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July 29, 2014

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Jon Ralston laments the lack of spines in Carson City these days

The whine season has begun early in Carson City this year.

As unemployment soars to record highs and gaming stocks drop to record lows, lawmakers who have to make the difficult decisions and special interests who want to influence the Gang of 63 lament their lot, point their fingers and vent their spleens.

The legislative sandbox rarely is a place where prudence supplants petulance, where deliberation replaces consternation. But this session seems demonstrably worse, with the frustrating search for an adult willing to take a mature stance only surpassed by the elusive quest for anyone willing to act on principle.

All of this comes during a metastasizing economic crisis that threatens to take many Strip executives out of cozy boardrooms and into bankruptcy courtrooms, sending reverberations throughout a state where double-digit unemployment may last until next year and beyond.

The session is nearly a third over and a pervasive sense of deja vu is settling in. Governor presents controversial idea(s). Legislature declares them DOA. Partisan sniping ensues between lawmakers and governor and among legislators. Final budget/revenue plans are an abomination, some kind of Frankensteinian creation that has no policy underpinnings but fills a budget hole with cobbled together revenue Band-Aids.

Despite all the chatter about lawmakers, infused with courage by term limits, seeking a new way, I sense the path of least resistance will not be resisted in the end.

My cynicism level is heightened by the mini-dust-up last week over what to do with the unemployment compensation component of the stimulus package, and Gov. Jim Gibbons seizing the occasion of a joint tax hearing to paint the Democrats as having a secret plan to raise revenue.

Gibbons’ performance on the unemployment stimulus money is emblematic. He attacked congressional Democrats but would not commit to a stand on the revenue — even though in July he gushed in a release: “Studies indicate that each dollar paid out in unemployment insurance benefits creates more than two dollars in economic activity in the state … So aside from helping people who are struggling to make ends meet during this difficult economic downturn, this can provide a substantial stimulus to Nevada’s economy.”

This is the new Jim Gibbons, who claims to be a ramrod anti-tax believer but showed the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast in genuflecting to the feds for the stimulus package. The same Jim Gibbons who made his congressional bones as a conservative Republican opposing wasteful government spending, then eagerly grabbed the 10-figure stimulus package many Republicans deride as wasteful government spending — a man whose “no new tax” persona is belied by several de facto taxes embedded in his budget, including the third largest tax increase in history he will sign after the Senate passes the $220 million room tax increase Monday.

Flexibility he has in spades. Principles? Not so much.

But — so far, at least — the Democrats have not been effective foils. Legislative leaders seem to believe that by pointing out that the Gibbons budget is horrendous, they can lay the groundwork for what is euphemistically being called “a revenue package.”

It’s all a charade to get to a number — the eventual amount of the tax increase. Indeed, the Democrats also have a no-new-taxes philosophy, just with an accent on a different word. That is, there are no new taxes under the sun — and for months, there have been revenue matrices circulating in the building.

I would have more respect for Gibbons if he simply said, “Let me be honest. I was great in Congress because I made one-minute floor speeches about Ronald Reagan and liberal Democrats. But now I have to come up with real ideas and all I have is a calculator.”

But I also would have more respect for legislative Democrats if they called a news conference and declared: “Listen, we know Nevadans are hurting. But how much worse will it be if we allowed schools and health care and roads to get worse when we have never funded them properly? We will find a tax package that does not destroy businesses and families but keeps the state intact. And here is what we are looking at ...”

Gibbons is a lost cause. But it is not principled for Democrats to sit down for what they believe in because they are afraid of the political consequences and don’t trust their ability to educate the public.

If ever there were a time to ignore the extremes on both sides, to disregard the blog posters and engage a worried public in an adult conversation about tax truths and consequences, this is the time.

Who in Carson City has had enough of whining and is up to that challenge?

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