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July 20, 2017

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Governor’s idle hands

Gibbons chose passive stance on bills he didn’t like: He let them become law without signing them

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Nevada governors have always viewed bills from the Legislature as either-or propositions: Either sign it or veto it.

But Gov. Jim Gibbons chose a third route in handling some legislation this session — allowing seven bills to become law without his autograph.

The governor didn’t like the bills, but didn’t dislike them enough to veto them, according to his staff. Gibbons also exercised his veto power 48 times this session, more than any governor in state history.

“The general concept was he either had concerns or thought the legislation was unnecessary, but they didn’t rise to the level of a veto,” Chief of Staff Josh Hicks said. “It was symbolic.”

If Gibbons is trying to send a message, it’s not clear what that message is. Although the vetoed bills carried written explanations as to why the governor didn’t approve of the legislation, Gibbons has not publicized his non-signing of bills. (Legislative staff for the first time created a separate section on its Web site for these bills.)

The most controversial use of this option occurred near the beginning of the session, in March. Gibbons had included a 3 percentage point increase in the room tax in his budget. But once the Legislature passed the tax increase, Gibbons declined to sign it, passively letting it become law.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, was furious, saying the governor had “misled” him.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford issued a statement at the time, questioning Gibbons’ leadership. “We must face the future with courage and competence, not with the cowardice the governor has demonstrated today,” Horsford said.

In the final weeks of the session, Gibbons allowed six more bills to become law without his signature.

The bills:

• banned novelty lighters;

• created a forced savings account for the state;

• mandated spay and neutering requirements for cats and dogs to be posted in veterinarian offices and public parks;

• increased the penalty for stalking and expanded the definition to include texting but, at the last minute, was amended to allow smoking at tobacco conventions;

• addressed technical issues on mortgage lending;

• limited development, including casinos, around Mount Charleston.

Dan Burns, Gibbons’ spokesman, denied that the governor was declining to lead by not signing the bills.

“If you choose not to choose, you still make a choice,” Burns said. “The governor decided that they become law. He’s just not going to put his stamp of approval on it.”

The most significant legislation that Gibbons handled in this fashion was Assembly Bill 165, which passed unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly. The bill requires money to be automatically set aside every two years for the state’s rainy-day fund — a so-called forced savings account. Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who is planning to run for governor, sponsored the bill.

“You’re just left scratching your head,” Buckley said. “There was universal support for this. You’re either going to support it or not.”

Buckley said she remembers suggesting to Gov. Kenny Guinn during his tenure that he allow a bill to become law without his signature. She wanted it to pass, but he opposed it.

“He said ‘no,’ he was either going to support it or veto it,” she said. “He wasn’t going to waffle.”

Guinn could not be reached for comment Thursday.

There’s no clear record of how often governors have not signed bills but allowed them to become law.

But former Govs. Bob List, Richard Bryan and Bob Miller all said they had no recollection of doing that.

List, a Republican, said: “He’s the governor. He has to make his own decisions. I suppose one could adopt that rationale and go that route.”

Miller, a Democrat, said he considered allowing a bill to become law without his signature but discarded the idea. “It becomes law without your signature, so it’s a matter of semantics to suggest that by not signing it is some type of silent protest,” he said.

Miller said Gibbons has a different approach to the job than his predecessors.

“I think he has a different philosophical approach to being governor,” Miller said. “It appears to be very different than any of the governors. This is just one component of his style.”

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said governors in other states have occasionally not signed bills. But Gibbons’ use of the tactic has watered down any protest message he was trying to send.

“Jim Gibbons has taken it to a new level of usage and it loses the impact by almost randomly using both the veto and the non-signing approach,” he said.

He pointed to the bill banning novelty lighters.

“That was a silly bill, maybe not worth a veto. He could’ve sent a message that was clear,” he said. “Now, with seven of these kind of random ... it loses the effectiveness of that protest.”

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