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Televised speech a missed opportunity for a governor with a plan

It sounded so official, all the talk of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ "21-point plan" to balance the state budget.

But as with so many things in Gibbons’ strange tenure as Nevada’s highest-ranking state official, he couldn’t seem to resist missing an opportunity to look focused and forceful during these difficult economic times. Televised statewide, his speech was long on warm, fuzzy conservative pragmatism and short on specifics.

"The overall downturn has dragged us down," he said as he explained that economic forces beyond anyone’s predicting have put a hammerlock on Nevada’s revenues.

He spent a good portion of his speech reminding Nevadans of the size of the problem they face. Having to pump their own gasoline and buy their own groceries, I suspect most of the state’s residents didn’t need to be reminded of the state of the union.

To his credit, Gibbons remained consistent in one area. He repeated his vow to veto any attempt to raise taxes, a pledge that has become his mantra (and some would say his political life preserver).

"When I was a congressman in 2003, I addressed the Legislature, speaking out against a proposed tax increase," he said.

"I quoted Winston Churchill as saying, ‘A nation trying to lift itself into prosperity by raising taxes is like a man standing in a bucket trying to lift himself up by the handle.’ That bit of wisdom has stood the test of time, and I will veto anything coming out of the Legislature that calls for tax increases to fix our problem."

Apparently Gibbons didn’t feel the need for a Power Point presentation to the people of Nevada outlining the specifics of his plan. It was the right time for it.

Not only would it have made him look like the engaged, hands-on guy his allies claim he truly is, but it would have cleared up a lot of confusion from an administration that in recent days has killed and resurrected everything from the cost-of-living allowances for teachers and state employees to the hijacking of Nevada’s tobacco settlement score in an attempt to balance the budget.

Not to mention the on-again, off-again special session, which starts today. Times change, and Thursday’s speech was proof of that.

The teacher COLAs are safe, we were told. But the tobacco subsidy fund? Maybe not.

Or, at least, I think that’s part of the plan. But what about that 21-point plan?

"You mean there is one?" one veteran Republican legislator told me.

That legislator was absolutely sincere.

Assembly Speaker and potential gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buckley wasn’t the only one to complain about Gibbons’ lack of specifics. Buckley, however, delivered her official response with all the playfulness of a Joe Frazier body shot.

Buckley’s response crafted images of political collaboration and collegiality with Senate Majority Leader and GOP icon Bill Raggio. It was subtle and devastating in making the governor look downright Lilliputian in the management of the economic crisis.

"We need to prioritize where we want to improve," Buckley said after calling for an essential structural change in the way the state raises revenue. "We have an incredible opportunity before us. … We have the opportunity to decide what kind of state we want to be."

Moments earlier, Gibbons was in full "stay the course" mode.

"I believe that you elected all of us to make difficult choices that are in the best interest of the state," Gibbons said. "It’s time that we act on that faith that you have shown us and balance this budget for the remainder of the biennium."

Then Gibbons proceeded not to tell us about any difficult cuts. He wants the teachers to receive what they’ve been promised. He doesn’t want to cut deeply into public education or health and human services.

"I’m simply not willing to recommend that we break these promises to our teachers, our schoolchildren and our citizens," he said.

"So I believe we should do the following: First and foremost we need to reduce spending in the areas we can reasonably and responsibly do so. I believe the Legislature should reduce the operating budgets of state agencies a minimum of $128 million."

Reduce spending in the areas we can reasonably and responsibly do so?

Oh, that’s clearer.

Cut at least $128 million?

We’ll see if they can do that without making any layoffs.

At least I hope that’s part of the plan.

Assuming there is one.

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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