Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Once Gov. Jim Gibbons does as expected in his State of the State address Thursday and pledges to veto any tax increase to balance the state budget, the first-term Republican will become largely irrelevant to the legislative process, many capital observers assume.
That’s because Gibbons will have to cut 34 percent from the budget to avoid a tax increase, and a coalition of Democrats, organized labor, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and some moderate Republicans has expressed opposition to such a cut to essential services.
Instead, as the budget moves forward, the real action will involve a troika of Democrats who are not only the future of the party in Nevada, but also occasional rivals whose various aspirations will make it difficult at times for them to pull together. For that reason, they bear close watching after the Legislature opens on Feb. 2.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford will begin the negotiations in earnest as they try to close the roughly $2.3 billion budget shortfall. Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, whose board oversees $1.9 billion in its own right, will be hovering in the background, nervously watching to see whether the state government will raid cities and counties for needed tax dollars or dump responsibilities on local government.
The three officials share their party label and an ideology of government activism, but they have their own personalities, pasts and goals.
Complicating matters, Reid and Buckley are widely seen as likely candidates for governor, each having $1 million on hand for a potential run.
Horsford has much at stake as well. He’s a new majority leader with a restive caucus that will want to hold the majority after nearly two decades in the minority. That means protecting his members from risky votes and bringing on as many Republicans as he can for political cover. This could set up a conflict with Buckley, who has a two-thirds majority of mostly loyal soldiers in the Assembly.
The opportunity for political intrigue and mischief will be great.
“The potential is there for a heightened politics because of potential runs for governor plus the mix of maybe shifting needs toward the county,” said Chris Giunchigliani, who sits on the Clark County Commission with Reid and served for years with Buckley in the Assembly.
The scary model here is the 2005 legislative session, when then-Speaker Richard Perkins and then-Minority Leader Dina Titus were both presumed to be running for the Democratic nomination for governor. Lobbyists feared being seen with one or the other, lest they be cast from the opposing house.
Giunchigliani, as well as a range of legislators and lobbyists interviewed for this story, said the budget crisis this year is so acute that any sign of tomfoolery could politically backfire.
Billy Vassiliadis, the long time gaming lobbyist, said, “I think people who are viewed as game players or obstructionists run great potential for being damaged for a long, long time.”
So either Buckley, Horsford and Reid will pull their punches, or they will be extra careful in their maneuvering.
Perkins said he could foresee no repeat of 2005: “These folks are professionals,” said Perkins, now a lobbyist. They’ll all be viewed with suspicion, as people wonder if there’s a hidden agenda, he allowed, adding that, knowing all three, they’ll do what’s right.
Before the November elections thrust his party into majority status in the Senate, Horsford had been elected as the first black minority leader and one of the youngest. What ensued was a period of tension with Buckley. They went on separate speaking tours, which seemed a conspicuous inability to get together. But the tension has dissolved for the most part, and they are now working together, people close to them say.
Buckley and Horsford said they’ve been meeting throughout the past several months on a set of principles for approaching the session.
But there is no question that he has a slightly different agenda from Buckley’s. His caucus features some unruly and unpredictable personalities who must be herded. And, he wants to win over the old lion, longtime majority leader and now minority leader Bill Raggio, the Reno Republican, who will retain immense influence because Horsford needs some Republicans to get to the two-thirds needed for a tax increase.
“When and if we get to that point (of a tax increase) it needs to be a bipartisan solution and I’m working hard with Sen. Raggio and other members of his caucus to find where there is common ground,” Horsford said.
Buckley has been laying the groundwork for the session, and ultimately, for the inevitable tax proposal, in her methodical, disciplined way, laying out the crisis the state faces in a series of public forums that began last year. She appointed “discussion leaders” who are taking input and are reporting back to her now.
This leaves Reid, the odd man out for the next five months.
On the one hand, he doesn’t have to make the tough choices Buckley does, like proposing a tax increase. On the other hand, he has very little clout in Carson City, aside from the presumptive juice of his last name – he’s the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who single-handedly helped rebuild the state Democratic Party.
“He’s the blood and guts,” as one lobbyist put it.
Reid is being careful. Indeed, asked in an interview last week whether the state’s tax system is fair, he declined to answer.
This seemed odd, as no doubt most Nevadans have some opinion on the question. He said in a Sun interview he didn’t want to prejudge the Legislature’s efforts. Doing so, he said, would be bad for the county if Buckley angrily raided the county budget.
Reid also obliquely suggested local governments could use some flexibility dealing with municipal employee unions. State law gives such unions — though not their state government counterparts — collective bargaining rights, which have strengthened them and pushed up local government salaries.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, one of Buckley’s closest allies, made clear that Reid is on his own. “With the unions, what do we have to do with that?”
Translation: That’s your problem, Reid.
Still, Leslie said Buckley would be nothing but professional. “She is focused on the budget and the session. And helping our caucus. She’s not consumed. That will wait.”