Las Vegas Sun

September 29, 2023

Sunday Conversation:

Lead us out of this mess

Former governors: Gibbons needs all Nevadans to help fix the budget

Former Nevada Governors

Four former Nevada governors gathered for a roundtable discussion last week at the Las Vegas Sun's office to reflect on Nevada's future. The foursome, which spent a combined 24 years in office, offered advice to both citizens and elected officials on current problems in Nevada and how the Silver State can correct those issues.See the entire video. (Read the story: Lead us out of this mess)(Summarized version. Length- 11:16)

Four former Nevada governors came together last week at the Sun’s invitation to reflect on Nevada’s future and offer advice to the state’s citizens and elected officials. To a man, they see a state slipping in the face of continued growth and they urged Gov. Jim Gibbons to exert more leadership and to develop a vision for the state.

The four, two from each major party, spent a combined 28 years in the governor’s office. They are: Robert “Bob” List, a Republican who served from 1979 to 1983; Richard “Dick” Bryan, a Democrat who served from 1983 to 1989; Bob Miller, a Democrat who served from 1989 to 1999, and Kenny Guinn, a Republican who served from 1999 to 2007.

The Tuesday morning conversation at the Sun was the first time the four men have gathered to share their experiences as governors. And share they did. They talked among themselves, mostly. The Sun asked only a couple of questions as the four talked for more than an hour about money problems and growing demands for government services in a state trying to accommodate two decades of record growth.

They also spoke of the need for leadership by the governor. The current round of steep budget cuts should be brought into the open for public discussion, they said. They also urged Gibbons to try to ease the partisan rancor they think is holding back action on crucial issues.

The governor, they said, should develop long-term goals for the state and create a strategy for achieving them, including use of his bully pulpit to try to persuade Nevadans to join the effort even by approving tax increases if necessary.

The following is a version of their conversation, edited for space, which started when we asked about the biggest challenge facing the state.

Bob Miller: It’s the same challenge we’ve always faced: growth. We’re the fastest-growing state in the country, and that brings with it inherent challenges, particularly in terms of adequate funding to support services that are necessary for people moving into and the people who already live in the state. Everything else kind of wraps into that bigger package.

Robert “Bob” List: For the average Nevadan, the biggest problem is the economy the difficulty of qualifying for mortgages, housing, public safety from a family standpoint. Government’s problem is managing growth; the citizen’s problem is living with the growth and the consequences of it.

Richard “Dick” Bryan: It’s how to manage growth, which has brought enormous diversity and has provided so many opportunities for all of us. When I was a youngster and my father got out of law school and we came back to Nevada, Nevada had about 110,000 people. I think when (Mike) O’Callaghan was elected governor there were 400,000. When Gov. List was elected there were maybe 800,000 to 900,000. During my time we reached a million and then Gov. Miller and Gov. Guinn, we’re now over 2 million. How do we maintain an attractive business environment yet recognize the strain on the state? Education, transportation and social services are strained beyond their ability to provide the services citizens demand.

Kenny Guinn: Gov. Miller hit the spot when he said growth. We in Nevada, whether the leadership or the average voter, the average business person or the masses, have not figured out a way to cope with this growth on a consistent basis. It’s all right to have dynamic growth for one or two years, but 20 years of growth create a new paradigm that you must deal with. We have to look at this new paradigm to say, “What do we need for the people of Nevada?”

And that has to be a broad, collaborative effort. We cannot any longer let one person decide that. It needs to involve the business structure, the citizens at large, and certainly our legislative body, and we have to plan for a longer period than every two years. We can’t cope with growth by making little changes every year or two. You need a consistent plan that will carry forward as governors turn over, as legislative members turn over. We’ve really fallen down on strategic, long-range planning and how we’re going to cope with what the people need in this state for services from government. You need this because there’s not enough money to continue just to go along and picking one item at a time and adding it without a comprehensive program.

