In recent weeks, both state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, and Northern Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons, who will contest for that nomination, have visited with the Review-Journal editorial board. (Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt is also seeking the governorship.)
Their positions on the proposed pipeline to bring water to Las Vegas from the northeastern counties, and on the proposed “Tax and Spending Control Initiative” (which drew nearly twice the number of signatures required to win a place on the fall ballot) provide interesting contrasts.
Rep. Gibbons says of the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s pipeline proposal. “The pipeline certainly makes sense if we have enough water. But we need a new study, we shouldn’t depend on 1965 figures. You do not want to draw down every drop as they did in the Mono Lake area in Southern California.”
The congressman may have been referring to Owens Lake and the Owens Valley. A cynic might also observe he’s left himself an “out” to protest, at a later date, “Gosh, we never expected our new study to show such a shortage of water ...” But at the least Rep. Gibbons appears favorably disposed to the project. After all, he could have said, “I’m AGAINST the pipeline UNLESS a new study shows there’s plenty of water,” but he did not.
Sen. Beers takes the opposite stance, and -- interestingly enough -- takes it not just when campaigning in the north, but also in front of audiences in presumably thirsty Las Vegas.
“All the scientists who haven’t been hired by the Water District say the resources up north will run out, so it’s a temporary solution at a $4 billion estimated cost, a staggering cost that will end up being 10, 12, 15 billion,” Sen. Beers asserts. “We’ve seen big problems with our budgeted capital costs because of soaring prices for construction materials. ... This pipeline would also have to be maintained, patrolled, extended. And the $4 billion estimate is just to northern Nye; it’s 100 miles short of the Rubies.”
Water District General Manager Pat Mulroy was out of town last week, so I asked her deputy, Richard Wimmer, for a response.
“Without going through the hearing process and a timetable of when you’re going to construct, it’s awfully difficult to see what the dollars are. The estimates that are floating around now are in today’s dollars, and certainly that can change over time.”
“A better solution is to buy water rights downstream,” Sen. Beers argues “It’ll cause far less environmental degradation. ... This makes more and more sense not just ecologically but also fiscally. ... You buy the water rights to a California cantaloupe farm, you fallow that farm. ... This pipeline project is just a temporary solution. There’s a limited amount of water up there, and it doesn’t replenish itself fast enough.
“Pat Mulroy hired every retired Water Engineer in the state, a whole battery of them, and they all say, ‘No no no, it’s renewable.’ Well she spoke before the Nevada Development District this month, and she changed her tune to some extent, she said ‘We’ve agreed in 75 years we’ll stop and re-evaluate what we’re doing.’
“She said even if it proved to be non-renewable, we’re never going to get the other states along the river to agree to change the compact unless we show we’ve used up all the available state water resources. So we’ll build our consumption (levels) on this temporary resource. ...”
But what about the Colorado River Compact -- the Law of the River?
“I suspect she (Mulroy) will say that will be a violation of the compact,” Sen. Beers replies. “OK, what would be the consequences? I don’t know. ... It probably would violate it; it’s a court decision. On the other hand we’re talking about willing sellers, and the end point of this pipeline game is this point anyway, where we go to the other states and say we’re out of options. So why not go there now and say, ‘We’ve only got really, really stupid options left’? ... Will Arizona sue us? OK; what will be the damages?”
“That is the problem,” agrees Richard Wimmer of the Water District. “We could buy all the ranches we wanted, all the farms that we wanted, but we couldn’t bring the water here. It wouldn’t give us the right to take it in Nevada. ... Why the in-state water project is so essential ... is it diversifies our resources so we’re not dependent on the Colorado river.”
Meantime, “To go back and renegotiate the compact is unlikely ever to occur,” Wimmer warns. “But the foundation to getting any help from the other states is 1) using water efficiently, our conservation programs ... and 2) the other linchpin issue is doing what we can within our state, and that means the in-state project.”
