The rise of the zombie governor

Jim Gibbons, the first Nevada governor up for re-election who was voted out in a primary, has to amuse himself for the next few months. So, his staff has been busy preparing the Gibbons Open Government Initiative to require unions and local governments to conduct their contract talks in public. That way, evil unions won’t be able to put anything over on evil government employees.

A few questions arise in relation to this matter:

• Should public employees spend state time or resources on a ballot initiative?

Yes, according to Gibbons’ staff, for a couple of reasons. One, they say judicial decisions permit it, and also permit unions to negotiate, supposedly without intimidation.

Two, this is a policy the governor has long advocated, so it’s related to his and their jobs. It would be a first for Gibbons to advocate a policy. He has no policy, or, more accurately, he has a “no” policy. If Gibbons had to limit his speech and text-messaging to one word, it would be “no.”

• Why does the governor need an initiative to pursue a policy? He’s the governor.

Actually, he’s Jim Gibbons. On one hand, the Democrats who have a solid legislative majority tend to think employees should have the right to unionize, and requiring negotiations to be conducted in the open is a threat to that. Democrats also tend to be as pro-union as possible in a right-to-work state, so his chances of winning legislative passage were limited.

On the other hand, Gibbons has been unusually inept at working with the Legislature. He got a lot of what he wanted by just opposing anything lawmakers proposed that might improve the state. During the last special session, a couple of legislative leaders marveled at how involved he was in the process because he stayed for some meetings. If that is a new height of involvement, standards obviously have dropped. Perhaps if Gibbons engaged the Legislature earlier, or used the governor’s powers and bully pulpit as he should have, his “policy” might have gotten somewhere.

• Is this initiative bad policy, or is the problem that it’s the work of Jim Gibbons?

Yes—on both counts. When former Vice President Dick Cheney had an energy task force meet secretly in 2001, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., joined a Government Accountability Office lawsuit demanding that information about it be made public. Gibbons, then a member of the House of Representatives, didn’t exactly make it a priority to demand openness and accountability, so whether he is really interested in open government is a valid question. Since he dislikes unions and government employees, openness has little to do with it or he wouldn’t have spent so much effort in court to hide his text messages or divorce details.

Also, Gibbons has traveled the initiative path before. In 1994, he came up with requiring two-thirds of the Legislature to approve any tax hike, as opposed to a simple majority. Nevadans approved it since all taxes are bad and elected officials scared of an angry electorate would impose taxes nobody wanted (that’s called sarcasm).

Then, in 2003, Gov. Kenny Guinn sued the Legislature when it couldn’t muster a two-thirds vote for his tax hike—the tally was 27-15, meaning the overwhelming majority of our elected representatives favored it, but a minority could block it (the law should be unconstitutional for violating the “one man, one vote” principle and giving a minority’s votes more weight than a majority’s). The attorney general who won Guinn’s case, Brian Sandoval, just spent the recent GOP primary for governor trying to make believe it never happened.

Thus one irony: Sandoval fudged over his role in winning a case against a law that was the brainchild of his primary opponent, and because he fudged, his general election opponent may find ways to use it against him.

And another irony: The early 20th-century progressives created the initiative for citizens to use when legislatures refused to do their duty. Whether the governor should use it may be debated, since governors can’t make legislators act—at least some governors can’t. Maybe Gibbons could wait. Thanks to Nevada Republicans, he’ll soon be a private citizen again. In the meantime, as this initiative shows, he can do damage in either role. What did Shakespeare say about the evil that men do living after them?