Miller: Historically this state has been very reactive, and we need to be proactive. I remember when they built the present airport. The public and the media in general were resoundingly critical of the county commissioners of that time for building such an enormous facility beyond the needs of what we could expect for the airport necessities. Now there is no one in the world who travels to Las Vegas who will tell you that the airport is too big. The airport is a rare example of being proactive. It came with some criticism for those persons who were responsible. And that’s why being proactive is difficult. That, and because our state revenue, which depends largely on tourists, hasn’t kept up sufficiently to pay for public services as we grow.

Bryan: In fact, local governments were proactive in the ’40s and ’50s. When Las Vegas High School, now the Las Vegas Performing Arts Academy, opened in 1930, it was criticized as being too far out of town, at Seventh and Bridger, and far bigger than you’d ever need. It wasn’t. But still, even as visionaries might have appeared at the time to have prepared for growth, it’s been inadequate to sustain the expansion we’ve seen. At the state level, it’s been even more difficult. There have been questions of “Can we? Should we? Are we prepared for it?” There’s been a collision in the formulation of state policy.

List: It isn’t like a family in which you can plan long term because you have the same leadership with continuity. There’s always a changing group of individuals, changing attitudes, in the state Legislature. Today you have one house dominated by one party and one by the other. There are different priorities. Policies change, circumstances change, priorities change.

Bryan: The challenge we face in dealing with growth and other issues involving revenue has become vastly more complicated. But the nation as well as the state is much more polarized today. When I served in the Legislature in the late ’60s and ’70s, you had leaders, and there was some inherent credibility when they stepped up and said we need to do something. Today it is much more difficult to make changes because of the polarization we have at the national and state level.

List: There was a bipartisan congeniality that is absolutely absent in Nevada at every level of government.

Bryan: In the 10 years I served in the Legislature, there were certainly partisan differences, but I can think of maybe only once or twice in my first session in 1969 that we had an issue that even rose to the level of a partisan difference.

List: It was totally different back then.

Who should take leadership in addressing these issues?

Miller: The person at the top, always. The four of us at this table all tried to work in a bipartisan way. I can’t think of any partisanship on any of our parts. In fact, some people in analysis would probably say Kenny Guinn was the Democratic governor and I was the Republican governor right before him, because we both worked across party lines and we both had moderate positions. The same was true for Dick and Bob. Basically most governors up to this point have been moderate. But you can’t bring everybody together if there is a hostile environment to begin with. So it starts at the top, but it has to include everybody. It has to work down from there.

Guinn: And if someone at the top can’t accomplish that, the people will make that decision. And all this talk that you can’t spend more money in this year’s budget than you spent last year in the most dynamic growth state in the world, that’s a ludicrous statement for anybody to make. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it just isn’t going to work. So the question is, how are we going to sit down and define the services that we need to provide and then decide how much of those services can we provide? We are certainly going to provide mental health services. We are certainly going to provide health care and we certainly are going to provide educational services. But what if the state has that responsibility but doesn’t have the revenue stream?

Bryan: There is an opportunity for the governor to take some real leadership in this area, to bring people closer together to solve difficult problems. I sense there is an overwhelming wish today that “Can’t those of you in public life sit down and try to agree on something?” And I must say as a Democrat, there is a sense that both parties are at fault here and we need somebody to rise above that.

List: That was part of President Reagan’s success. He had blue-collar supporters and workers, he had union support. Part of it was leadership and part of it was personality. Part of the difficulty of government is, there is a big difference between what a governor sees as the needs and what the public is demanding. There may be needs, but no powerful constituency to lobby on their behalf. And in today’s environment, people certainly aren’t going to say, “Raise taxes.” They’re just not, especially since many say we are on the edge of perhaps a major national recession. That’s the reason our sales taxes are down somewhat. People aren’t traveling as much. People aren’t spending as much money in the casinos so the gaming taxes are down, the entertainment taxes are down. And I think when that’s the case, it’s very difficult to expect people to say, “But I’m willing to pay more taxes.” That is the difficulty, the challenge of leadership for a governor. It’s hard to lead people who don’t want to go in that direction. It’s very difficult.

