Tuesday, June 29, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Here’s how low relations between Gov. Jim Gibbons and others have sunk in Carson City: It’s a surprise if there’s no fighting.
And there’s no sign of any letup of that atmosphere.
Since he lost the Republican primary this month, Gibbons and his senior staff have made clear that they would aggressively push the governor’s agenda for the rest of his term. Until this week, it was unclear how his opponents would respond.
Legislators would prefer Gibbons go away quietly so they could ignore him for his final six months in office. Last week proved that they won’t be able to do that.
On Wednesday, Gibbons called the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee unconstitutional.
He also sent a letter to the Legislature saying executive branch staff would not participate in legislative committee budget meetings. The next governor will have only a few weeks to adjust Gibbons’ budget after taking office. This means the current administration could vastly shape the debate, even though voters rejected the governor in the primary.
On Thursday, the Interim Finance Committee quietly agreed to fund the governor’s stimulus coordinator, which members had opposed months ago. When the prison director requested almost $3 million for overtime costs, they didn’t mention that he had tried to close Nevada State Prison, a position they had rejected twice before. There wasn’t even a guffaw about $20,000 being spent on the gubernatorial portrait.
Had calm prevailed? No.
Soon after the meeting ended, legislators delivered a letter, signed by bipartisan leadership, that told the governor executive branch staff must participate in the budget process. And the day before, Secretary of State Ross Miller warned the governor not to “act like a petulant 15-year-old.”
Legislators don’t want to provoke the governor to challenge the constitutionality of the committee. (Lawmakers have long feared the body existed in a constitutional purgatory.)
But on other fronts, they appear willing to push back aggressively.
“We don’t want a war. We don’t need a family feud,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. “At the same time, we always need to set the record straight.”
There are two fronts on which Gibbons is trying to assert his executive authority.
The first is over who runs the Nevada corrections system. It has long been the practice that the operations have been overseen by the director, who works for the governor.
But the Nevada Constitution says the director reports to the Board of State Prison Commissioners, made up of the attorney general, secretary of state and governor. The legal counsel for the Corrections Department — the deputy attorney general — on Wednesday confirmed this interpretation.
Gibbons and corrections Director Howard Skolnik have advocated closing the state prison, calling it inefficient. The Legislature has twice rejected those plans. But Skolnik this month said that for the safety of the entire prison system he needs to move the staff and inmates at Nevada State Prison to other facilities as furloughs in the department begin July 1.
The Board of State Prison Commissioners intervened Wednesday. The attorney general and secretary of state, both Democrats, temporarily halted the closure of the prison until they could meet again July 13. Gibbons said he’s looking at his legal options.
The second front is over the Legislature’s decision to form an interim budget committee to conduct a thorough review of some department budgets before the 2011 session.
Gibbons responded with a letter telling lawmakers that two departments, the Housing Division and Parole and Probation, would not cooperate. He said the Legislature’s effort duplicated what the administration was doing. He said it was a waste of time. And he questioned the need for any legislative activity to take place outside of the 120 days every other year specified in the constitution.
The Legislature retorted with its own letter, signed by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate.
The executive branch is obligated to provide information to the Legislature, it said.
“It is our hope that a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation between the legislative and executive branches will prevail in this matter and that no further action will be necessary,” the letter said. However, it noted, the committee “has the power to issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of books and papers ... The failure to obey such subpoenas constitutes a contempt of court, which is punishable by fines and imprisonment.”
Now we wait for a return volley from the governor’s staff. Will it allow the staff to participate in the budget meetings? Or will the staff continue to defy the request, possibly forcing the Legislature to issue subpoenas?
“Illegal, unconstitutional government bodies should not be threatening state employees with jail time,” Gibbons spokesman Dan Burns said. “They should be helping state employees serve the people.”
If nothing else, the Gibbons administration has been consistent for four years — those interested in watching conflicts unfold are never disappointed.