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December 20, 2014

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Jon Ralston notes with hope Gibbons’ absence from the real state budget process

In 2008, when it came to the budget crisis, it was the Year of the Olive Branch. A governor whose vision consisted of a mindless mantra and a calculator with only a minus key made rote cuts and co-opted lawmakers, who were afraid of the political consequences and gave Jim Gibbons a rubber stamp.

But 2009 will be different. Monday is the beginning of an unprecedented event in Nevada history, a Legislature during which the governor will be utterly irrelevant, a spectacular achievement. Every session needs a moniker and I hereby dub the 75th: The One Branch Session.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are saying the governor’s budget “plan” is unworkable, and they essentially will start from scratch. This is unheard of in a state with such a potent executive branch that only the governor presents a budget and the Gang of 63 chatters and wails for a few months but does little more than tinker. Not this year, a year in which a de facto legislative budget will supplant the de minimis gubernatorial spending package.

Gibbons thinks people are so clueless that all they can see is a choice between taxes and cuts, because that is his narrow view of the world. The challenge for legislative leaders is to not adopt the same patronizing attitude by hiding from their conclusion that more revenue is needed.

I still fear they may have waited too long — and they won’t present a “revenue plan” until April. Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford continue to dance around the T-word, a rhetorical waltz that fools no one who understands most Democrats have two left feet.

What polling indicates — and what common sense, a rare capital commodity, tells us — is that people are crying out for leadership. As November showed, the public is ever-hopeful, willing to set aside old stereotypes and hardened cynicism to believe that change has come.

But even if change has come to America, can it make its way to Carson City, where bold strokes occur as often as lawmakers turn down dinners at Adele’s? With Gibbons on the sidelines, where he belongs, there are reasons for hope to have the long-awaited conversation about how the state spends and raises money and what policy should guide each side of the budget equation.

Gibbons has never wanted a conversation, only a monologue, and a numbingly repetitive one. From the Democrats so far, we have only promises, and the man who holds the job formerly known as governor seized on that last week.

“I find it incredibly disappointing that some members of the Legislature would suggest that they have not had the resources, the opportunity or the time to find solutions to our budget situation,” Gibbons said in a news release. “I will not stand by quietly while Speaker Buckley and Sen. Horsford besmirch the hard work performed by me and my staff in assembling the budget.”

Yes, legislative leaders should have been preparing a plan because they should not have had any expectation the governor would fulfill his duties as chief executive. But for Gibbons, who barely participated in key decisions on his own budget and spends carefree time in Reno as the state burns, to feign outrage about his “hard work” is not just offensive — it is unconscionable. (Yes, his staff worked tirelessly without guidance. But the party boy who sometimes lives in the mansion has besmirched the title voters bestowed upon him.)

As Gibbons’ approval rating reaches its inevitable intersection with the state’s unemployment rate, any hopes reside with Buckley, Horsford and open-minded state Senate Republicans. Yes, public employee benefits reform may be the key to opening that GOP door. But the Republicans have handed Horsford and Buckley that key; they just need the will to use it.

The larger issue is breaking a familiar cycle. “In good times we spend a little bit of money on a lot of things, getting good at nothing,” Buckley said. “And in bad times we destroy everything we’ve just built.”

Buckley and Horsford have miles to go before they tax — yes, I can use the word. So far, all they have is a timeline. But they seem willing to have a conversation with those who do not necessarily embrace all they might want to do, quietly establishing a dialogue that must be sustained with GOP leaders and private-sector captains.

Gibbons, through his State of the State and continued petulance and sloth, has made his choice. It’s time for the grown-ups in both parties to fill the vacuum created by the man who holds the job formerly known as governor.

Let the One Branch Session begin.

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