Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2017

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How Nevada was set on the path to this budget nightmare

A Republican governor confronting a cataclysmic downturn in the economy might describe the state of the state thusly:

“My fellow Nevadans, it is my duty as governor to report this evening that the state of our state is fragile and as challenging as any period ... Since I last stood before you, much has happened to weaken the finances and the economies of our country and this state. That is why, this evening, Nevada stands at a crossroads. Directly ahead of us are two roads to the future. Tonight is the time for choosing our path. One choice may be easy to make, but hard to endure. It is a road that is shortsighted and paved with irresponsibility. The legacy of once again running from our duty as leaders will produce a devastating effect on every single Nevadan.”

So have I obtained an advance copy of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ State of the State speech, which he will deliver Thursday? Despite my special place in Gibbonsworld, alas, no.

But a Republican governor did say those words six years ago, facing a situation that may not be perfectly analogous — the economy is significantly worse now — but has forced similar choices.

Kenny Guinn could have done what Gibbons is poised to do — cut hundreds of millions from state government, schools and the higher education system by imposing pay cuts and erasing raises, choices that will leave school districts in legal and economic jeopardy because of binding contracts.

But Guinn did not take the road more easily traveled. He gritted his teeth and proposed a billion-dollar tax increase, much of which passed and served only to stop the further deterioration of state spending on education, social services and physical infrastructure.

Guinn, in his 2003 State of the State, had simple words to describe the other path, the one that would greatly damage the lives of seniors, children and the less fortunate: “These are not threats, they are realities ... To me, this is not a choice worthy of our citizens. It is not a choice for leaders, but a choice of political cowardice.”

Six years later the choice many Nevadans made for Guinn’s successor may have been easy to make but has now become hard to endure. Gibbons is poised Thursday to apply the same blunt instrument to the budget crisis that he has used throughout, eschewing a scalpel for a broadsword, preferring amputation to reconstruction.

“If I had to build this budget on only our existing revenue, I could not live with myself, and I don’t know anyone who could,” Guinn said six years ago.

Now you do, Gov. Guinn. His name is Jim Gibbons.

But let’s be fair. The governor is an unserious man with incurable myopia, but we are not here because of Jim Gibbons. He is hardly to blame for years of neglect, much of it hardly benign, by many self-centered players.

A political class looking ahead to the next election and unwilling to take on the larger problem of a tax system with an inherent structural deficit. A gaming industry that paid lip service to the notion of community responsibility but spit on the proposition that its taxes should be regularly increased. And a business elite that salivated at the profits to be made in a boomtown but whose throats dried up when asked how much they would contribute to the state’s coffers.

If Carson City politicians actually had engaged in a vigorous debate about how the state raises and spends money, if the gamers had agreed to have their taxes raised more often and if the business community had not serially removed its chair from the tax discussion table, we would not be here now. Don’t misunderstand: The national recession would still have hit home. But it would have been better to be cutting from funding levels at or above the national average in a state that had shucked its backwater tendencies than to be slicing bone from bone.

The blame game is hardly productive, though, unless it is instructive, too. This is not, as the ideologically blinded forces of the right and their tools would you have believe, simply a binary choice about taxes. Guinn knew that. But he had something that Gibbons — and alas, other state leaders, elected and otherwise — does not possess: A vision.

In 2003 a congressman named Jim Gibbons publicly criticized that vision. Now, the circle has closed. It’s time for Guinn — and so many others, elected and otherwise — to stand up and tell the public what they think of the Gibbons plan.

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