Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2018

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Legislature reins in Gibbons; Democrats cite incompetence

Frustrated by governor’s lack of leadership, lawmakers scrutinize, alter his stimulus-funding requests

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TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN FILE

Gov. Jim Gibbons said he was outraged by legislators’ actions this week. “They stuck their partisan political noses in the middle of it,” he said.

The Legislature has sent a clear message to the governor: We don’t trust you to do your job.

Democratic lawmakers on Monday took unprecedented steps to control the role of the executive branch, according to lawmakers from both parties. During a meeting of the Interim Finance Committee — which exists so changes in the budget can be made when the Legislature is not in session — lawmakers rejected a plan by Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration for how to spend some of the federal stimulus money and stripped from his office a newly created position to oversee spending of Nevada’s $1.5 billion allotment.

The Legislature was assertive during its regular session, which ended June 1, making wholesale changes in the budget and overriding Gibbons’ veto of lawmakers’ spending and tax plans. Gibbons was a rare presence in the Legislative Building and had little communication even with Republican leaders.

This week’s actions made it clear that just because the part-time Legislature is out of session, it won’t grant Gibbons carte blanche.

First, lawmakers from both parties raised questions about a request to add 10 positions to oversee stimulus money earmarked for energy. The governor’s office pared that request to three.

Next, Democrats took a stimulus coordinator position that Gibbons had requested — he wanted it to be a Cabinet-level position — and moved the job under the office of Controller Kim Wallin, a Democrat.

Then they rejected a state Housing Division plan to spend $10.5 million of the stimulus to weatherize homes. Legislators wanted the state to direct the money to more contractors than Gibbons had proposed.

In an interview Tuesday, Gibbons slammed Democrats for delaying the spending.

“They stuck their partisan political noses in the middle of it and screwed everything up,” he said. “It’s an absolute outrage.”

The Democrat-controlled Legislature is “out of control” and hurting unemployed Nevadans, he said.

Democratic lawmakers acknowledged their increased scrutiny over stimulus spending is intentional. But they said it had less to do with party politics than the administration’s incompetence and legislators’ lack of confidence in the governor.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of distractions in the governor’s office,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “Whether it’s the transiency of staff, or the personal matters that distract the governor. What the public needs is leadership.”

Horsford pushed for — and succeeded at — changing the stimulus coordinator position to a classified position, which has to go through a rigid state personnel process instead of being appointed by the governor.

Horsford said during the meeting that the stimulus coordinator must be “someone with formal qualifications to fill the position ... I understand in the governor’s office, it’s his prerogative to appoint anyone regardless of their qualifications.”

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, agreed.

“There is very little trust in his judgment, his ability and his appointments,” Leslie said. “This is a consequence of his actions during the session, when he completely disengaged. We don’t have confidence in him.”

She added that under a different Republican governor, such as former Gov. Kenny Guinn, the Legislature would not need to be so involved. “If this was Guinn, this would not be happening,” she said.

There are other reasons for legislators’ increased scrutiny and involvement in the day-to-day running of the state.

Until last year the Senate was controlled by Republicans and the Assembly was controlled by Democrats, providing a check and balance between the parties that often led to compromises, according to legislative observers. Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature, so there’s not as much need to compromise.

Not since 1981, when Republican Gov. Bob List was in office, have both houses been controlled by one party while the governor was of a different party.

Also leading to the turf warfare is the fact that there has never been so much to fight about. Nevada is in line to get $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money, a potential bonanza for a state that currently has little money for innovative programs.

“We’ve never gotten into this much detail, but we’ve never seen these billions flying into the state,” said Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.

Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, acknowledged that there’s little trust and plenty of tension between the two branches.

That played out to even the smallest of details Monday.

On the table at one point was moving the stimulus coordinator out of Gibbons’ office and putting it into the budget office, which is headed by Andrew Clinger, who is well-respected by legislators but answers to the governor.

Alluding to the high staff turnover in the governor’s office, Anderson said, “We never know how long Clinger will be there.”

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