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Speaker, governor score points

His first session as governor. Her first session as speaker.

In the final analysis, Gov. Jim Gibbons and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley each got some, but not all, of what they wanted in the legislative session that wrapped up last week.

“Gibbons lowered expectations magnificently,” University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist David Damore said. “He came in with some modest demands, he stuck to them, and he ended up getting most of them.”

As for Buckley, Damore said, “She did fine. Her caucus didn’t waver from her, and she got some of the things she wanted.”

In addition to being rookies in their respective roles, the Republican governor and Democratic speaker were cast on opposite sides, frequently at odds on issues.

Both are seen as more ideologically driven than their predecessors and committed to firm agendas based on core beliefs, observers said.

In the end, both are seen as coming out of the 2007 Legislature somewhat strengthened.

Gibbons claimed victory for his agenda in an interview, saying he proved wrong “those who were complaining and estimating our failures.”

“I was very pleased that we were able to accomplish nearly every goal we had set out in our State of the State message,” the governor said. “The end result was more what we expected and probably less of what others expected.”

Most of all, Gibbons said, he stuck to his campaign promise not to raise taxes.

“It’s my principle that I stand by that I don’t believe that every time a government has a need that it needs to run out and stick its hand in somebody’s pocket and look for more money,” Gibbons said. “Some days we have to change our priorities, change the way we operate, before we can expect the people of Nevada who fund government to change the way they operate their lives.”

Some have accused Gibbons of fudging a bit on that promise.

He has backed off absolute opposition to fee increases and now says fees are acceptable if they are “applied to a very restricted group, a category of individuals who all accept and ask for that increase,” and he says taxes approved by voters at the ballot box are also acceptable.

Tax cuts Gibbons proposed didn’t survive.

He had wanted to reduce the modified business tax, which was set to automatically increase by two hundredths of a percent; in the end, it neither increased nor decreased.

He also proposed getting rid of a tax on bank branches, but that didn’t happen.

Gibbons had proposed to put $60 million toward a pilot program of 100 empowerment schools; the Legislature approved less than $10 million for 29 empowerment schools.

But $15 million of the $60 million in Gibbons’ empowerment plan was to go to merit pay for teachers, and legislators also passed a $10 million performance pay program.

Gibbons’ other big proposal, announced in May, was a plan to redirect taxes from multiple sources, including Las Vegas room taxes, to raise $2.5 billion for highway construction.

Working with legislators, business groups and local governments, the Legislature passed a compromise plan that everybody took credit for that raises $1 billion.

Gibbons had called for tougher restrictions on sex offenders and worked with his former election opponent, Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, to pass that bill successfully.

Gibbons called for $17 million to address methamphetamine and got that, too. And an initiative he backed to pass eminent domain legislation was successful.

Gibbons succeeded in lifting the amount of property value that can be protected by the Homestead Act to $550,000. But the second part of that proposal, to allow homesteading for second homes, went nowhere.

One blow to Gibbons’ effectiveness was the departure in March of his legislative director, Steve Robinson, the only member of his staff with extensive legislative experience.

Gibbons acknowledged his staffers went through a trial by fire.

“We have a staff that’s very new to being in this position as well, so the learning curve is not just for the governor, but for those that are on his team, his staff, and I think they learned very, very quickly,” he said. “They were fast learners, and they did very, very well.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said Gibbons came out of the session well.

“I think he can point to having achieved a great deal of what his prime issues were,” Raggio said.

“After a very bitter election and all that’s happened, I think he can look back and say that, over great odds, he was able to get a major part of his program.”

University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Eric Herzik said Gibbons improved dramatically over the course of the four months of the legislative session.

“At the beginning of the session, it looked like he didn’t have a clue. His public comments, his budget, his policy goals were at best nebulous,” Herzik said. “By the end, he was far more articulate.”

But Gibbons didn’t set out to do much, Herzik said.

“He went in with a very limited agenda. If you take that as the baseline, he had a good session. He got his major thing, no new taxes. His big win was something that didn’t happen.”

Much of Gibbons’ clout at the end of the session was not really his doing but inherent to his position as governor, especially that he could threaten to veto proposals he didn’t favor, Herzik noted.

Gibbons’ style with the Legislature is much more distant than his predecessor’s, Herzik said, and legislators had to get used to that.

Where Gov. Kenny Guinn worked in tandem and hands-on with the Legislature, Gibbons preferred to do his job and let legislators do theirs, largely separate.

Gibbons described his relationship with Buckley as “excellent” and said, “She did well for her first term as speaker of the Assembly. I have no complaints.”

Buckley described her relationship with Gibbons, however, as “a little nonexistent.”

Buckley said she had dinner with him early on and joined him for leadership lunches every few weeks. “But I really never worked with him on policy stuff. I kept waiting for him to approach me, and he never really did, and his staff changed so much that I could never get a good sense” of them.

Buckley acknowledged some good moves by Gibbons in the end, saying she appreciated his support of what she called “the Assembly Democratic plan” on transportation.

And when the Legislature blew its 120-day deadline, Gibbons listened to her more than she was accustomed to.

“In the special session, he solicited my input on what should be on the proclamation, brought up a couple of things that he was considering putting on and took my suggestions on a couple of them,” she said. “I was really pleased with that. He could have played games, and he didn’t.”

Buckley pointed to success on education, where negotiations she spearheaded resulted in nearly $70 million in new funding and an expansion of full-day kindergarten.

Buckley had wanted to make full-day kindergarten universal, while Gibbons and Raggio had opposed it.

Buckley noted that career and technical education, gifted and talented programs, after-school programs and school grants for innovative programs all got additional funds.

A number of health care proposals also passed, including a program to help small businesses insure their employees, a Web site with prescription drug information and a measure to give consumers more information about health care costs.

A bill to further restrict payday loans made it through, one of Buckley’s signature issues.

On energy, legislators approved a bill to require power companies to prove their rates are justified and another that allows producers of solar energy to sell it back to the grid.

One major disappointment for Buckley was ethics.

Although bills passed requiring disclosure of the political donors behind limited liability companies and setting rules for legal defense funds, others were blocked by the state Senate, she said.

The bills that failed included a “three strikes and you’re out” measure for ethics violations, a clarification of gift rules and restrictions on local government officials’ fundraising.

Also not getting anywhere was the Democrats’ perennial plan to institute a state lottery.

Herzik said Buckley appeared to cling to universal all-day kindergarten for longer than was reasonable.

“At the beginning of the session, she seemed really in charge, setting an agenda and processing bills quickly,” Herzik said. “But after the revenue projections came in low, she started to seem rigid. It was like, aren’t you looking at the budget? Why are you fighting over money that’s not there?”

But Buckley saw that legislators, especially her, and not Gibbons would be blamed for any significant special session.

“She was very wise in making a bargain at the end to get out of town,” Herzik said. “By the end, she was at the table. It was a good session for her, not a great session.”

 

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