Budget history repeating itself

A Nevada governor facing a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. Public employees scheduled to receive 4 percent “cost-of-living” raises despite shrinking state revenues. A fierce debate over whether lawmakers should be called into special session to address the budget woes — and whether axing the raises or layoffs should be part of the solution.

The situation is “further complicated by near-mutiny within the ranks, with virtually every member of the special interest crew bleating daily about the apocalyptic consequences if money is thrown overboard,” observed pundit Jon Ralston. “From welfare advocates to university boosters, the chorus has been the same: ‘Don’t cut us. We can’t afford it. Cut someone else.’ And other realistic, magnanimous pronouncements.”

Sound familiar? Certainly — except it’s a scene from 1992, not present day Nevada.

Today, Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, is threatening to call lawmakers back to Carson City to address a ballooning $1.2 billion budget shortfall. His vociferous critics have attacked virtually every move the governor has made since his 2007 inauguration, including his call for a special session. But in the context of history, the governor’s approach to solving the state’s revenue shortfall is anything but unusual — and, in fact, is rather conciliatory.

Back in late 1991, the popular Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, faced a $52 million hole. He could have called a special session to let lawmakers address the matter, but they wanted no part of voting for “cuts.” So the governor acted unilaterally, rescinding scheduled raises for public employees.

State workers sued, saying Gov. Miller had no authority to kill their pay hikes without legislative approval. The state Supreme Court agreed. So Gov. Miller found his savings by laying off 250 state employees, trimming 8 percent from the university system’s anticipated spending plan and making lesser adjustments in other areas.

“Not surprisingly, lawmakers from both parties fell over themselves with praise for the governor … ” wrote Mr. Ralston in the Review-Journal more than 16 years ago. “Legislators … trotted out to slap the governor on the back and gush with attaboys.”

Yes, both Gov. Miller and Gov. Gibbons faced the usual wrath over budget reductions from pressure groups that feed at the public trough. But while Gov. Miller in 1992 was winning “praise” from lawmakers for his leadership, Gov. Gibbons has faced nothing but disdain from legislators on the other side of the aisle even as he has attempted to bring them into the process.

The contrast reveals much about the slash-and-burn culture dominating today’s political discourse.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gibbons gave up pushing the elimination of public employee raises, bowing to legislative Democrats who made it clear they intend to line up behind the bureaucracy rather than the taxpayers who fund it. OK. But if that’s the case, there’s no point in holding a special session.

Call it off, governor. Just make the additional cuts or layoffs and spare lawmakers the trip — just like the “courageous” Gov. Miller did 16 years ago.

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