Miller: Nobody ever likes taxes. On the other hand, if you present a reasonable case for the necessity of the service i.e., do you want us to stop putting people in prison? Do you want us to stop educating people or have students who can’t pass proficiency tests? Do you want to have a university system that is inclusive or exclusive? Do you want us to be able to provide mental health services people come up with a sensible solution, which can include raising taxes. I reduced the size of government on purpose, in a planned strategy to show the public that we were going to get down to the bare minimum because we were going to have to raise some taxes in the next session.

I think that it is important for everybody, including the governor, not to make a precondition to discussions. I think it’s unfortunate that at the present time the governor said, “I will never raise taxes under any circumstances, period.” I don’t personally think that’s good public policy. And you have to have everybody included in a discussion as to what the state needs. And you can’t have somebody draw a line in the sand (with a commitment to no new taxes) at that point. So I hope that line in the sand wavers in some fashion and that there is a unified combination of leadership in the governor’s office, in the Legislature and in the private sector addressing what are the needs in this state and how are we going to pay for them.

List: The discussion has to come down to specifics before people are willing to pay more taxes. I mean, people pay for bond issues. We’re building what, $1 billion in schools? People are willing to do that. We present these bond issues and people in Nevada historically have supported them. The difficulty is in getting a general tax increase when they can’t always see exactly how they’re going to benefit from it or what the need is. I certainly understand Gov. Miller’s comment about the idea of drawing a line in the sand. Yet I bet you if you go out to the public, they’ll support it overwhelmingly. But it’s not the job of a governor to cram it down on people who don’t want it.

Bryan: No, but I do think it is the responsibility of our leaders to identify the state’s priorities. And when a governor concludes that there are priorities not being met, I do think it is the governor’s responsibility and challenge to identify those priorities and then bring in the bipartisan support. It requires bipartisan support.

List: It’s the only way to get it done.

Guinn: I have, in my opinion, the honor of being the governor who has raised the highest amount of tax by far. My theory was that I would cut, but at the same time I then would show people why we needed these additional dollars. And I think we did that well. Because we did cut. And as a Republican, I privatized. By privatizing workers’ comp, we got 800 people off the payroll of state government. No one lost their jobs. They went with the new companies or got paid for retiring earlier. My point is, no one should go there and ask for taxes to begin with.

But when you say, “No taxes and no more revenues and I don’t like these cuts but I’ve got to make them,” then you have to start looking for an alternative when you build the budget cycle. If you think this is a good enough reason not to draw a line in the sand, just wait until next September when the budget has to be done. I assure you it will be more than $500 million short. And it will be cuts on top of cuts.

So the issue here is we need to come together, Democrats and Republicans, and start making some alternative moves.

Miller: I don’t think it’s popular for anybody in a leadership position to say, “The first thing I want to do is raise taxes.” But the flip of that is, in order to get to where we need to be, all options should be open for discussion. And that’s what we need at the highest level. But we also need a bipartisan approach in the Legislature and we need to have citizens groups and entities start being involved in the process. I think some of them are coming to the fore at this point. Personally, I’m not in favor of government by initiative petition, because it’s reactive and it’s frequently misleading and it’s based on emotionalism as opposed to well-thought-out rationalization. And you can’t get it changed. And that’s the direction we’re going now, because we’ve reached this impasse where nobody is working together on what our real needs are and you have interest groups that are taking somewhat more dramatic measures in the initiative process. I don’t think anybody living in Nevada that either did live in California or watched California wants to become California in terms of the initiative process. But that’s the direction we’re going unless we reach some sensible compromises that incorporate all levels of government and the major people in the business sector.

Bryan: The initiative process has been captured by special-interest groups. Many of California’s problems are self-inflicted, and the example there is certainly one that we do not want to follow in Nevada. I think it is extraordinarily dangerous and I would hope that we do not follow that trend.

List: We have a good example right now over this issue of gaming taxes. One of the proposals would put us up at an average with other state tax levels. Where a casino has an exclusive right for a whole city, of course they can afford to pay more. It shows the failure of the proposers, and in the long run the potential of the public to misunderstand and enact something that makes no sense at all.

