Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The battle for the future of the Republican Party has come to Carson City.
The Nevada Republican Party has become increasingly vocal on the state budget, pounding the anti-tax drum even as some Republican senators say tax increases may be necessary to balance state spending.
The division is a reflection of what’s happening in Washington, where Republicans struggle to find an identity as the minority party and weigh whether they’re best served by working with President Barack Obama or opposing him in a quest for ideological purity.
“There is absolutely a division” within the Nevada party, said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who has advised party Chairwoman Sue Lowden to continue pushing the anti-tax message.
Last month Lowden sent an open letter to Nevada’s Republican lawmakers asking them to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. None is known to have done so.
“That was the first shot across the bow to indicate the party was going to be more aggressive,” Muth said.
The latest salvo came Sunday from Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., on the Sunday talk show “Meet the Press.” Ensign blasted the portion of the federal stimulus that would go to states, saying it would allow them to continue overspending.
“Instead of just spending money, we should eliminate wasteful Washington spending and also require the states to have some fiscal discipline,” he said. “Here’s what this bill does. It sends the money to the states, and not only do we have them not have to make the tough cuts that they should be making, we actually encourage them to spend more because to be able to get the money, they have to spend more. And, and this just encourages more wasteful spending.”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, a longtime party leader, has said tax increases would be “a last resort” to protect vital government services. But he has consistently refused to sign pledges not to raise taxes.
Asked about Lowden’s recent push on the budget, he said: “What you’re seeing is Chuck Muth. I don’t want him speaking for the Republican Party. He’s an ardent libertarian. He should be writing things for the Libertarian Party.”
Muth, a registered nonpartisan, left the Republican Party several years ago, saying its politicians were violating conservative principles.
The fight over the Republican Party’s core principles has raged for decades. The debate has received new focus since the party’s electoral drubbing in November, when the Democratic presidential candidate won the state by a record margin and Democrats claimed a majority in the state Senate for the first time in 15 years.
Democrats have a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, but are two votes shy of a veto-proof majority in the Senate.
Ideological purists in the Nevada Republican Party watching the state budget debate want no tax increases to be considered and the state to cut the $2.3 billion needed to balance spending and revenue.
Such a position will give voters a clear choice between Republicans and Democrats, they say.
More pragmatic Republicans believe they would be better off leveraging votes in favor of tax increases to obtain long-term changes to public employee benefits and collective bargaining rules for government workers.
The pragmatists argue that the proposed cuts in Gov. Jim Gibbons’ budget, such as the 6 percent reduction to teachers’ salaries and 36 percent cut to higher education, threaten the future of the state more than any tax increase.
Those on the pragmatic side also note that the party’s leading ideological warrior, former Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, was defeated by seven points in November.
The risks are great for both approaches in Carson City. Consenting to a tax increase will anger the GOP base; opposing any tax increase while slashing services will make chasing Democratic votes that much harder in a state now trending Democratic.
The state GOP has clearly chosen the ideological approach.
On her blog Lowden recently criticized state spending trends. “To be honest, some Republicans are just as guilty as the Democrats for the situation we now find ourselves in,” she said in what could only be seen as a shot at Raggio and former Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn.
Gibbons, who’s mostly with the anti-tax crowd in Carson City, finds himself on opposite sides of a separate but related ideological fight with Ensign.
Ensign has argued that the spending by states has been “obscene.” Asked Monday whether he included Nevada in that, he said: “Oh, absolutely. It’s grown faster than population and faster than inflation over the past 15 years. It’s absolutely true.”
Meanwhile, Gibbons has led the call for federal aid to Nevada, a position that stunned some of his supporters. (This, some people note, is the same guy who came to Carson City in 2003 to blast Guinn’s proposed tax hike.)
“Gov. Gibbons really wants to make clear how serious and how deep the financial crisis is in the state,” said his spokesman, Dan Burns. “The notion that we have some kind of fat, bloated budget that can be trimmed is simply wrong. The budget we have submitted is bare bones. We make cuts we don’t want to make. We’re looking at the stimulus package so it does what it says: Stimulate the economy by sending money to the state government so it can be spent.”
Gibbons has also been attacked for including a room tax increase in his budget. The increase, approved by voters in an advisory question, would apply in Washoe and Clark counties.
Muth said, “He’s going out there saying, ‘I promised not to raise taxes,’ and he did. He’s trying to find a loophole that isn’t there.”
Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, says some of the division comes from a lack of understanding about the state budget and the services it funds. To truly understand it, people would need to sit through legislative budget hearings and interim committee meetings.
“I’ve been kicking around a long time,” he said. “Very rarely have I seen wasteful spending.”
Sun reporters J. Patrick Coolican and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.