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April 17, 2014

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STATE GOVERNMENT :

Is anyone in charge in Nevada?

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SUN FILE PHOTOS

Clockwise from top left: Gov. Jim Gibbons, Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford

THE GOVERNOR:

Said he won’t sign the room tax hike in his own budget, sending a mixed message to lawmakers.

THE LEGISLATURE:

Need for more taxes an open secret, but its prominent members remain conspicuously silent in public.

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Bad Timing?

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Boxed In?

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Gov. Jim Gibbons was a weak presence in Carson City before he announced this week that he would not sign a room tax increase included in his own budget, according to lawmakers and political observers.

The angry response to that decision is further evidence that legislators, even in his own party, have turned away from his leadership, they say.

The observers say the question now is who, if anyone, is leading the state, which is confronting a $2.36 billion budget deficit, rising foreclosures and a sputtering gaming industry. The answer that many offer is troubling.

“I don’t see anyone leading the state — there’s a vacuum,” said Guy Rocha, the respected state historian who retired as state archivist this year. “I’m not sure who will step up. Everyone has been cautious. I haven’t seen anyone take the bull by the horns.”

As governor, Gibbons is required by the constitution to propose a budget. His staffers defend his leadership, saying that unlike legislative leaders, the governor has at least put forward a plan.

However, what some found so disheartening this week was that Gibbons seemed to distance himself from his own budget. Lawmakers said they had approved the room tax hike with the understanding he would sign it.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford called Gibbons’ decision “cowardice.” Sen. Bill Raggio, the Senate’s minority leader and a venerable Republican leader for three decades, said “I and others have been mislead.”

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said the governor “wanted it both ways,” and the Assembly’s minority leader, Heidi Gansert, said she was “surprised and disappointed.”

“I’ve always been straightforward that I do not support a tax increase,” Gibbons told the Sun. “I’ve always told them that I will not stand in the way of a vote of the public. That doesn’t mean I have to sign onto it, vote for it, or anything else.”

Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said the room tax episode portrayed the governor as inconsistent and disengaged.

“Why did he want to become governor when he does not want to govern?” Lokken said.

Chuck Muth, a conservative anti-tax activist who has been advising the state Republican Party, called on Gibbons to resign.

No one has emerged as a vocal leader to fill the void left by Gibbons.

When the governor unveiled his budget on Jan. 15, with 6 percent pay cuts for teachers and state workers and 36 percent cuts in higher education, some state observers expected Buckley to quickly release an alternative.

But Democratic legislative leaders have yet to propose a plan.

“If Gibbons is not showing forthright leadership, the Legislature should step up,” said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political science professor. “Leadership seems to be in short supply in both the governor and Legislature.”

Buckley, who spent months on a statewide tour last year discussing Nevada’s woeful rankings in a host of areas and listening to public input, is in the best position. Yet although the inevitability of tax increases is an open secret in Carson City, Buckley has continued to refuse to say that raising taxes may be a part of the state budget solution.

“Everyone is hanging back,” Rocha said. “I’m not sure why people are so tepid. But there’s an absence of power, and no one has decided yet to move forward with their agenda.”

Instead, Buckley and Horsford have followed a deliberate process.

Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said, “There are 63 (legislators) in the building elected to do the people’s business, and we’ve been doing it.”

The room tax, projected to raise $232 million over the next two years, “was the first in a series of difficult decisions the Legislature will have to make to prevent the disintegration of vital services,” he said.

Buckley also defended the process.

“The legislative leadership, Senate and Assembly, is deciding what can be cut and what we need to preserve as a state,” she said. After figuring how much the federal stimulus can help, “we will see what our options are.”

But Gibbons administration officials have mocked the Democrats as having a “plan for a plan.”

“We need fewer whiners standing on the side complaining, and more people bringing solid solutions to the problems of the state,” Gibbons told the Sun. “I’m waiting for the Democrats to bring their plan, their solution to the budget problems of the state of Nevada forward, bring them out to the light of the public.”

Democrats appear to be drawing from lessons learned in 2003, when Gov. Kenny Guinn came out before the session started to push a tax on gross receipts. The plan was picked apart, and although the state passed a large tax increase, the gross receipts tax died.

“We know from experience if we have to raise taxes, we have to be able to sell the need for it,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “By the end of the session, you’ll look back and know who the leaders were.”

For now, the state appears “rudderless,” according to one lobbyist with ties to Democratic leadership.

“There’s only so much Buckley and Horsford and Raggio can do,” said the lobbyist, speaking anonymously for fear of alienating leadership. “They’re not the executive branch. There are only so many buttons they can push.”

Billy Vassiliadis, a lobbyist and chief executive of the advertising firm R&R Partners, said there is still time for leadership to emerge to address the state’s problems.

“The who, at least right now, is the Legislative leadership team, which includes the speaker, the majority leader, both minority leaders,” he said. Leadership will also come from “various industries, interest groups, associations and labor unions.”

“We’ll know by early June whether there is or isn’t” leadership, he said. If not, “we’re headed for disaster.”

Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican and Sun Capital Bureau Chief Cy Ryan contributed to this story.

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