Where’s the beef?

The Legislature’s Democratic majority had more than two months to prepare for Gov. Jim Gibbons’ State of the State address and, more importantly, the unveiling of his thoroughly unsurprising spending plan for 2009-11. The drastic program cuts, the salary reductions and the absence of tax increases not approved by voters were predictable, principled proposals to balance a budget that has receded because of a worsening recession.

The Republican chief executive has largely stuck with the promises he made and the vision of government he laid out in his successful 2006 campaign: a state that lives within the business-friendly tax climate that nurtured two decades of nation-leading population and economic growth.

A government that shares the pain of its citizens, not one that inflicts more hurt in the worst of times.

Nevada’s Democrats have long ridiculed this philosophy, but they ramped up the rhetoric when Nevada’s economy stalled in late 2007, choking the state’s flow of tax collections. The governor’s weak social and political instincts merely widened the bull’s-eye on his back side.

So when Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, delivered her televised response to the governor’s speech Thursday night, Nevadans eagerly awaited the specifics of a countering vision. The woman long lauded as Carson City’s real leader and most capable legislator, had her moment to seize the steering wheel from the governor and lay out exactly what course the legislative branch would follow over the next four months.

All her town hall meetings advocating a tax system “restructuring,” a “balanced approach” and alternatives to “cuts, cuts, cuts” pointed to this moment.

Yet she delivered no new ideas. No specific policy proposals. Not a single reform that could make more efficient use of education dollars, not a single new tax — beyond the hotel room tax increase approved by voters in November — to help raise the estimated $2.4 billion needed to maintain the state’s current service levels. Nothing but the same old complaints about “Draconian cuts” and “preserving our state’s services.”

“Is this the direction we want to go as a state? … Does it make sense to cut education further? Does it make sense to close the doors of opportunity for our children to attend our universities?” And so forth.

Where’s the beef? Why continue to force taxpayers to read between line after line of liberal platitudes?

There is but one alternative to the governor’s budget: massive tax increases. Hikes the likes of which Nevada has never seen. Tax increases that will make the Legislature’s spending spree of 2003 seem like an inflationary adjustment. Tax increases that will smother an untold number of businesses barely hanging on, that will send a state unemployment rate already streaking toward 9 percent even higher. Tax hikes that will make California lawmakers look like pikers.

It speaks volumes that Ms. Buckley, who has gubernatorial ambitions and doesn’t want to jeopardize her party’s legislative clout with redistricting on the horizon, hasn’t publicly embraced that approach.

The governor, meanwhile, demonstrated an understanding of economic fundamentals in presenting his plan to a hostile audience of lawmakers. “Our existing tax system brought us record job growth and prosperity for decades,” Gov. Gibbons said. “And quite frankly, I have yet to see an example of any state that has a tax system that brings growth during good times and remains stable during downturns.”

He proposed badly needed reforms to state workers’ benefits, bringing their health insurance costs in line with what private-sector employees pay, and he proposed reining in their generous retirement benefits, measures that would eliminate billions of dollars in long-term unfunded liabilities.

Of course, these speeches and proposals were mere formalities marking the start of yet another political struggle in Carson City. No doubt this session will go a long way toward deciding “the direction we want to go as a state.” Will we strap down the bare necessities during this storm and throw what’s clearly not needed overboard, or will we foolishly embark upon the same course as debt-ridden, high-tax, business-hating states such as Michigan and New Jersey?

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