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August 2, 2014

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Jon Ralston:

Special session standouts

The noteworthy performances of three state leaders

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Sam Morris

In a tough speech on Day Four of the special session, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford called on corporations to pay more.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

— Abraham Lincoln,Gettysburg Address

There was less blood during the 26th special session of the Legislature than on that battlefield before Nevada had entered the union, but as this political civil war over the budget comes to a close, it is worth musing how much will be remembered and how much forgotten by June, by November and by February.

Even as I write this, before any final deal is reached but as sine die seems inevitable, some of what occurs here is worth noting, including the performances of three elected officials:

• The Great Compromiser? The metamorphosis of Gov. Jim Gibbons, a reverse Gregor Samsa, from the Legislature-bashing chief executive to the speaker-praising conciliator on education and the budget would have been startling except for two factors.

First, Gibbons is, ipso facto, erratic. Inconsistent behavior has defined his tenure. So for him to accuse lawmakers of causing the deepening recession because of the 2009 tax increase, without a scintilla of evidence, and a few days later praising Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley on “Face to Face” and meeting with legislators to shut down the session is de rigueur.

Second, perhaps there is a wee bit of politics at play. Gibbons, judging by recent polls, has locked up about 30 percent of the GOP electorate — the no-new-taxes acolytes who would be happy if the state budget were zeroed out. But, perhaps someone told him, you might need 10 percent or more above that base to actually win the primary, so perhaps it’s time not to just play the anti-tax zealot but to also show some leadership. Go to the Legislative Building, meet with lawmakers, move the session to conclusion, and declare an ecumenical victory upon adjournment. Gibbons was noticeably different on “Face to Face” and during the last few days. It is an extreme makeover, to be sure, but if it takes ...

• The Democrats’ Future? Steven Horsford, the youngest majority leader in state Senate history, continues to mature with every appearance on the public stage. This crystallized during a late-night session with reporters on Friday during which he was knowledgeable, playful, patient, tough and disciplined.

And on the Senate floor, when he laced into the gaming industry for its recalcitrance and excoriated corporate irresponsibility in the state, he displayed that he both knows how to put on a show and how to send a long-term message. Horsford displayed all the qualities of a leader, and even should Democrat Rory Reid be elected governor, Horsford seems poised to don the mantle Bill Raggio has held for decades in the capital: the most powerful man in Carson City.

• The Confines of Rhetoric: If any week so starkly outlined the constraints of silly tax promises, Special Session 2010 did the trick. Gibbons’ “no new tax” pledge was revealed to have more fine print than any life insurance policy. It essentially reads thusly: No new taxes unless the people vote for it, but even if they do I won’t sign it into law; and no new taxes unless the industry says it’s OK and even if they do I might not sign it; and a fee is a tax except when I think it is not and even then I might change my mind.

I kid you not: Gibbons’ Cirque du Soleil-caliber rhetorical contortions during the session were remarkable, showing definitively what many have argued since he first boxed himself in: A slogan is not a policy.

No one expected much vision from either the governor’s office or the Legislative Building, but the myopia that afflicted this session was all-too depressing. But there was some long-term thinking — or at least talking ...

• Nothing to Lose: Perhaps even more jarring to some observers was GOP Sen. Randolph Townsend’s blistering assault on business interests. Townsend took on the Just Say No Caucus for its serial refusal to be part of any budget solution, railing about the state’s long-term budget problems coming home to roost — nongeneral fund liabilities that may approach $500 million, a looming 2011 deficit of $3.5 billion or more.

“No is not a plan,” Townsend declared. It would be nice to see the Reno senator push for a visionary solution in 2011, but ... he won’t be there. I sense, though, that the term-limited senator may try to rally private interests and attempt to build a coalition so the performances of Special Session 2010 translate into the accomplishments of Session ’11.

That would be much-noted and long-remembered indeed.

Jon Ralston’s column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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