An assembly line was working at a house on Riverside Drive in Reno, the headquarters of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Different people were laying out slices of bread, adding meat and cheese, mustard and mayo, cookies and napkins, slipping it all into brown paper bags.
Bag lunches for 150 were being prepared. The 150 people were later taken to Carson City in several buses to make their presence known at the new governor’s first message to the Nevada Legislature.
Some in the group were concerned about their home care. Others were bothered by what they had heard about their schools. Others were concerned about services that have gotten no attention at all—silence being menacing. All of them wanted taxes raised.
Cleto Claro, one of the group, said, “I’m a student in Reno at TMCC and if tuition goes up any more, I don’t think I’m going to be able to go.”
On the way down, PLAN director Bob Fulkerson got on a public address system and briefed the group in his bus about what to expect in the capital. He talked about some of the issues and policies they were trying to influence. He asked for calm and politeness at all times, and he said after alighting from the bus, everyone should meet in front of the capitol building for a demonstration.
Not everything had been covered in advance. No one had thought about where to stop the buses and offload. After circling a bit, the bus pulled off on a side street two blocks from the building and the group stepped off the bus. Soon a long line of folks were walking to the legislature, arms full of protest signs, crossing Carson’s main street while traffic stopped.
It was dusk, but the demonstration came off with no problems and attracted attention from some legislators.
It had been apparent early that the concerned citizens were not going to be able to actually see the speech by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Large banks of the seats had been marked for big shots and legislators’ friends. “Reserved for Sen. Whoever” signs were plastered all over the available seating, and only four members of the Reno group were able to get into the Assembly hall where the speech was held. Three of them were wheelchair bound and the fourth is an attendant who pushes one of the wheelchairs. She had to stand throughout.
All the others in the Reno group were directed to the legislative auditorium where they watched Gov. Sandoval on television.
Like so much of Nevada government, the one-time informality of these occasions has dwindled away in favor of ceremony and heavy security. Legislators filed in to their seats on the floor of the Assembly, but ordinary citizens no longer find it easy to wander onto the floor and talk with them. The Nevada Legislature was once a people’s legislature, but it’s difficult to make that case anymore.
When Gov. Sandoval began speaking, it was Greek to many of the listeners. Governors must speak in generalities on these occasions. Without a knowledge of facts and figures, such as a few legislators have, it’s hard to know exactly what the speeches mean—not that it keeps plenty of people with no real knowledge from pontificating. The real information is in the budget, not the speech. Assemblymember Theresa Benitez-Thompson called the speech “kind of a 40,000-foot view,” which describes these speeches exactly—and makes clear why post-speech analysis is useful.
Not until a governor’s budget recommendations are examined—he is required to release them in January—will it become clear what he is proposing. And the speech is scheduled to the day those recommendations are released so he can put his own spin on them. It’s worth noting that though the governor makes this speech in a legislative hall in front of legislators and it all looks official as heck, the Nevada Legislature will not be in session until next month. Governors could wait until then to make these speeches, but they would surrender that spin, so every two years at a cost of about $20,000 the entire legislature arrives in Carson City for this ritual.
Sandoval spoke thoughtfully and soberly in a very different pace from his campaign appearances.
“Unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcy—the cure is not more government spending, but helping businesses create jobs,” the governor said. “The key is to get Nevada working again. The Silver State has a long history of economic peaks and valleys. But the state of our state this evening should not be described as just another dip in the road. Instead, we find ourselves on the new terrain of a changed global economy, and the crossing is hard. … [S]pending cuts alone could not do the work of balancing the state budget in a reasonable, thoughtful manner. Therefore, we made $1 billion of public money work harder so as to mitigate cuts to services and programs. None of this money comes from new taxes. We made better use of existing dollars. The public does not think of revenue as yours or mine. All of it, every last penny, is theirs. Whether it’s in this bucket or that bucket does not matter.”
When the speech ended, two people intimately familiar with the budget gave their views.
Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Washoe County Democrat, had received a briefing on the governor’s recommendations and said, “The cuts to higher education, according to my budget briefing, is more in the neighborhood of 27 percent. I think we’re going to see community colleges close, we’re going to see tuition hiked, etcetera. He’ll make college unaffordable to the middle class. He didn’t talk about the fact that they’re eliminating 10 percent of the mental health workforce—severe cuts in mental health. He talked about saving one autism program, but he’s eliminated another one. The cut to K-12 [kindergarten to 12th grade] is more in the neighborhood of 15 percent. .. The cuts are in the [neighborhood] of $2 billion.”
Sandoval had said the cut to higher education would be 17.66 percent. He had not given a percentage figure for K-12 but said his recommended cut was $270 per pupil. Leslie argued that when all the impact of the governor’s recommendations on state workers was figured, they suffered a financial loss of 10 percent, not the 5 he cited.
Former senator William Raggio, a Washoe County Republican who resigned his seat on Jan. 5, attended as an observer. Reporters crowded around him seeking interviews after the speech while ignoring incumbents. “If I’d known people were going to be this nice, I would have quit years ago,” he cracked.
“It’s ambitious,” Raggio said of Sandoval’s program. “There are a lot of suggestions in there, or recommendations, particularly in education. I understand where he’s coming from but I think it’s going to be a tough sell, and I’m particularly concerned about the serious cut in higher education, 17 and a half percent above what was cut before [more than 20 percent] would make it very difficult. And if education’s going to be a partner for diversification in the economy, you know you have to really work together a little better than that, I think. But overall, I give him an A on his speech.”
Sandoval also recommended substantial cuts in corrections, health and human services and law enforcement.
Last week, there was a major break in the business community’s silence when the construction industry called for higher taxes, but they foresee that money being reserved for projects like infrastructure. Still, it had the effect of legitimizing increased taxes.
The Reno folks who came on the buses to Carson City walked back across the main street to their buses. Did they have an impact?
“I think it has some impact,” said Fulkerson. “Whether or not it’s a make or break thing, you know, who knows? It’s a whole big combination of things that’s going to have an impact.”