Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal
Friday, Jan. 22, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Gov. Jim Gibbons’ relationship with lawmakers reached a new nadir this week after he issued an order that state workers under his authority not speak to legislators without his approval.
“All legislative requests for information or reporting of any kind must be sent directly to the governor’s office,” Gibbons wrote in a letter last week to department heads. “My staff will determine which requests warrant responses from a Department of the Executive Branch ... Any request for information received by your department that does not come from my office is to be returned to the requestor.”
Additionally, according to Gibbons’ order, any request for an executive branch employee to testify or appear before a legislative committee must be approved by the governor’s executive staff.
The governor’s staff said the directive is necessary because legislators were asking time-consuming questions that distracted it from conducting state business.
Robin Reedy, the governor’s chief of staff, lightened the ban somewhat this week. In an interview, she said legislators calling on behalf of a constituent about issues such as problems with unemployment checks could still contact departments directly.
Still, legislators and state government observers say the order, which they described as unprecedented, threatens the ability of state government to function at a crucial moment. Nevada is confronting a widening budget deficit and is reeling from the recession.
“We communicate with the executive branch every day,” said Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which provides research, legal and other services for lawmakers. “If we can’t get that information, it will make it impossible for us to do our jobs.”
The governor has called a meeting of the Economic Forum, a panel of five members of the business community, to issue new tax revenue projections. State sources expect that when the panel meets today in Carson City, it will determine the state is facing a $400 million to $600 million deficit. In response to those projections, Gibbons is expected to call a special session of the Legislature next month.
Democratic and Republican legislators have written letters protesting the governor’s decision, and question whether it’s legal.
“Not only is this a terribly inefficient procedure and a disservice to the people of the state whom we all represent, the failure to respond ... is quite probably illegal,” wrote Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
In another letter, Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, wrote: “These difficult economic times require more communication and cooperation between the branches, not less. Further, your directive hampers the openness and transparency in government.”
Gansert noted that some state employees are required by law to provide certain information to lawmakers. “By directing executive branch employees not to respond to these requests, you are putting them in the position of either violating the law or violating your directive,” she wrote.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, called the policy “unfortunate and inappropriate.” “It’s essential that legislators have access to information in those departments without some difficult way to obtain it,” he said.
Gibbons’ new barrier between the branches of state government is just the latest sign of the tensions between the governor and lawmakers. During the 2009 session, he took a hands-off approach to the legislative process after submitting his budget. He then vetoed a record 45 bills, and the Legislature responded by overriding his vetoes a record 25 times.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature has proved a useful political foil for the governor as he attempts to cast himself as a conservative voice in his bid for re-election. He has railed against the tax increases lawmakers passed to balance the budget; called the Legislature’s interim committee unconstitutional; and Thursday issued a news release blaming the Legislature for the state’s bad economy. “I believe the Democrat-controlled Legislature is partly responsible for many of the economic problems our state is facing,” he said.
Before he issued the order, Gibbons had been upset that the Legislature would not grant him access to legislative lawyers to draft bills for a special session.
Reedy denied any connection between prior incidents and Gibbons’ order. Instead, she said, it had to do with legislative requests to staff that were “distracting from agencies’ core mission.”
Stacy Woodbury, Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff, said a variety of requests from legislators have consumed staff time. What spurred last week’s letter were legislators requesting information from the unemployment insurance office regarding the overpayment of benefits.
The Reno Gazette-Journal reported in early December that the state was trying to collect money it had overpaid to unemployed Nevadans. Legislators asked the Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Department for information about overpayments, including historical data.
Woodbury said the department’s director, Larry Mosley, told her around Christmas that the requests were distracting staff from getting unemployment checks out. She raised the issue with the governor and other senior staff Jan. 11, and the governor issued his letter the next day.
Woodbury emphasized that legislators dealing with constituents’ issues such as problems with unemployment payments can directly communicate with staff. “That’s OK,” she said. “That’s something that’s within agencies’ core mission.”