Governor shows signs of leadership in state’s deepening budget crisis

It’s purely a coincidence that I’m writing something constructive about Gov. Jim Gibbons on April Fools’ Day.

No rim shots, please. No kazoo salutes. No rubber chickens dropping out of the ceiling, and no comically timed rolls of the eyes.

Maybe it’s Gibbons’ fate to be ridiculed even during the week he steps up and performs his duty as the state’s elected leader. But that’s what he did on Monday when, after meeting with top legislators, he called for more budget cuts in an attempt to offset Nevada’s flagging economic picture.

Gibbons has been pilloried on many fronts in recent months, and much of that criticism has been deserved, but today I think the governor deserves credit for doing precisely what he promised he would do when he announced his candidacy a couple of years ago. It’s the same promise he made after he was elected.

Gibbons promised not to raise taxes come hell, high water, or — in this case — pancake-flat fiscal scenarios. And he hasn’t.

But something else happened Monday in Carson City during a meeting between Gibbons and top legislators. There was an exchange of ideas. There was give and take. There was compromise. The words "Gibbons" and "negotiation" were used without an ounce of sarcasm.

Out of that interplay came cuts, as painful to some as they might be, that avoided large layoffs and spared the K-12 education and health budgets. Advocates of both areas would quickly add that education and health have already taken hits and that on its best day, Nevada is no paradise of learning and healing.

The big picture: Gibbons stepped up and showed a reasoned approach to a complex subject. Whether it came from enlightened self-interest or something more noble really makes no difference. What’s important is Gibbons was focused on the difficult and important work at hand and was engaged.

At the risk of making Gibbons sound like Helen Keller at the water pump, I consider this a breakthrough moment for a governor sometimes accused of being an autocrat on autopilot. It’s certainly a big improvement over the last time the governor met with legislators and was criticized for essentially dictating the terms of the budget cuts. Of course, it’s also true that Gibbons has lost a few public relations battles since then.

"Legislative leaders reached out to the governor and urged there be a more collaborative approach to the budget cuts," Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said.

That spirit of collaboration and compromise appears to have won the day. And that’s a good thing for Nevadans because there will be more difficult days ahead.

The group is still about $20 million short of its revised goal. The greater challenge, of course, is that the anticipated state revenue shortfall is expected to reach $900 million, and that’s about twice as much as has been cut from the current budget so far. (Translation: More painful cuts are coming, and don’t rule out any areas for the knife.)

Delaying construction projects to save money is effective, but it can’t last forever. Pulling one-shot appropriations is another way to temporarily bring the ledger back into balance, but it’s not a long-term solution.

But, brother, don’t ask me for any long-term solutions. Not with the prices of gasoline and bread rising, the mortgage crisis continuing to expand, and substantial layoffs in the construction and casino industries.

There’s negative job growth and a slipping gaming win. People with jobs are losing their homes. People without jobs are losing everything. Even blood donations are down.

One Gibbons administration insider puts it bluntly: "The governor has consistently said that people are paying more to fill up their gas tanks, paying more to feed their families, paying more to heat their homes, and paying more for health care, and he’s not also going to ask them to pay more for government."

Knowing that more cuts will probably be needed, will Gibbons attempt to assemble a scale-model, Reagan-era Grace Commission? The commission analyzed government spending and identified areas of waste and was essentially ignored by Congress.

In 2008 Nevada, neither the governor nor the Legislature has the option of doing nothing as the state’s fiscal fortunes continue to falter.

There’s not much room for jokes now. People are hurting.

If ever there was a time for leadership in Nevada, this is it.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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