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September 17, 2014

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THE GOVERNOR:

Session’s savior in his own eyes

Gibbons wants credit for stamping tax hike down, but fellow Republicans refuse to go along

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Sam Morris / FILE

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Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas

Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas

Gov. Jim Gibbons was roundly dismissed Thursday by fellow Republicans who say he played no role in their effort to limit the tax increase approved over his veto.

Lawmakers say Gibbons was not an active participant in the Legislature, which adjourned this week.

In an interview Thursday with the Las Vegas Sun, Gibbons referred to the Democratic-led tax increase as “a job-killing, economy-crushing insult to working families,” a phrase he has used repeatedly in recent days following the close of the legislative session Monday.

At the same time, he took credit for limiting the size of the tax increase to $781 million over two years.

“Had there not been an obstacle to their penchant to spend on everything they wanted, that tax would be much higher,” Gibbons said.

Senate Republicans, a majority of whom supported the tax hike, say they disagree with Gibbons’ version of events.

Asked about Gibbons’ statement, state Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, sounded baffled: “I don’t quite understand that statement. I don’t understand what he means by that,” Hardy said.

“We made it clear, absolutely clear, we weren’t going to go over a certain level of taxes, and that it would sunset,” he said. “That victory resides with Senate Republicans.”

Republicans say they drove a hard bargain with Democrats, but had the leverage to do so because the Nevada Constitution requires tax increases to pass with a two-thirds supermajority. Gibbons’ veto threat was therefore empty because the two-thirds needed to override was the same number required to pass any tax hike. Two Republican senators had to join the 12 Democrats to reach the two-thirds threshold in the 21-member Senate.

Open disagreement with a sitting governor of one’s own party is unusual, but it has become routine with Gibbons, who is one of the most isolated and least popular governors in Nevada history, according to legislators, lobbyists and public polling.

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Gibbons’ record number of vetoes were overridden at a record pace, too, because he could not persuade Republicans to stick with him.

When told Senate Republicans disagreed with his version of his role in the tax debate, Gibbons dismissed the assertion.

“They would have found a way to increase taxes, selling off some other concession to get a vote,” he said. “They would have negotiated someone’s vote for a tax increase, a special-interest bill or pork bill that someone wanted,” he said.

Gibbons, however, did not explain how his veto threat forced the outcome when a two-thirds vote was needed to pass the tax hike.

As it is, he said, legislators “sold their votes for special-interest legislation.” He did not provide specific examples.

Gibbons also took credit for changes to the public employee benefit and retirement systems, which will reduce the state’s long-term fiscal liabilities.

“We’re the ones who initiated PEBP and PERS reform,” he said, referring to the state’s benefit and pension programs. “It was the SAGE (Spending and Government Efficiency) Commission that initiated that. How do you get that Sen. Raggio was the father of that?” he said, referring to Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

Gibbons had made recommendations for curtailing PERS and PEBP, but they were dismissed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike as too draconian. Nor were calls for changes to the systems new or novel — conservatives have been calling for reform for years.

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Gibbons lashed out at his old allies in the business community. When he was asked about the support for the tax increase by the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, gaming and mining, Gibbons asked why they supported it.

Business interests said the Legislature had cut as much from the budget as it could and said further cuts would damage important programs.

Gibbons: “That’s not what they told me. They joined only because they were afraid if they didn’t, their taxes would be a lot higher.”

He said of the Chamber: “I’m telling you, when they see these new taxes come down to their members — and I talk to their members — their members are going to be dramatically impacted and very upset that the Chamber, who’s supposed to represent them, sold them down the river.”

Republican operatives say they have a mission and are pursuing it aggressively: Dump Gibbons.

Raggio, who has been in the upper chamber for more than three decades, declined to be directly critical of Gibbons.

“I’m a big believer if you don’t care who gets the credit, you get a lot done.”

He did say, however, that Senate Republicans — two of whom were needed for a tax increase — set the ceiling on taxes and required that they sunset. Senate Republicans won concessions on public employee and retiree health and pension benefits, while changing the collective bargaining process for local public employees to give local government more leverage, he said.

“We put back into the governor’s budget what was essential,” Raggio said.

Chuck Muth, a conservative activist, said Gibbons “did a terrible job.”

For most of the session, Gibbons did not reach out to Republican Party leadership, conservative activists or the public to sell his budget.

“There’s no excuse, policywise, not to communicate better with the Legislature and citizens at-large,” Muth said of Gibbons’ performance. “He rarely did that except for late last month, when he went on the road,” Muth said, referring to a series of town-hall-style sessions, mostly in rural Nevada.

As for Gibbons’ claim that he kept the tax increase low, Muth said, “That’s pure (bunk). The only reason the tax hike wasn’t larger was because Senate Republican leadership put an artificial cap on it.”

Still, Muth said, Gibbons’ flurry of vetoes over the spending and tax package at the end could redeem him. “Now he’s competitive again, at least in a Republican primary,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, dismissed Gibbons. “We chose to govern responsibly,” she said. “Common sense prevailed.”

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