Even governor's fans must find latest hypocrisy nothing to laugh off

Let's agree on something at the outset: Gov. Jim Gibbons' top staffers have difficult duty these days.

Members of Metro's bomb squad have less stress, and suicide bombers have a bigger future. I can't imagine it's much of a résumé-builder to be known as a faithful assistant or top adviser to the poor dunce stuck with the "America's Worst Governor" label.

Add to that the obvious, that tattered Nevada is straining more than most states in this recession, and the governor's staff has an excellent excuse to demand a raise. (And to drink heavily, come to think of it.)

But the fact it was revealed on Monday before the Senate Finance Committee that the governor's staffers have actually received big raises, and were making nearly double the sticker price attached to their job descriptions, has created yet another embarrassment for the Gibbons administration.

Gibbons' paid defenders rushed to remind press skeptics that the governor had done nothing illegal. Since 1999, it has been legal for the governor to set the salaries of his staff as long as the total isn't larger than the office's budget. If the governor wants to pay one person more and another person less, it's his prerogative.

So what's the big deal?

Just this: The salary increases make a mockery of Gibbons' pledge that he and his inner circle would tighten their belts right along with state employees and schoolteachers who were asked to accept 6 percent pay cuts starting July 1 in an effort to help close Nevada's budget deficit. "Asked" is a term of art; fact is, Gibbons pinned the 6 percent cut to their lapels and asked them to wear the boutonnieres with a sense of collective pride. We're all in this together, the governor has been telling us.

Now state workers can prove that's not true: We're not all in this together. And the governor, who seemed so sincere as he described the hard times and hard choices facing state government, sounds like a used-car salesman caught with a worthless warranty.

This isn't just another Gibbons pratfall. This exposes the administration's inner hypocrisy. This illustrates the petty word games the governor plays to justify his political agenda.

Let's be frank: No one expects the Democrats in the Legislature to practice fiscal sobriety. They dream of spending big money to actually address the state's many maladies. Love them or hate them, they're a known quantity.

The same goes for University Chancellor James Rogers, who attached himself like a pit bull to Gibbons' back pocket two years ago and hasn't let up. Rogers has argued that the state's university system can't absorb the dramatic cuts proposed by the governor. Gibbons responded that every segment of government must do its part.

Well, almost every segment.

Now we know Gibbons was just jiving.

It's not like his political prospects are bright -- he is the inventor of the Gibbons Gaff-o-Matic -- but his only hope for survival is to be seen as an unflinching, iron-fisted fiscal conservative. To get caught hustling the books for his own people while thousands of state workers face salary reductions cripples his credibility.

In politics, you want people to laugh at your jokes. You don't want to become the joke.

Gibbons' communications director, Daniel Burns, who has received a 28 percent salary increase and also acts as the governor's press secretary, last week assured the Review-Journal's Ed Vogel no laws were broken. The office has fewer staffers, 16.5. Not the legislatively approved 27. And, so, he intimated the raises were justified because the staff is doing more with less.

Which is remarkably disingenuous even for a communications director.

The staffs of many state agencies and departments are smaller than the legislatively approved maximum. Those employees do more with less every day.

Notice I haven't attempted to equate Gibbons' hypocrisy with the ethically shoddy and arguably illegal moves made by ousted Nuclear Projects Administrator Bob Loux, who gave himself and his staff unauthorized raises. Loux was wrong, got caught, and paid the price.

Gibbons broke no laws, but he violated the trust of every employee of the state. Now even his biggest supporters, presuming they exist, know he was playing games. He wasn't serious.

It's something his growing legion of critics has understood for quite some time.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.