Nevada’s 63 legislators met in Carson City last year and tried to fix the budget for the next two years on the basis of revenue projections. As usual, they failed, and a special session now looms. From all indications, they won’t cut the budget; they’ll gut it.
Granted, the great boom is over, but don’t put all the blame on the economy. Even in the more prosperous 1990s, Gov. Bob Miller often trimmed the budget during years when the Legislature didn’t meet.
Now, the state has close to a $900 million budget shortfall. A budget analyst for Gov. Jim Gibbons suggested 25 percent to 30 percent salary cuts for all state employees would help.
That seems highly unlikely, as Gibbons is only slightly more popular throughout Nevada than Barack Obama would be at a Tea Party meeting. Democrats have the required two-thirds majority in the Assembly to increase taxes and override his veto. They are short in the Senate, but some Republicans there actually have shown that, unlike their U.S. Senate counterparts, they are capable of constructive action.
And yet, veteran lobbyists and analysts predict politicians will likely roll over and give Gibbons what he wants. Why? There are a few possible explanations for preferring the easy way to the right way:
1. Not my problem.
During the 2009 session, at least one legislator said privately that some lawmakers wanted to avoid contentious issues such as the budget, but not because they feared being defeated. Thanks to term limits, many of them simply won’t be back, so they could leave problems for future legislators to resolve.
That isn’t how term limits were supposed to work. When uber-consultant Sig Rogich pushed the initiative in the mid-1990s, it was meant to remove professional politicians (some now are running for other offices), create competitive races (most districts are set up for one party or the other) and produce better policymaking (which is mutually exclusive from abdicating responsibility). While some politicians are principled or legitimately concerned, others are free to wield their cleavers without facing electoral consequences.
2. If Massachusetts can elect a Republican to the Senate, what might Nevadans do? Better for all, especially Democrats, to be cautious.
Nevada is the land of libertarians, but the bulk of them are outside Clark County (except those in the Las Vegas Review-Journal building). Democrats may conclude leveling the state will win them the R-J’s adoration or woo anti-government voters. But that’s not the case. Besides, if anti-incumbent fervor is that strong, Democrats and Republicans alike could be vulnerable.
3. Whatever the Legislature does, Gibbons will get credit or blame.
In 2007, too many Democrats considered Gibbons a lame duck, so why worry? Answer: He’s still governor, and he sets the agenda for the special session. In 2009, he proposed a 36 percent cut to higher education. While no one in the Legislature seemed to take that seriously, the original cuts were considerably higher than the eventual reduction of 12.5 percent, and it took all of Sen. Steven Horsford’s resilience to stanch the bleeding. Several of his colleagues wanted bigger cuts, and some of them used Gibbons as their starting point.
It could have been worse. But why wasn’t it better? Because Gibbons set the bar, and too many legislators worked from there.
4. Government employee salary cuts and layoffs are what Nevadans want.
Nevada voters approved term limits and demand government services but don’t want to pay for them. They and other government critics often decry waste but rarely come up with specific examples of it. In this climate, voters may not know what they want tomorrow, but legislators should do what needs to be done now.
Democrats would do well to heed the advice of Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, who argued that legislation was a matter of “reason and judgment, and not of inclination” and that elected representatives owed their constituents their best judgment, not their blind obedience.
Said Burke: “I do not know how to wish success to those whose Victory is to separate us from a large and noble part of our Empire. Still less do I wish success to injustice, oppression and absurdity.”
There’s no oppression here, but if you want injustice and absurdity, welcome to Nevada.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.