This fall's battle for the presidency between Barack Obama and John McCain is going to get epic and bloody. But it'll be kid stuff compared with the Nevada Legislature's spring melee.
At least I hope so.
The state economic crisis is bad and getting worse. Budget cutting has already occurred, and more severe gouging looms as the state's tourism and development machines sputter.
The predominant policy stance, as crudely espoused by Gov. Jim Gibbons, is that there are no alternatives to wielding the budget ax, that we must hack to the marrow if necessary to balance the budget. Gibbons is the least popular governor in America, yet his sole platform plank continues to dominate the dialogue across Nevada.
Please understand: It's a legitimate conservative point of view. If you fundamentally oppose "big government" and believe the free market system is infallible, you're no doubt enthused by budget cuts that reduce spending on schools and social programs. To each his own.
But not everybody in Nevada shares this perspective. Polls, demographics, experience and testimonials confirm this, yet the point of view that says there are viable alternatives to decimating the budget seems to be lost in the din of conservative rhetoric.
There are some voices in the wilderness, however, who appear to be reaching the point of frustration where they just might be ready to make themselves heard instead of muttering into their collars.
Jim Rogers, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, is the prime example. Rogers is telling anyone who will listen, through weekly memos and other means, about the "permanent and irreparable damage" to the state's universities and colleges if Gibbons' planned 16 percent cuts are imposed. Last week, Rogers shared some letters he's received from state lawmakers who appear supportive of his efforts.
"Please know that I am committed to working with other legislative leaders on solutions to help the NSHE weather this budget storm," wrote Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, a Las Vegas Democrat. "Keeping our colleges and universities strong is vital to keeping Nevada strong."
Morse Arberry, chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, echoed Buckley's sentiments.
"We risk our economic future by not considering the financial benefits of the very programs we have chosen to fund by blindly cutting them now," the Las Vegas Democrat wrote. "Higher education is one area where there is a tangible gain to our economy by offering students access to training, technology and, ultimately, degrees."
Arberry concluded that "in what will be my final legislative session, I do not intend to stand idly by and decimate decades of bipartisan work. We must be honest with the citizens of Nevada in showing the value that has been created, and the value that will be lost with these cuts."
It must be noted that neither Buckley nor Arberry suggested a specific way for the state to avoid draconian budget cuts. The T word is not uttered in either letter.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, however, did not hesitate to utter the T word in his letter to the chancellor. Although the Reno Republican applauded Rogers' "helpful" advocacy, he stated:
"While new taxes or tax increases are unlikely to be considered, certainly without voter approval, in these difficult times, education needs at all levels will continue to be among the highest priorities."
That, right there, is the point upon which the success of the 2009 Legislature hinges. If those who profess support for education and other state-funded programs are willing to let Raggio dictate the scope of the debate, there won't be much to talk about come February.
Walt Rulffes, superintendent of the Clark County School District, raised his voice this month as well, arguing in a guest opinion for the Las Vegas Sun that "Nevada's educational system, kindergarten through college, is in trouble, and additional cuts guarantee that your children and grandchildren will have less opportunity than students in almost every other state. That should be seen as the No. 1 threat to Nevada's economic and social future."
Clearly, the voices of reason are restless, worried, frustrated. But are they ready to fight? Are they ready to take on Gibbons, Raggio, state Sen. Bob Beers and the Review-Journal's sharp-tongued editorial writers? Are they willing to stand strong for what they believe instead of slinking around Carson City afraid of their own shadows?
I'm skeptical. Having observed Nevada politics for many years, I've found it extremely rare for moderate or left-of-center legislators -- in other words, Democrats -- to lay down in the road for what they believe in. Many opportunities to improve the state's fiscal structure have been shelved. But there's a reason that has only a little to do with the legislators and a lot to do with those liberal and moderate Nevadans.
With a few isolated exceptions, moderate and left-of-center Nevadans tend to be whisperers or, worse, they've given up. In the privacy of the ballot booth, they'll eagerly vote for so-called liberal candidates, and in anonymous telephone surveys they'll say they support one progressive cause or another. But beyond that, don't expect most of them to get politically active.
Too much exposure. Too much risk. Too much effort.
As a result, a potentially great voice of reason such as Assembly Speaker Buckley watches what she says, takes care not to venture too far out on any limbs for fear that she'll be attacked -- Swift-boated -- by the ruthless right.
The next legislative session will be contentious no matter what. Rogers alone will make sure of that. But will Democratic lawmakers (and reasonable Republicans) be forceful enough to beat back the no-tax true believers who seem bent on reversing the modest progress Nevada has made over the past couple of prosperous decades? Will they have the guts to craft, promote and defend a viable tax package to avert a budget bloodbath in education and beyond?
I'm afraid to answer that question.
Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." Check out his new blog at www.howardhughesblog.com. His column appears Sunday.