debate if only one side is represented — and so far, only Gibbons’ tiresome myopia has been heard from. Even if I forgive Buckley and, to a greater extent, Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford’s shameless, campaign-season pandering to the Review-Journal editorial board — We hate taxes, too. We do! We do! We do! — we will learn shortly after next Tuesday whether their principles were put in storage or were abandoned.

Buckley & Co. know what needs to be done. “Buckley said that across-the-board cuts are not the answer and that spending needs to be prioritized,” Madame Speaker’s news release declared.

Fine. But what does that mean?

For the past year, the Democrats have been Chamberlain-like, allowing the governor to take his broadsword to the budget and bring the state to the edge of that financial cliff. They are complicit in what has occurred and they have not lifted a finger in substantive dissent because of the election season.

That ends — or should end — a week from today. The Democrats, unless the polls are wrong, will be much stronger in Carson City on Nov. 5 than they are now. It’s up to them whether they want the most important fiscal debate in this state’s history to be a three-word echo of the governor’s mindless chant or a thoughtful, painful dialogue about the state’s future.

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