Don’t blame the governor

For more than a year, the yowling of big-government lawmakers and Nevada’s liberal pundits has been unrelenting: Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons’ refusal to support tax increases has the state on a path to fiscal and social ruin.

The cries hit a crescendo last week when Department of Transportation Director Susan Martinovich told a legislative committee that she’ll have to table $6 billion worth of major highway improvements unless her agency gets an additional $450 million per year by 2016.

Legislators complained that proposing tax increases was pointless given Gov. Gibbons’ pledge to veto any bill that boosts state levies. Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said the panel would be “just spinning its wheels” identifying potential funding sources. “He has made it a point repeatedly that he will not support any new taxes,” Sen. Titus said of the governor.

We hate to break up Sen. Titus’ pity party, but she and her peers are in dire need of a civics lesson. Their claims that Gov. Gibbons has the Legislature pinned simply aren’t true.

In fact, the governor represents a minor procedural hurdle to the tax increases Sen. Titus and others desperately want enacted. It is the Legislature that holds all the cards in determining state tax policy.

In 1996, Nevada voters overwhelmingly ratified a constitutional amendment that requires the Assembly and the Senate to obtain two-thirds support for tax increases — the same two-thirds supermajority required to override a gubernatorial veto.

Sen. Titus’ frustration over the certainty of a Gibbons veto of any bill that increases taxes is completely misguided. A hypothetical veto should thrill her because it would mean lawmakers cobbled together the two-thirds support needed to get the bill to the governor’s desk in the first place. That same margin would override the veto.

The problem for lawmakers is outlined in Article IV, Section 35 of the Nevada Constitution. The Legislature’s biennial dithering pushes spending bills to the last hours of each 120-day regular session. If lawmakers wait until the final days of the 2009 session to pass any tax increase, Gov. Gibbons could exercise his veto after adjournment, which would delay an override vote until the opening of the 2011 session. Because the governor has five days to issue a veto during any regular session, lawmakers would need to pass any tax increase at least six days before adjournment to guarantee themselves an immediate opportunity to override.

Clearly, it’s much easier for Dina Titus and others to tar Gov. Gibbons as an obtuse obstructionist who lacks the courage to advocate for tax increases than provide said “courage” themselves.

Gov. Gibbons hasn’t surprised anyone in his 14 months in Carson City. In November 2006, voters picked him over Sen. Titus primarily because of his campaign promise to hold the line on taxes for the duration of his four-year term. Not coincidentally, it was Gov. Gibbons who, as an assemblyman back in the early ’90s, put before voters the constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds support for lawmakers to pass tax increases.

Dina Titus can blame Gov. Gibbons all she wants for her political misery, but the number of votes Democrats need to ram tax hikes through the Legislature would be no different if a big-spending member of their own party occupied the governor’s mansion.

Meanwhile, we suggest that Dina Titus and her fellow Democrats build their legislative election strategies on a foundation of massive promised tax increases amid a struggling economy, when rising energy and food prices are eroding the paychecks of voters fortunate enough to still have jobs. Their candidates can canvas neighborhoods and design mailers that promise higher taxes for all and an override of any Gibbons veto that aims to restrict the flow of revenue into the state treasury.

But we won’t hold our breath.

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