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September 22, 2014

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Gibbons shunned by state lawmakers

Unpopularity, disengagement bring lame-duck treatment

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Sam Morris

Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, asks a question during a meeting Feb. 3 of the Interim Finance Committee. Given Gov. Jim Gibbons’ low profile, many in Carson City see Raggio as the most influential Republican. Some think he is likely to be the one to work out a compromise budget for higher education, which he has long supported.

One of the worst-kept secrets in the early days of the 2009 Nevada Legislature is the near perfect isolation of Gov. Jim Gibbons.

The first-term Republican’s proposed budget, which includes a nearly 36 percent cut in higher education and a 6 percent pay cut for teachers and state workers, is considered a non-starter.

Most legislators and lobbyists, Republicans and Democrats, don’t expect Gibbons to serve a second term. Much of the Republican Senate caucus, which he should be assiduously courting to implement his budget and policy priorities, is dismissive of Gibbons.

Instead, veteran Sen. Bill Raggio of Reno, now minority leader after years in the majority, is regarded as the Republican with real clout as the state deals with a $2.3 billion budget crisis. Raggio has criticized Gibbons’ budget as calling for too many draconian cuts.

Last week, when state Sen. Randolph Townsend of Reno, a leading Republican on energy policy, was asked about the governor’s energy plan, he ignored the question and said he’s working closely with the office of Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the United States Senate.

Gibbons’ staff is sometimes in the Legislature to testify at hearings on various bills, but they have little influence. The governor himself is scarce at the Legislature. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, was a constant presence during the session, always ready to swap gossip or go wonky on the budget.

Gibbons’ troubles aren’t new, stemming from a constant stream of political miscues, a divorce battle with first lady Dawn Gibbons, high staff turnover and a terrible economy, as well as the governor’s puzzling lack of engagement.

Now, however, the situation is even bleaker, longtime observers say. The governor’s administration has a lame-duck look, which is dangerous during a legislative session.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one veteran lobbyist, who didn’t want to be named because he has business before the government.

Often, the errors are unforced:

A close adviser to Gibbons reached out Thursday to a senior deputy to Jim Rogers, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, to propose working together to craft a new plan for funding higher education, Rogers said.

Observers found the move puzzling given that the governor released a video message Wednesday in which he criticized the higher education system’s “decided lack of cooperation” regarding budget matters. For more than a year Rogers has lobbed public insults at the governor and called for new taxes to fund education.

Rogers said Patty Wade Perry, who does not work for the governor’s office but is known as a close friend and adviser, spoke with Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the System of Higher Education.

According to Rogers, Wade Perry told Klaich, “We ought to have a discussion between the governor’s office and the chancellor’s office that’s related to a proposal for a new plan that we could go together to the Legislature with.”

Wade Perry originally denied to the Sun that the conversations took place, but she backtracked later in the day.

Wade Perry, who sits on the governor’s P-16 Council education advisory board, said she had lunch Sunday with Gibbons and broached the topic of a deal with the higher education system: “This is me trying to make peace and him saying, ‘Sure, why don’t you sit down, and if you can come up with something that works for both sides, great.’ ”

Wade Perry said she hoped there could be reconciliation between the governor and Rogers and the higher education system over which he presides.

But that seems unlikely. Gibbons has refused to talk about raising taxes, except for the small, voter-approved room tax increase. Rogers has said he opposes any further cuts to higher education.

Rogers said he rebuffed the offer. “What I have told Dan (Klaich) is that he is to tell the governor’s office that we don’t see any upside to having any discussion, we’ve had several discussions, none of them go anywhere, and quite frankly, that I question the governor’s sincerity in what he’s trying to do.”

Rogers said that if Gibbons’ administration wants to put something in writing, “we will be glad to look at it. We are not going to engage in any across-the-table discussion, because nothing’s ever come from any of those.”

Wade Perry said she didn’t expect her overture to be made public, although Rogers has a long history of public confrontation with the governor.

Rogers knows that Raggio holds great sway with Republicans and has been a long and consistent supporter of higher education. Raggio can likely muster enough support to join Democrats in the Senate and rewrite the budget over Gibbons’ objections.

Told about Wade Perry’s offer to Rogers, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a Las Vegas Democrat, chuckled and said, “Too late.”

Gibbons’ public approval rating hovers around 25 percent, according to a recent poll, and a number of Republicans are considering a run against him in a primary.

His reported campaign cash on hand last month was about one-tenth the combined total of the two Democrats presumed to be running: Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley.

A spokesman for the governor didn’t return phone calls from the Sun.

Sun reporter Charlotte Hsu contributed to this story.

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