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September 16, 2014

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Does bad taste from Gibbons’ time as governor still linger with voters?

During a debate in September, Kelli Ross, a conservative Democrat running for state Senate, was asked about Gov. Brian Sandoval’s desire to extend sunsetting taxes.

“First of all,” Ross told political journalist Jon Ralston, “I’m so pleased we actually have a governor who shows up to work. That makes my day right there. And I see he works with both sides on all the issues.”

The oblique reference to Nevada’s last governor seemed a bit of a non sequitur. Ralston had not asked anything about former Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose troubled tenure was marked by an ugly divorce and Gibbons’ general sense of disengagement from governing, except when tossing partisan bombs.

But Ross’ comment may also have been a glimpse into an electorate still suffering a hangover from Gibbons’ time in office.

On Election Day, voters handed a surprising victory to lawmakers by passing Question 1, which allows the Legislature to call itself into session — a power previously possessed only by the governor.

Its resounding margin has baffled supporters, opponents and plain old observers.

But one theory, that it passed because voters remember Gibbons’ embattled four years in office, raises an interesting question: Does the shadow of Gibbons’ term still hang in the mind of Nevada’s electorate?

Indeed, lawmakers initiated the process to wrest authority over special sessions from the governor in 2009 — the height of the scandal of Gibbons’ divorce.

While Gibbons’ troubles never reached a point where impeachment would have even been considered, the specter of the Legislature being wholly unable to call itself into session to impeach a wayward governor loomed large on the minds of lawmakers who put Question 1 on the ballot in the first place.

That argument was put to voters, as well, and could explain why they resoundingly gave more power to the Legislature, reversing a decades-long trend of Nevada voters handcuffing the legislative branch rather than expanding its power.

But if Gibbons is still on the mind of Nevada voters, it might be artificially inflating the high approval rating currently enjoyed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Anyone might look better in comparison, the thinking goes.

Some Democrats have suggested that Sandoval is still enjoying a honeymoon because lawmakers and others are just so glad Gibbons is no longer governor.

In some ways, this is not unprecedented. President Barack Obama has benefited from voters blaming the poor economy on President George W. Bush, for example.

Exit polls did not ask the almost 1 million Nevada voters why they voted on Question 1, and observers are scratching their heads over the reason it passed.

There was no active campaign for or against Question 1 this year. And although Sandoval said he opposed it, there was little media coverage of the issue.

In fact, conventional wisdom held that it would fail — voters would reflexively vote “no” on for ballot question not backed by a campaign.

Instead, 54 percent of voters said yes to Question 1.

David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV, said he was surprised at voters giving lawmakers more power. It flies in the face of recent history, when voters had limited legislative sessions to 120 days, imposed term limits on lawmakers and instituted a requirement that taxes pass by two-thirds super majorities.

“I’m still at a loss,” Damore said. “It’s not consistent with an anti-government, libertarian mindset, that ‘we don’t trust them.’”

“Maybe there’s a Gibbons effect here,” he said.

Or maybe voters are aware that the Nevada Legislature is limited to meet for 120 days every two years, and the complex matters facing the state on education, taxes, economic development and the environment need a more engaged legislative branch.

“Maybe people are realizing the Legislature, with its limited capacity, can’t do anything really serious about addressing policy problems,” he offered.

Robert Uithoven, a GOP political consultant, discounted the Gibbons theory on Question 1 and said voters might have been confused. Voters might have thought they were curtailing legislative powers to call themselves into special session, not realizing that the Legislature didn’t already have the power to do it.

The question as posed to voters does indeed ask voters if the Legislature “on extraordinary occasions” should meet “upon a petition signed by two thirds of the legislators of each house.”

But if Uithoven is wrong, and voters do indeed still have a bad taste of Gibbons in their mouth, what could that say about Sandoval’s approval rating?

Hugh Jackson, a liberal commentator who co-hosts a television show and writes a column for the weekly Las Vegas CityLife, has long posited that Sandoval’s approval ratings are boosted by following Gibbons.

“Nature loves a vacuum,” he wrote last week. “So does your Republican governor’s approval rating, which benefits from the absence of any hilarious/revolting headlines of the sort generated by his immediate predecessor, disgraced and incompetent Jim Gibbons. As comparative standards go, it’s an extremely low bar, but Sandoval is clearing it.”

The governor’s official spokeswoman referred questions on Sandoval’s popularity to the governor’s political team, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Sandoval, elected in November 2010, has enjoyed robust approval ratings throughout his term and has garnered praise on a personal level from Republicans and Democrats, who applauded his willingness to meet with them and work together.

During his first session, Democrats tiptoed around Sandoval because they feared his popularity with voters. As Sandoval heads into his second legislative session this February, a year and a half before his re-election campaign, it may quickly become apparent whether that honeymoon is still in effect.

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  1. I don't think there has been any honeymoon regarding Governor Sandoval and distancing himself from the last repugnant Tea/Republican Party Governor.

    Sandoval has continued the downward trend for Nevada.

    Nevada has twenty-two percent of its citizens with little or virtually no proper health care insurance. Sandoval steps up and decides to not participate in setting up Statewide health care exchanges in preparation of implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Welcome to the death camp called Nevada run by Warden Sandoval. Only after pressure, did he relent and agree. But it should be noted it was very, very, very reluctantly. And the whole thing hasn't played out yet. He still shows he could care less.

    During the silly season, Trump and Romney came to Las Vegas and appeared on stage. Shortly before this, Trump had doubled down on his despicable attack on President Obama with the birth certificate issue. On stage with Trump and Romney were Sandoval and Krolicki. What's the lesson learned from this? THEY'RE ALL BIRTHERS! Craziness.

    And lastly, I absolutely detest this Governor and his indifference to Veteran issues. He has cut money allocated to State Veterans issues. Then later, when another issue about Veterans issues comes out, he is conspicuously absent, has no comment, but then when forced, he has someone speak for him about it with some softball innocuous non-committed answer. All indications show...he don't care.

    The only thing Sandoval has shown he cares about, and it is apparent when a visible reaction comes out where he steps forward (which he usually doesn't about anything), is when you approach him about raising taxes on mining interests in Nevada and having them pay their fair share. Then, the truth comes out. He's not Governor. He still works for Jones Vargas where he used to lobby for mining interests in Nevada. This is the only time he comes forward. He's gotta protect the mining. That's who his bosses are.

    I didn't vote for the bum. People are trying to paint him as something he isn't. Thank God we have a situation in Nevada where there isn't a Tea/Republican Party majority. Because if there were, Sandoval would go absolutely crazy with trans-vaginal ultrasounds, emergency financial managers and voter suppression. I say he's just like the other nutcase Tea/Republican Governors in other States. He just don't have the majority to do anything. So he hangs back. Hoping the political winds shift.

  2. Gibbons,,, Gibson , either way they're outta here.

  3. I voted in favor of Question 1.

    I like that we have a part-time legislature, it embodies of the spirit of having a citizen legislature. That sits quite well with the Whig in me.

    That said, there are times when, if in the eyes of our citizen legislators there is a need for action and it is not being taken then they should be able to step up to the plate. What made this question especially attractive was that it also carried a built-in time limit of only 20 days for them to meet.

    In short, the question was a reasonable and responsible one, it deserved to pass.