Thursday, April 16, 2009 | 5:30 p.m.
Sen. John Ensign backed off some of his criticisms of the state’s budget during remarks to the Legislature Thursday.
Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed cuts to higher education aren’t sustainable, Ensign, a fellow Republican, said.
“I don’t think he (Gibbons) thinks they could be sustained,” Ensign said following his speech. “They can’t afford the types of cuts being talked about for education.”
When Congress passed the federal economic stimulus, which included $1.5 billion for Nevada, Ensign emerged as a prominent critic. He called states’ budgets “bloated.”
Asked by reporters about that comment, he said he meant that state budgets had grown faster than population plus inflation.
“I feel practically every business, every government has a bloated budget to some extent,” he said.
State legislators had a much harder job than their federal counterparts, because they are required to balance their budgets, Ensign said.
While he defended his vote against the stimulus, he said later that “once you’ve done what you can do, you have to fight for what you can.”
When asked what he would say about those in the Legislature considering raising taxes, he said, “I’m not going to tell them how to do their job.”
But he added that the state should not raise taxes too much, because it could scare away businesses looking to locate to Nevada.
Ensign is routinely among Nevada’s most popular politicians, according to polls. But his party hasn’t fared well in the state of late. President Barack Obama took the state by 12 points, and the state party has struggled to find candidates to challenge Sen. Harry Reid in 2010.
Ensign said the party is “definitely in a rebuilding stage. We have a lot of work to do to rebuild the party.”
He said he has been out talking to minority groups.
“I’m out trying to recruit minority, female candidates. We can’t be a lilly-white party,” he said.
Asked if he's concerned Republicans might not find a credible candidate to oppose Reid, Ensign cited the agreement he has with Reid not to criticize each other “publicly or privately.”
“If there’s a credible candidate, it’s going to be a heavy-weight fight,” he said. “It’ll make Reid/Ensign look like no money for the state.” Ensign and Reid had a closely fought election in 1998, in which Reid eked out a victory.
Asked about the prospect that Gibbons would face a primary challenge (two Republicans have already announced their intention to run) Ensign demurred.
“Let’s wait and see how that works out,” he said.
Ensign gave a recent speech in Iowa, leading to speculation he was interested in a presidential or vice-presidential run. He downplayed the importance of that speech, noting that a few years ago he gave a speech in Iowa to a veterinary group “and no one asked these questions.”
“I gave one speech in Iowa. I’m not looking to run for president,” he said, adding “I have learned long ago never to say never to anything in politics.”
Each Legislative session, Washington D.C. representatives address a joint meeting of the state Assembly and Senate.
Much of Ensign’s speech focused on education policy, and the need to empower administrators and teachers, as well as renewable energy projects. He said he planned to introduce legislation next week that would allow state and local governments to get 75 percent of land sales of federal lands for renewable energy projects.