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July 30, 2014

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Lame duck? Jim Gibbons doesn’t think so

Gibbons has an agenda that may not suit whoever suceeds him as governor

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Andrew DeGraff

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Gov. Jim Gibbons concedes the election Tuesday night from the steps of the Governor's Mansion in Carson City. Gibbons is the first incumbent governor in Nevada in a century to lose a nominating election.

Primary results

So much for riding quietly off to his ranch in Elko.

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration plans to aggressively push conservative policies and challenge the Legislature’s authority in its final six months, unbowed by last week’s landslide defeat.

Gibbons will issue executive orders, give direction to department heads and consider lawsuits to reshape state government right up to Jan. 2, when he leaves office, his senior staff said last week. Among the proposals his staff is considering are closing the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, pushing a ballot initiative opening up the collective bargaining process and challenging whether a key legislative budget committee is constitutional.

In an interview Thursday in the Capitol, Chief of Staff Robin Reedy, Deputy Chiefs of Staff Lynn Hettrick and Stacy Woodbury and General Counsel Adriana Fralick bristled at any suggestion the administration is a “lame duck.”

“Last time I checked, the term he was elected to was for four years,” Reedy said. “You want us to sit in chairs? Put tape over our mouths? Duct tape our hands? That’s not the staff we have.”

Since it became clear that Gibbons would lose his bid for re-election — the first time a sitting Nevada governor has lost in his party’s primary — how he would respond and conduct his final months in office have been frequently asked questions.

On the steps of the Governor’s Mansion on election night, Gibbons said he would work with either Republican nominee Brian Sandoval or Democrat Rory Reid in preparing the budget for the 2011 Legislature and a smooth transition.

Yet any policymaking on the scale Gibbons’ staff is planning will certainly meet resistance from lawmakers and potentially put his successor in a tough spot — saddled with a budget and policy fights that he might not agree with.

Democrats and Republicans had hoped the governor’s final months would be uneventful.

As Reedy said, though, that wouldn’t fit the personality of his senior staff.

In summer 2009, Gibbons revamped his office, firing some staff while others resigned. Although his previous staff had tried to work with lawmakers, the new group brought a pugnacious style and battled the Legislature over control of the federal stimulus and issued plans for conservative education reforms and the initiative petition to force public employee unions and local governments to negotiate contracts in public.

Critics viewed the burst of activity from Gibbons’ administration as a last-minute attempt to get him re-elected because he had an almost nonexistent campaign and raised little money. But after Tuesday’s drubbing by Sandoval, his staff has showed no desire to back off those policies. If anything, they seemed emboldened to push forward.

Their priorities for the next six months:

• Close Nevada State Prison. It’s been recommended by the corrections director and proposed by the governor, but rejected by the Legislature. Reedy said the closure of the state’s oldest prison would improve efficiency.

• Prepare a budget that will not raise taxes, which means deep cuts in services.

• Implement recommendations of the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, including privatizing some services, such as maintenance work, and examining building leases.

• Gather signatures for and promote the ballot initiative requiring public negotiations between unions and local governments.

• Reform state boards and commissions overseeing doctors, barbers, pharmacists and nurses, possibly eliminating or merging some.

• Evaluate suing the Legislature over the constitutionality of the Interim Finance Committee, which oversees state spending when the part-time Legislature is not in session.

This last goal will have potentially the most lasting effect on state government. Lawmakers say the committee, which approves budget adjustments for most of the year, is vital to the operation of state government. Gibbons has suggested it was unconstitutional and hinted that he might challenge it.

Hettrick, a former GOP Assembly leader, said the latest example of the Legislature encroaching on the executive branch is questions about the Public Safety Department’s K9 program, including specific questions about a dog’s boarding and patches, and uniforms for handlers.

“We’re not happy with IFC and think it regularly oversteps its authority,” Hettrick said. When asked if they are willing to challenge its constitutionality — sometimes referred to as the “nuclear option” — Hettrick said, “Are we willing? Yes. Are we going to? We haven’t made up our minds.”

Concern about Gibbons’ level of engagement had been an ongoing story during his 3 1/2 years in office. Former members of his inner circle have said that during the months leading up to the 2009 Legislature, he was rarely in the office and didn’t attend key budget planning sessions, allowing a campaign donor and his political consultant to be there in his stead. His staff was under orders to not disturb the governor on weekends when he was mowing his lawn, something that longtime associates describe as one of his favorite pastimes. Instead, the policies that come from his office and its style have largely been shaped by senior staff.

Preparing the 2011 budget is the most pressing issue facing the state, given an anticipated $2.5 billion to $3 billion hole in the $6 billion budget. The new governor will have to present a budget to the Legislature just a few weeks after taking office. By default, the new governor’s budget will largely reflect the priorities of the current administration.

Reedy said, “We’re happy to listen to anyone’s ideas.” But “the fact is we have an obligation to build the budget. And we’re going to do it with the existing revenue we have.”

Democrats and Republicans have expressed hope that the transition would be easy.

“I think it would be appropriate to work toward a smooth transition,” said Senate Republican leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who supported Sandoval. Sandoval did not respond to requests for comment.

Reid said, “I hope he’s willing to collaborate and work with the transitioning administration in the appropriate way ... Whatever you think of Jim Gibbons, I know he cares about the state. I don’t expect him to do anything other than be helpful to those who succeed him.”

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