Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Does bad taste from Gibbons’ time as governor still linger with voters?

During a debate in September, Kelli Ross, a conservative Democrat running for state Senate, was asked about Gov. Brian Sandoval’s desire to extend sunsetting taxes.

“First of all,” Ross told political journalist Jon Ralston, “I’m so pleased we actually have a governor who shows up to work. That makes my day right there. And I see he works with both sides on all the issues.”

The oblique reference to Nevada’s last governor seemed a bit of a non sequitur. Ralston had not asked anything about former Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose troubled tenure was marked by an ugly divorce and Gibbons’ general sense of disengagement from governing, except when tossing partisan bombs.

But Ross’ comment may also have been a glimpse into an electorate still suffering a hangover from Gibbons’ time in office.

On Election Day, voters handed a surprising victory to lawmakers by passing Question 1, which allows the Legislature to call itself into session — a power previously possessed only by the governor.

Its resounding margin has baffled supporters, opponents and plain old observers.

But one theory, that it passed because voters remember Gibbons’ embattled four years in office, raises an interesting question: Does the shadow of Gibbons’ term still hang in the mind of Nevada’s electorate?

Indeed, lawmakers initiated the process to wrest authority over special sessions from the governor in 2009 — the height of the scandal of Gibbons’ divorce.

While Gibbons’ troubles never reached a point where impeachment would have even been considered, the specter of the Legislature being wholly unable to call itself into session to impeach a wayward governor loomed large on the minds of lawmakers who put Question 1 on the ballot in the first place.

That argument was put to voters, as well, and could explain why they resoundingly gave more power to the Legislature, reversing a decades-long trend of Nevada voters handcuffing the legislative branch rather than expanding its power.

But if Gibbons is still on the mind of Nevada voters, it might be artificially inflating the high approval rating currently enjoyed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Anyone might look better in comparison, the thinking goes.

Some Democrats have suggested that Sandoval is still enjoying a honeymoon because lawmakers and others are just so glad Gibbons is no longer governor.

In some ways, this is not unprecedented. President Barack Obama has benefited from voters blaming the poor economy on President George W. Bush, for example.

Exit polls did not ask the almost 1 million Nevada voters why they voted on Question 1, and observers are scratching their heads over the reason it passed.

There was no active campaign for or against Question 1 this year. And although Sandoval said he opposed it, there was little media coverage of the issue.

In fact, conventional wisdom held that it would fail — voters would reflexively vote “no” on for ballot question not backed by a campaign.

Instead, 54 percent of voters said yes to Question 1.

David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV, said he was surprised at voters giving lawmakers more power. It flies in the face of recent history, when voters had limited legislative sessions to 120 days, imposed term limits on lawmakers and instituted a requirement that taxes pass by two-thirds super majorities.

“I’m still at a loss,” Damore said. “It’s not consistent with an anti-government, libertarian mindset, that ‘we don’t trust them.’”

“Maybe there’s a Gibbons effect here,” he said.

Or maybe voters are aware that the Nevada Legislature is limited to meet for 120 days every two years, and the complex matters facing the state on education, taxes, economic development and the environment need a more engaged legislative branch.

“Maybe people are realizing the Legislature, with its limited capacity, can’t do anything really serious about addressing policy problems,” he offered.

Robert Uithoven, a GOP political consultant, discounted the Gibbons theory on Question 1 and said voters might have been confused. Voters might have thought they were curtailing legislative powers to call themselves into special session, not realizing that the Legislature didn’t already have the power to do it.

The question as posed to voters does indeed ask voters if the Legislature “on extraordinary occasions” should meet “upon a petition signed by two thirds of the legislators of each house.”

But if Uithoven is wrong, and voters do indeed still have a bad taste of Gibbons in their mouth, what could that say about Sandoval’s approval rating?

Hugh Jackson, a liberal commentator who co-hosts a television show and writes a column for the weekly Las Vegas CityLife, has long posited that Sandoval’s approval ratings are boosted by following Gibbons.

“Nature loves a vacuum,” he wrote last week. “So does your Republican governor’s approval rating, which benefits from the absence of any hilarious/revolting headlines of the sort generated by his immediate predecessor, disgraced and incompetent Jim Gibbons. As comparative standards go, it’s an extremely low bar, but Sandoval is clearing it.”

The governor’s official spokeswoman referred questions on Sandoval’s popularity to the governor’s political team, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Sandoval, elected in November 2010, has enjoyed robust approval ratings throughout his term and has garnered praise on a personal level from Republicans and Democrats, who applauded his willingness to meet with them and work together.

During his first session, Democrats tiptoed around Sandoval because they feared his popularity with voters. As Sandoval heads into his second legislative session this February, a year and a half before his re-election campaign, it may quickly become apparent whether that honeymoon is still in effect.

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