A not very special session

As was his wish, the final song on Johnny Cash’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave is “Aloha Oe,” which means hello or goodbye. Nevada’s 63 legislators recently gathered in Carson City and took a cutting knife to the budget instead of the meat cleaver Gov. Jim Gibbons wanted them to use. Now they have come home to face the music, and “Aloha Oe” may well be their song. Whether some said hello or goodbye to their political careers remains to be seen.

That Gibbons has been Nevada’s worst governor ever may not be settled, but he certainly is our most embarrassing one. He opened the session by telling KLAS Channel 8 reporter Jonathan Humbert on camera that he hadn’t been in Washington, D.C., with the woman he texted 800 times in one month, only to fess up the next day. Then came their picture with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who could teach Gibbons a thing or two about how to ruin a marriage.

Gibbons also declared when the session would end, prompting lawmakers to dismiss him. They ran about three hours beyond his limit. That’ll teach him. He also ordered staff members to leave a hearing because the questions were nasty. If they can survive working for Gibbons, questions from legislators should be a piece of cake.

In the end, he wound up receiving some praise for engaging in discussions with legislators about how to settle budget problems for now. When a governor receives praise for showing up, that’s all you need to know.

But polls show Gibbons gaining on anointed Republican Brian Sandoval in the governor’s primary. Sandoval can hope Gibbons and Mike Montandon split the far-right vote, but remember: 48 percent of Nevadans voted for Gibbons in 2006, even if few seem willing to admit it now, and the whiff of scandal was pungent even then.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford wowed Nevada liberals—all three of them—when he tore into gaming for refusing to pony up $64 million to pay state regulatory expenses. Horsford seems headed for bigger things than the Legislature, so it’s good for him to throw red meat to the Democratic base. He also fought hard to limit the cuts, demonstrating he doesn’t want to tear apart the state. It almost made up for two problems:

• In responding to Gibbons’ plea to allow him to destroy state government, Horsford agreed with the governor that there would be no new taxes—and abdicated his political and governmental responsibility. First, even if you don’t think some industries can afford to pay more in taxes and should have to do so (How deep do you have to mine for the answer?), that sort of blanket statement is dangerous and counterproductive. Second, that’s Gibbons’ position. If you enter a negotiation, whether for a union contract or what you and your spouse want for dinner, you don’t start out at your opponent’s position.

• Why should gaming be asked if it wants to pay taxes? No disrespect to gaming executives, who rightly object to other Nevada businesses getting away with fiscal murder, but individual constituents aren’t asked whether they can afford fees or salary cuts. When you ask gaming if, like Oliver Twist, you can have some more, it isn’t liberalism or conservatism. It looks more like toadyism.

Oddly, though, liberals wound up moderately pleased—and thus likelier to pound the pavement for Democrats this year. Although Gibbons has made Nevada look like the equivalent of a crash-test dummy, he didn’t get to total the state. Liberal groups were properly thrilled that educational and welfare services absorbed less of a cut, even with Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio making noises about anti-tax zealots who actually think Nevadans overpay. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, not liberal so much as civil libertarian, praised lawmakers for rejecting Gibbons’ efforts to stick it to poorer schools (vouchers), discrimination victims (shuttering the Nevada Equal Rights Commission) and government unions (ending collective bargaining).

Meanwhile, amid the celebrations that things could have been worse, things look worse. The 2011 Legislature may face a budget deficit that makes the Grand Canyon look like a thimble while also trying to reapportion itself. Tea partiers remain opposed to anything that doesn’t begin with “no.” For the zillionth time, anyone with brains is decrying Nevada’s tax structure and wants to fix it. Aloha, oy.

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