Bryan: Plus, it has such a siren call. The taxes are not imposed on individual citizens and that is what makes it so attractive. And that’s what makes it particularly dangerous. The impact to our state could be irreparable if the 20.2 percent tax became law.

So, if you were governor today, what would be the fix that you would try to implement? What would you do?

Guinn: You have to cut. Each of us went through it. That is not the issue. But I would be looking at what in the budget I need to bring to the legislative body, along with meetings in every county, to discuss them. I would lay everything out. You have to have a record of having taken the issues to the people. Then, if the people say you’ve got to make the decision, you can get into the tax issue or revenue, at least you can say, “Well, we told you about the problems and you didn’t want to change anything.”

List: I don’t think Gov. Gibbons has any choice but to do exactly what he’s doing. He has to look for ways to maintain services, maintain programs through reinforcing the importance of efficiency. And I think that’s what he’s doing. It looks to me as if the state and local agencies are going to be able to adapt. But if we fall into a real, major recession that has a continuing effect, then it becomes more serious and we have to go back and look at our tax base.

Guinn: I think the issue, Bob, is not what we are doing today, with the cuts. It’s what are we going to do in the next nine months. It takes a long time. When are we going to have a summit saying we need your help or something needs to be done here? Somebody has got to help out. It can’t be done just with one person. The governor doesn’t have a huge staff. I don’t care who the governor is, you don’t have a huge economic staff and all those things. But at some point you need collaboration to help you move ahead.

Bryan: You’ve got to lay the groundwork for that. You’ve got to establish credibility. And that’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to demonstrate in a convincing fashion to the public that you’ve made all the cuts that can reasonably be made without doing irreparable damage to the infrastructure. You establish credibility by saying, “Look, we’ve cut and cut and cut and, frankly, we can’t do anymore.” You then, it seems to me, have to build a consensus through a bipartisan effort, working during the intervening period of time before the next (legislative) session to establish broad-based public support for what these needs are, and then go into the session with that kind of momentum. It would not be easy. It may not be popular, but I think in terms of responsible leadership that’s what needs to be done and the governor has to make the case, supported by a bipartisan group, that the consequences to the state are dire unless these changes are made. But the public has to understand that. It’s an educational process, but I don’t think there’s been an in-depth discussion.

Miller: The budget that we’re in right now was reached without any new taxes. It’s probably barely meeting the needs of the state and maybe not in terms of education, in terms of transportation, etc. That’s a starting point from which the reductions have to be made. And I agree, as do all my colleagues, that you have to reduce it if you don’t have the revenue. That’s the law and it’s good management in any case.

But you have to recognize that if you’re reducing from what’s already a fairly thin base and you keep reducing from there, or if you keep a no-new-tax, no-new-revenue, no rethinking of how our revenue structure comes forward where are we going to go in terms of services? How difficult is it going to be to drive around this valley? Where’s our educational structure going to go if we don’t have the revenue to fund it? Is our university system going to be able to take as many students? Should we let more prisoners out on the street and have fewer prisons? Should we have all the people with mental health needs go without treatment and be wandering around our streets? Those are the services that the state provides and need to be discussed.

But they need to be discussed in a very open manner in just the fashion that each of us has indicated. There should be a more open process than there’s been to date so that the public understands what’s being cut, and where and why and how. From there, real leadership requires that you start saying, “OK, here’s what the costs are, here’s what the needs are, and let’s examine whether sales and gaming taxes as primary sources are sufficient.” Or what are we going to do, you know, eliminate services? Can we shift responsibility to another part of government? Can we shift responsibility to privatization? All these things need to be out there and the public needs to understand them. But there isn’t a concerted effort to make the public aware of all these things.

If I were governor, I would try to get out to speak to as many groups as I can, to explain what all the problems are, to walk through the budgetary process with them, to talk about the revenue streams. Everything needs to be on the table and everything needs to be discussed. And then you need to try to build a bipartisan, public-private consensus.

And then the governor Gov. Gibbons at this point needs to be the person to champion it.

Sun reporter Mary Manning transcribed this discussion.

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