By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau: The three Republican candidates vying to become the next governor of Nevada engaged in a spirited discussion Friday on issues ranging from taxes and public education to the future of Yucca Mountain.
Gov. Jim Gibbons, seeking a second term, former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon and former federal judge Brian Sandoval agreed on many issues, from school choice and vouchers to an aversion to any type of tax increase to get the state out from under a projected $3 billion plus budget deficit next year.
But there were areas of disagreement as well, most notably on the issue of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. Sandoval and Gibbons were opposed with Montandon in support of the idea in conjunction with the development of new technologies to deal with the waste.
The debate sponsored by Anger is Brewing, a major player in the Nevada Tea Party movement, was a mostly courteous exchange of views by the candidates.
But Sandoval used the forum to challenge Gibbons on his long-held assertion that he has not raised taxes as governor.
Referring to the 2009 session, Sandoval said: “When you submitted a budget, you submitted a budget that included over $200 million in tax increases.”
Sandoval said he is the only candidate who had a plan to balance the budget in the most recent special session without raising taxes or resorting to massive layoffs and cuts to vital services.
“As part of this special session, there were fees that were increased,” he said. “The fees that were increased for banks. The fees that were increased for gaming.”
In response, Gibbons said Sandoval’s budget balancing plan was inadequate to cover the actual $880 million gap.
“So his idea about how to balance the budget is coming up short every time,” Gibbons said. “His ideas were wrong.”
Sandoval replied: “I didn’t hear a disagreement that you increased fees and taxes, governor.”
Gibbons said there was an increase in mining fees but the industry agreed to it. The other fee ideas came from the Legislature. Gibbons said he fought off a $300 million tax increase on mining and major gaming fee increases.
“I stood firm against raising major taxes on business and industry,” he said.
Montandon agreed with Gibbons that Sandoval’s plan to balance the current budget fell far short of what was required.
All three candidates flatly rejected the idea of approving any new taxes to balance Nevada’s budget in the 2011 session, suggesting that revenue studies now under way are thinly veiled efforts by some to move forward with new revenue sources such as a corporate income tax.
When asked how to balance the budget next year, Montandon said Nevada must change its policies that have pushed jobs out of state. A return to prosperity will solve the state’s budget problems long term, he said.
In the meantime, “we’re going to have to cut, and cut dramatically for a short period of time,” Montandon said.
Duplication of programs, such as offering nursing degrees at three different higher education campuses, must be eliminated in the short term, he said.
Gibbons said he has a track record of submitting balanced budgets without proposing any tax increases and that he is in the process of prioritizing spending for the next budget.
“We cannot continue to rely on government to provide us with everything we want,” he said. “It’s only going to be there to provide the things we need, the basic constitutional requirements, education, safety, those kinds of things.”
The candidates were asked how Nevada can help ensure the federal government does not expand beyond its constitutional limitations.
Sandoval said he supports the challenge Nevada is involved in over the federal health care law.
“I believe that government should stay out of our lives,” he said. “We need to get back to basics.”
Montandon said the people were warned back in the 1960s by Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater that the “federal government would come bearing cash with strings attached. And we weren’t paying attention then. We’ve got to pay attention now.”
Gibbons said judges are trampling the Constitution with liberal rulings.
“I’ve fought for your rights under the Constitution,” he said. “I am the one who took the challenge to federal court on the health care bill when the attorney general would not stand up for your rights.”
Gibbons got a laugh from the crowd with a retort to Sandoval saying he appreciated being described as a conservative judge.
“And I wish you hadn’t left the bench,” Gibbons replied.
Sandoval is the front-runner in the three-way race, according to polls.
The winner in the June primary will face Democrat Rory Reid in November.
One area of disagreement among the candidates was the subject of Yucca Mountain.
Sandoval said he said he opposes the site for nuclear storage because of the potential harm to Nevada residents. Sandoval said he is open to alternative uses for Yucca Mountain, and that he supports the development of nuclear power.
Alternative energies such as geothermal, wind and solar all should be pursed as well, he said.
When asked what the solution is to the nuclear waste issue, given his support for nuclear power, Sandoval said the material should be left on site for the time being, a comment that elicited a few boos from the audience.
Montandon said he is pro-nuclear energy because cheap and reliability electricity has been one of the greatest contributors to America’s quality of life. But the U.S. needs to develop new technologies to deal with the waste, he said.
“We will always need some sort of safe storage and some sort of repository,” Montandon said. “Safe is the key word.”
Gibbons agreed on the opportunity Nevada has to push renewable energy development. As to Yucca Mountain, Gibbons said he supports reprocessing of the nuclear waste, not burying it at the site.
“What we should do is create a nuclear center of excellence that is going to take this material and figure out just exactly how we eliminate the hazard of that waste,” he said.
The $14 billion spent on Yucca Mountain would have been better spent on research and development, Gibbons said