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Gibbons’ gambit

His legion of critics dismissed Gov. Jim Gibbons’ latest budget proposals last week as cynical political theater. There’s truth to that.

But his recommendations do indeed deserve serious consideration — especially as the state nears a fiscal meltdown.

There’s little doubt that the governor’s eight-point spending plan — designed to save up to $100 million a year — represents a last gasp effort to shore up his abysmal approval rating as he decides whether to seek re-election and confront a tough challenge in the Republican primary.

In addition, the governor is undoubtedly smiling about putting legislative Democrats in the position of opposing in an election year what many voters may consider a common-sense attempt to impose fiscal sanity on Carson City.

Given the dominance of Democrats in the state Assembly, there’s no chance the Gibbons plan will become law when legislators are called back in the near future for a short special session to address budget woes. It’s simply not possible. But at least the governor is attempting to drive the debate — which can only help voters as they head to the polls this fall better delineate which candidates will stand up for the taxpayers and fiscal restraint.

The Gibbons plan includes an “empowerment” aspect to give local school districts more autonomy and a limited voucher experiment allowing some parents to send their kids to private school. Both proposals offer encouragement to those who have long championed real reform in the public school system.

In addition, the governor seeks to repeal the ridiculous, teacher-union concocted law that prevents classroom educators from being rewarded or punished based on student success.

But the most controversial proposals include getting rid of all-day kindergarten in some more affluent areas, abolishing collective bargaining for teachers and killing the state’s class-size reduction program.

These are all reasonable suggestions.

Class-size reduction, for instance, is one of the most expensive boondoggles the state has ever undertaken. While parents love it, there is scant evidence that it has raised student achievement enough over its two decades of existence to justify the millions it costs each year. The program is currently in place for children in kindergarten through third grade, yet the state’s elementary school test scores remain embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the state already bans collective bargaining for many state workers — extending the prohibition to teachers would go a long way toward helping officials gain more control over soaring personnel and benefit costs. Some states — including Texas — already have such a system in place. Teachers, of course, have a First Amendment right to join a labor union — but state school districts have no constitutional obligation to bargain solely with that body.

The thought of touching the sacred class-size reduction program or repealing collective bargaining laws for teachers is enough to drive most legislative Democrats to the bottle. But the state simply can’t continue down a path to financial ruin, brought on by year after year of public-sector expansion. At the very least, leaders of the Democratic caucus ought to agree to fully debate some of these proposals when lawmakers reconvene in 2011.

Don’t hold your breath, though. Within minutes of the governor’s news conference last week, the squealing began. But if Democrats can’t come up with any budget suggestions beyond raising taxes, more borrowing or taking hat in hand to Washington, they’re only perpetuating the problem — and they deserve their eventual fate.

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