Accepting the fact that I will likely be kicked out of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Club for this, I will nevertheless declare that former Gov. Kenny Guinn – who died last week way, way, way too soon – was no RINO (Republican In Name Only). Here’s why.
First of all, the term RINO has been misused for years to criticize Republicans who simply have occasional philosophical differences (I’ve been guilty of this transgression myself on occasion).
True RINOs, however, are folks who regularly and often give aid-and-comfort to the opposition on major and core GOP issues. Like Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. Their apostasies are legion, even legendary.
But the term RINO is usually used to describe Kenny Guinn because of one and only one transgression – though, admittedly, a pretty big and significant one: That infamous $836 million tax hike in 2003 – what was, at the time, the largest in Nevada’s history.
But to discern whether or not that tax hike qualifies Guinn for permanent RINO status, let’s put it in some perspective.
GUINN THE GOVERNOR
Kenny Guinn was first elected governor in 1998 – his one and only elected position.
In his first term, Guinn eliminated or froze almost 2,500 government jobs, privatized the state’s workers’ compensation system, and implemented a number of government reorganization recommendations that came out of his “top down” performance review.
Very conservative. Very Republican. Not exactly RINO material.
But then came his second term and the now-infamous 2003 legislative session.
To be fair, Guinn’s original objective was more to broaden Nevada’s tax base and make it more stable than to increase taxes. He believed an over-reliance on gaming and tourism to fund the government was not in the state’s best interest – a sentiment shared today by many Republicans and conservatives. In fact, a revenue-neutral tax reform proposal was recently introduced by the very conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute.
So tax reform in and of itself is not exactly a qualifier for RINO status.
The problem, however, was that Guinn’s proposal for tax diversification was a new “gross receipts tax” – in essence a business “income” tax that meant companies would have to pay it whether they were making a profit or not. Definitely not a conservative proposition.
Another problem was that the proposal wasn’t revenue-neutral.
Because of the economic effects on Nevada following 9-11, Kenny believed that not only did Nevada need a broader tax base, but additional tax revenue as well. I disagreed with that assessment then and today – and in multiple conversations with the governor in between. But in his defense, here are a few additional factors to consider.
THE DEVIL IS ALWAYS IN THE DETAILS
1.) Kenny sought $704 million worth of additional tax revenue. It was the Legislature, including multiple Republican legislators, who eventually jacked up that amount to $836 million and voted for it.
2.) Of the self-described “Lean 15” – the 15 conservative Republican legislators who refused to go along with the $836 million tax hike and, using the 2/3 requirement for tax hikes, blocked it’s approval during the regular session – almost every one of them was willing to vote for a huge tax hike that session; just not as big as $836 million.
Why does supporting a $704 million tax hike make you a RINO, but supporting a $300 million or $500 million tax hike doesn’t? What exactly is the RINO threshold? Inquiring minds wanna know.
3.) As Kenny pointed out to me over and over again over the years, conservative Republicans who consistently criticized his 2003 tax increase proposal never came up with a serious alternative proposal to cut $704 million in government spending instead.
Now, I’ve had no less than three of the “Lean 15” claim they did, indeed, submit such an alternative spending cut proposal. But curiously, none of them have ever been able to come up with a copy. Go figure. Indeed, one told me he had a copy in his closet at home but couldn’t find it. Apparently that document disappeared magically – like Hillary’s Rose Law Firm billing records. But I digress.
4.) One of the most vocal critics of the $704 million tax hike in 2003 was then-Rep. Jim Gibbons. Indeed, in a speech to the Legislature that year, Gibbons criticized Guinn’s tax hike and called on him to cut spending by that amount instead.
However, just four years later, after being elected to succeed Guinn as governor, instead of submitting a budget with $704 million worth of spending cuts that surely still existed from 2003, Gibbons submitted a budget which was some $800 million higher than the 2005 budget.
Gibbons blamed that one on the fact that he was elected in November and had to submit a budget by January, so he didn’t have time to come up with his own budget and had to submit the one prepared by the outgoing Guinn administration.
OK, fine. But then how to explain the fact that Gibbons’ 2009 proposed budget was also higher than the 2007 budget and didn’t include $704 million worth of spending cuts, hmmm?