Gibbons on TASC:
No one needs to ask Bob Beers if he favors the Tax and Spending Control initiative (based on Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights), which would limit the Nevada rate of government growth to the rates of inflation and population growth, combined -- a requirement which Beers says would cut Nevada’s current government growth rate in half. Sen. Beers brought the idea here and has been its main champion.
It might be surprising if Rep. Gibbons were to embrace the main plank of his opponent’s campaign. But -- for a self-avowed fiscal conservative -- it’s interesting to hear the congressman oppose TASC not because it wouldn’t downsize government enough, but on the grounds that it’s not needed, in a state that in the past five years has seen its government grow by 12 to 15 percent per year.
“I see it as full employment for lawyers,” the congressman told us on July 3. “It strikes me as being an unfunded mandate on local counties, which will have to figure out their population” each year.
(Sen. Beers replies that biennial local population numbers are already prepared by the state demographer for use in the regular consolidated tax distribution.)
No such measure would be necessary under a Gibbons administration, the congressman says, since he would “put together a budget within statutory parameters, so what’s the difference?” The preferred solution, according to Rep. Gibbons, is “You need to elect people who are fiscally conservative.”
This contrasts rather oddly with the congressman’s proud and seemingly rehearsed declaration when asked what good he’s accomplished in his 10 years in Washington. “I’ve voted on 220 occasions to reduce taxes, to reduce the budget,” he says. Then, smiling, he delivers his punch line: “Of course, it’s always failed.”
(The congressman’s staff say he was referring primarily to his votes with Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who routinely offers amendments to cut appropriations bills by 1 percent across the board.)
Why? If all that’s needed is to “elect people who are fiscally conservative” -- given that America’s voters doubtless thought they were following that advice when they gave the Republican party control of the White House and both houses of Congress, simultaneously, for the past five years and much of the past 21 years -- why has his party failed so dismally at reducing either federal tax receipts or the size of the federal government?
“Whenever we vote something out, it comes back into conference decorated up like a Christmas tree,” the congressman responds. ”The president sends us a budget, and then the House adds to it till it’s decorated up like a Christmas tree, and then the Senate adds to that.”
But why, in 10 years, has he failed to do anything to change that?
“I can only answer for myself. I’m not in leadership, I’m not in the Senate,” Rep. Gibbons replies. “I only know every group in Nevada marches back to Washington every year wanting us to finance a special program. They all come to us and they have special programs that they want the federal government to fund. And if we try to cut anything your newspaper is full of articles and editorials complaining the greedy Republicans are starving the poor and the elderly.”
“Editorials in THIS newspaper?” I ask Mr. Gibbons.
“Well,” he says, laughing with some self-deprecation, “Maybe not THIS newspaper.”
The obvious question is why we should expect anything to be different in Carson City under a hypothetical Gibbons administration, than the way Rep. Gibbons describes Washington’s business-as-usual during his tenure there.
If he hasn’t been able to “Just say no” during 10 years in Washington, why should we not assume that “every group in Nevada” will “march in” and demand their pet expenditures be larded into Gov. Gibbons’ budget, which we will then see “decorated up like a Christmas tree” by the Legislature, whereupon our hypothetical Gov. Gibbons will sign most of those spending measures, just as the real-life Rep. Gibbons has proceeded to hold his nose and vote “Aye” on about half of those “decorated-up” Washington spending bills?
Isn’t it precisely this analysis of the way things really work that cries out for some kind of structural limit on how much government spending can grow each year, requiring the legislative and executive to hammer out a more austere budget within a set ceiling?
If Congressman Gibbons wanted to argue that TASC is not a tight enough straightjacket, and propose something more fiscally Procrustean, I’d be all ears. Instead, it sounds a lot to me like he’s saying, in effect, “Trust me, I’m a well-intentioned fiscal conservative ... with a proud track record in my last position of 100 percent failure in my attempts to place any limit at all on government growth and spending.”