Washoe County Sen. William Raggio, the Senate Republican floor leader, was concerned. He had endorsed Gov. Jim Gibbons’ call for a special session of the legislature and had even reversed his stance on a pay raise for teachers and state workers in order to make Gibbons’ life easier.
But then nothing happened. Once having announced he would call the lawmakers into session, Gibbons seemed at a loss to know what to do with them when they got there. Days passed with no guidance on what he wanted them to do when they arrived in Carson City.
Every Nevada governor has opened every regular and special legislative session since 1864 with a set of recommendations. This isn’t so crucial in a regular session, but it’s very important in a special session because (1) governors control the agendas of special sessions, and lawmakers cannot act on anything the governors do not permit, and (2) special sessions, at least since the 1960s, have been expected to be short and snappy. There is no time for lawmakers to do research and hold a lot of hearings, so they are not expected to produce the program for a special session.
Gibbons dithered, then delayed the session for another few days to give himself more time to come up with a program. Eventually, on the Reno television program Nevada Newsmakers, Gibbons complained about the lawmakers not coming up with their own ideas and said he said would develop a 20- or 21-point program. It might be argued that an alleged arsonist who reportedly set off an incendiary device on the capital mall on June 25 to get the attention of lawmakers took a greater interest in the special session than the governor did.
At some point, the legislators gave up on him. If they were going to be ready, they had to do the work themselves. Raggio backed away from repeal of the pay raise and started working with other legislative leaders, both his fellow Republicans and Democrats.
“I’ve been speaking frequently with Barbara Buckley, with Steve Horsford, with [Dina] Titus, and I’ve asked them to try to work together rather than have a Democrat plan or a Republican plan, that we’d try to utilize a joint approach,” Raggio said on June 19. “I want to keep this as free of partisan politics as possible.”
By the time the Gibbons appeared on Nevada Newsmakers (“They have to come up with their own ideas”), the legislators had already hammered out the outlines of a plan of their own. When Gibbons finally presented his program—at about the last possible moment—it had 19 points, many cribbed from the legislative plan, and one (No. 19) that basically said, “Do anything you want to balance the budget.” Most remarkable of all, Gibbons proposed a tax increase, calling for reinstatement of a sales tax on complimentary meals served by casinos.
Unfortunately, the legislative leaders conducted their negotiations out of public view in secret, closed meetings.
But by the time the special session opened on June 27, it was fairly clear that what had previously been regarded as a thorny problem that might take a week would be wrapped up in a weekend, maybe even one day. As it turned out, with their plan in place, it took half a day—12 hours, 22 minutes.
On the night before the session started, Republican Gibbons and Democratic Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley addressed the state on television. While the family photos chief executives normally like to display on these occasions were unsurprisingly missing, Gibbons still looked like a governor and spoke calmly and deliberately, probably regaining some lost ground with the public. But his more immediate constituency was the lawmakers, and they were angry the speech seemed to blame them for the state budget crisis when they had been guided at the 2007 legislature by his budget.
Gibbons probably didn’t mean it to sound like he was blaming them—he used the plural pronoun “we” a lot (“We over-promised”)—but it was the kind of misstep at which the governor has become adept.
Buckley’s speech was not a response to Gibbons, but an alternative view of the issues. She praised the Republicans but said Gibbons had been missing in action.
Opening (and closing) day
There is a free-floating group that inhabits the legislative building every two years—lawmakers, staff people, lobbyists, reporters, hangers-on—and a special session always has the feel, as one lobbyist put it last week, of a class reunion. This special session, though, was like a class reunion minus the fun. Everyone was in a foul mood, partly over Gibbons’ appearance on Nevada Newsmakers and in his televised speech, but mostly because of the work they had to do. Legislators on both sides of the aisle had invested years in building up programs they now had to ravage.
“This is not a pleasant special session,” Buckley said at one point during the day.
The building creaks to life for these occasions. Computers in the press room and a clock in the lobbyists’ room were an hour behind, indicating that no one had tended them for a while. Old friends of many sessions’ standing greeted each other, and temporary employees who normally work at the legislature only in odd-numbered years saddled up again.
There were efforts to lighten the mood and make things less negative. Once during a hushed Assembly session, a cell phones went off, piercing the silence in the hall. Buckley quipped, “Maybe we’ll have the cell phone ring tax. That’s one everyone could … .” Laughter cut her off.
Knowing that public employees were feeling like targets, Assembly GOP floor leader Heidi Gansert at one point offered them a graceful thanks—”What great respect we have for you”—even as some of them marched outside the building to defend the pay hikes.
There were two gatherings outside the building, one of teachers, the other of public employees. One speaker, Jan Gilbert, took direct aim at a popular conservative shibboleth: “We have got to make our government operate more like a government and less like a business.”
Steadily during the day, meetings were held, bargains were cut, legislation was reworked. There were flare-ups among the legislators, though they were nothing compared to the friction around Gibbons. No one proposed entering the governor’s televised address into the house journals, and Republicans went out of their way not to defend him. Gibbons’ tax hike on comped meals was approved by the Assembly but ran into a solid phalanx of opposition among Senate Republicans, and it died.
• School textbook funding was reduced by $48 million.
• $50 million in transportation projects was delayed.
• With 220 days to go until the next regular session of the legislature, the state’s “rainy day” fund was emptied.
• $27.3 million was taken from a public health trust.
• $106 million in additional cuts was left to state agency chiefs.
This last item was a way of reminding Gibbons—and informing the public—that the entire special session had been unnecessary, much of its work doable by the Gibbons administration.
“We could have [done] this without having a special session, like we did the $900 million,” said Assembly budget chief Morse Arberry, referring to cuts Gibbons had made before the special session.
When the lawmakers finished, their cuts together with $914 million already cut by Gibbons came to $1.2 billion.
There’s one more thing to be said about this session. When they spelled out their cuts, the lawmakers used a concurrent resolution. It’s a measure that is not subject to a governor’s veto.