The fact is, $704 million worth of spending cuts have been there in the budget since 2003 – but no one has had the political courage to propose them and champion them. It’s only been because of The Great Recession that such cuts to non-essential state government programs and services have finally been implemented.
5.) Yes, it’s true that Kenny Guinn sued the Legislature in 2003. But it was to force the Legislature to do its job and approve a budget one way or another, not to overturn the 2/3 requirement for tax hikes. That’s something the Nevada Supreme Court, to its never-ending shame, did all on its own.
You can blame Kenny Guinn for a lot of things in that 2003 session, but shredding the state Constitution isn’t one of them.
6.) It was after one of the “Lean 15,” Assemblyman John Marvel, took one for the team and flip-flopped on the $836 million tax hike – with the acquiescence of the rest of the “Lean 15” – that the Mother of All Tax Hikes was finally approved. Yet no one calls any of them RINOs even though they supported huge tax hikes of a lesser amount and ultimately gave Marvel their OK to pass the monster one.
One final note on this: During that infamous 2003 tax fight, a Republican state senator, Mark Amodei, actually proposed an alternative tax hike that weighed in at well over a billion dollars…almost double what Guinn was proposing!
And do you know what the Nevada Republican Party calls him today?
Which brings us to the 2005 session.
ABOUT THAT REBATE
By 2005, Nevada’s economy had not only recovered from 9-11, but the new tax revenue was coming in faster and higher than expected – about $600 million higher. And if you’ll recall, the Legislature was salivating and drooling over the potential windfall.
But Kenny Guinn insisted on putting half of that money into the state’s Rainy Day Fund and rebate the other half back to Nevada’s taxpayers. He told me then, and repeated it every time we discussed this issue afterward, that if he had left that money in the Legislature’s hands they’d have spent every last dime of it on new or expanded government programs and services.
Personally, I’d have preferred a permanent tax cut; however, is giving the people a $300 million tax rebate the act of a RINO?
But let’s move beyond Kenny Guinn’s tax and public policy positions as governor and take just a brief look at the political side of his tenure.
GUINN’S GOP GENEROSITY
Prior to Kenny’s election in 1998, Republicans held just two of the six constitutional offices and only one of Nevada’s four congressional seats.
After his re-election campaign in 2002, Republicans held all six of the state’s constitutional offices and 3 of the 5 congressional seats.
Not too shabby for a RINO.
In addition, Kenny’s direct financial contributions to many “down ballot” Republican candidates over the years were extremely generous.
And I’ll never forget the time in 2006 when I asked for his help to send 15 Republican grassroots activists and potential Republican candidates to the Leadership Institute’s campaign management school. Kenny wrote me a check for $10,000 to completely pay for their registration fees, airplane tickets, lodging and food.
But Kenny’s Republican support went even beyond support for GOP candidates.
While many, if not most, Republican elected officials avoid local party and club events like a vampire avoids sunlight – such as the annual Lincoln Day dinners, meetings and conventions – Kenny went to as many as time would allow and rarely turned down a speaking request.
And while so many of the elected officials who do bother to attend these events expects to be “comped,” not only did Kenny, to the best of my knowledge, always pay for his own tickets, as often as not he and Dema purchased an entire table for the event to help support the local Republican organization or club.
Yeah, what a RINO.
GUINN AND REAGAN
Let me wrap up with this.
I heard one elected official refer to Kenny Guinn last week as a “Reagan conservative.” No, he wasn’t. He was a Reagan moderate.
Kenny possessed a very different view of government from Ronald Reagan. I once asked him what he believed the proper role of government was and he said simply, “To help people.”
A very noble and admirable sentiment, but certainly not one shared by limited-government, philosophical conservatives such as the late President Reagan who believed, as he famously put it, that government was the problem, not the solution.
That said, Kenny Guinn’s gregarious manner, his warmth, his larger-than-life persona, his generosity, his good will, his devotion to his wife, his commitment to his family, his love for our state and our country, and his ability to work with political opponents to advance the agenda he believed in was every bit as Reaganesque as Reagan himself.
Alas, I’m certain that even after reading this, many will still call Kenny Guinn a RINO. And that’s fine. People are entitled to their opinion.
Me? I’ll always proudly call him what he was to me and my family.
Good-bye, friend. Have a cold longneck waiting for me when I get there on the other side with you.