Leadership vacuum

From his first day in office, President Obama has been in charge. Agree or disagree with his policies, nobody can suggest that he is standing on the sidelines or letting his vice president take the lead. Faced with a daunting array of crises, from the economic collapse to Somali piracy, Obama has been bold and decisive during his first 100 days in Washington.

It's a shame we don't see anything like it in Nevada's capital.

The leadership void in Carson City couldn't come at a worse time. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Nevada has the largest budget deficit, by percentage, in the country.

We all know about Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has basically abdicated his position as the state's political leader. Other than threatening to veto everything, Gibbons is not a significant player in debates concerning the $3 billion deficit.

That leaves this ominous job in the hands of the Nevada Legislature. In theory, this could be a good thing. By reputation at least, legislative leaders such as Democrats Barbara Buckley and Steven Horsford and Republican Bill Raggio are up to the task of forging a workable response to the impending budget calamity.

But with just a month and a half remaining in the 2009 session, these legislators and others seem paralyzed by fear, incapable of coming to grips with the monumental task before them. Their strategy, such as it is, appears to be to wait until the final weeks -- perhaps even the final days -- of the session to cobble together some mishmash of modest tax increases and painful budget cuts that will balance the budget and allow them to go home.

This is called business as usual. It's the same sorry way Nevada politics has been played for decades. The legislative leadership and the big-business lobbyists huddle in the back rooms and bars of Carson City every other spring to do the least possible damage to one another while all but excluding the public from the discussion.

And when they finally unveil the Frankenstein of a plan they have come up with behind closed doors, the people are given no time to respond to it, good, bad or otherwise. Nothing is sold to us, it is simply forced down our throats. And then, when the next election rolls around, the incumbents can't understand why angry voters aren't inclined to give them another term.

All this bears no resemblance to the promise of change that President Obama is in fact fulfilling. Again, reasonable people will disagree on certain parts of Obama's agenda, but it's impossible not to recognize the stark difference between the views and actions of Obama and his predecessor. America wanted change, and it's getting it -- fast.

Back in Carson City, there is no such sense of urgency. There is no movement to rally the citizens of Nevada to the cause.

The state is in its worst shape in many decades. Bold leadership is needed to avoid drastic budget cuts in public schools, higher education and civic and social services. Lacking decisive action, we are headed for a serious decline in the standard of living in Nevada, from the quality of the education we offer to our children to the range of public services we provide.

I know this pigeonholes me as a card-carrying liberal -- a "socialist" to the modern-day McCarthys -- but if we need to raise a little more than $2 billion just to maintain the status quo, then we must do it.

Nevada is no longer a small, frontier state that can ignore the realities of the 21st century. As much as some Nevadans would like to return to the "good ol' days" when gold prospectors and mobsters were the state's icons, when everybody fancied himself a rugged individualist, this romantic perspective is unrealistic today.

Like it or not, we are too big and complicated for all that now. We have highly urbanized metropolitan areas and highly diverse populations. We have large school systems, transportation systems, criminal justice systems and medical care systems that cost lots of money to run, even when they are operated efficiently.

More to the point, we have higher expectations now. In the distant past, many Nevadans embraced a Darwinian ethos, in which the clever and connected few prospered while the rest either served or moved on. Today, with a population of 2.6 million, Nevada leaders must consider the best interests of everybody, not just the elite, who can afford to insulate themselves from the harsh effects of severe budget cuts.

It's probably not realistic at this point to actually improve the state's sorry status in terms of spending on education, health care and other important services, but at least we shouldn't roll back what little we've been able to accomplish in recent years.

Let's not forget: The conservatives lost big in 2008. They lost nationally and they lost locally. Across the country, people decided to give the Democrats a chance to show what they can do. Sadly, Nevada's Democrats have not taken that message to heart.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Check out his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/schumacher.