Governor looks back on his tenure
Associated Press Writer
Kenny Guinn says “it just seems like yesterday” when he was elected Nevada’s governor in 1998 in his first bid for public office amid criticism that he was the hand-picked candidate of powerful special interests.
The Democrat-turned-moderate Republican went on to overhaul government agency operations and revamp budgeting and tax collections. Guinn pushed for a major student scholarship program and sought to diversify Nevada’s casino-dependent economy.
The governor spearheaded the biggest tax increase in state history before seeking a $300 million rebate to return excess revenues to Nevada residents.
Guinn also continued the state’s long-standing opposition to federal efforts to locate the nation’s nuclear waste dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Now he’s an official lame duck, down to his final year in office with no more broad, sweeping agendas to present to legislators. But he’s still working on some remaining executive-branch initiatives that he hopes to have in place before the state’s next governor is elected in November.
It’s been a long, challenging road for Guinn, 69, the ambitious son of poor fruit-pickers who once lived in a tin shack and bounced among nearly 30 schools as his parents followed the crops in California, Oregon and Washington.
In an hour-long interview in his Nevada Capitol office, Guinn, told The Associated Press that he could have done some things differently in his two four-year terms as governor but, for the most part, thinks he’s done a good job and hopes he’ll leave “a template for the future of Nevada.”
While Guinn has his critics, his assessment of his stint as the state’s chief executive mirrors a recent Time magazine account that named him one of the nation’s best governors. The magazine consulted with academics, political analysts and former governors in assembling its rankings.
“I’m not here to say everything we’ve done is the way to do it,” Guinn said. “But I do believe that the people said we had to change government, make it more efficient and more responsive.”
“We have come a long ways, and everything we’ve done is, I think, mostly in the right direction,” he added. “Is there a ways to go? Absolutely.”
When Guinn was first elected, after campaigning for two years, casinos and other business interests supported the retired educator and utility and banking executive so heavily with contributions that he was nicknamed “the anointed one.”
“If I was anointed, why did I have to work so long and so hard to get elected,” Guinn said. “I wasn’t predetermined. … You’re not anointed until the people vote you in.”
Guinn, whose easygoing, affable manner belies a methodical, determined approach to problems, made good on his first-term campaign promise to complete an assessment of government operations. He revised agency budget methods and pressed successfully for privatization of a costly worker compensation program.
He also got the 1999 Legislature to approve his Millennium Scholarship program that uses tobacco company settlement funds to help Nevada students pay for their higher education costs at state schools.
The review of government, which included job cuts, a hold on new programs and other controls, was a necessary prelude to a new look at the tax structure of the nation’s fastest-growing state – but Guinn and state lawmakers didn’t achieve that in the 2001 legislative session.
An overwhelming favorite in his 2002 re-election bid, Guinn got more than three times the votes received by his Democratic opponent, longtime state Sen. Joe Neal.
With the state past an economic slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he made his bid for a broader tax base in the 2003 session. He also sought more funding for social services and education.
“We were getting further and further behind in trying to cope with our growth,” Guinn said. “I felt much stronger earlier (about getting more tax revenues) but I knew I had to move slower. If you move too quickly, you won’t accomplish much.”
In calling for nearly $1 billion in new taxes in early 2003, Guinn set off a rhetorical firestorm by saying it would be “political cowardice” to oppose the tax plan. Bitter legislative debate lasted for months before a record $833 million plan finally was approved after two special sessions.
One of Guinn’s regrets is that he didn’t spend more time with individual legislative caucuses that were polarized over the tax issue.
“Looking back at it, I probably could have reallocated some of my time to bring people together, to make sure I really educated them,” Guinn said.
“But when all is said and done, I knew that if we were going to move in the right direction as a state, I had to be pretty much out in front unprotected,” Guinn said. “When you’re moving institutions and a lot of history, I think we brought most of the people we needed along with us.”
In the 2005 session, Guinn achieved most of his priorities. It took a veto threat for one, a $300 million rebate of vehicle fees to Nevadans. He had to back off on another major priority, a plan to eliminate the retirement health insurance subsidy of new state workers.
Besides the rebates, the governor also persuaded lawmakers to approve increased funding for mental health programs and universities. In a compromise, he dedicated $22 million to full-day kindergarten for at-risk schools.
Guinn said he has faced time demands that have made the chief executive’s job tougher and tougher. He also learned he had prostate cancer and underwent successful surgery in 2002.
Despite the pressures, Guinn says, “I think I’ve held up very well.”
What’s in the future? During his final year in office, Guinn says he’ll try to improve coordination of health care services and deal with hundreds of appointments to boards, commissions and other posts. He’ll also start the detailed budget-drafting process that Nevada’s next governor will inherit.
Guinn said he and first lady Dema Guinn plan a tour that will take them around the state next summer. Touring all corners of Nevada was a campaign mainstay for the Guinns, but the governor said he’s “absolutely not” looking at a bid for another office, such as U.S. Senate.
Instead, he said he wants to thank Nevadans for their support.
“I’m going to leave office with more friends than I came in with, and that’s important,” he said.
“I’ll be 70 when I leave office,” Guinn added. “I’ll have some good years when I leave, and I want to enjoy them.”
Kenny C. Guinn
• Born in Arkansas
• Raised in California, the son of migrant farm workers
• Once ran for 280 yards and five touchdowns in a game for Exeter High School
• Beaten in the California AAU Championship in decathlon by Rafer Johnson, later the 1960 Olympic gold medalist
• Married his high-school sweetheart, Dema, 49 years ago
• The Guinns have two sons, both married, and six grandchildren.
• Holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in physical education from Fresno State University
• Obtained doctorate in education from Utah State University
• Taught high school for four years, then five years after moving into administration became Clark County superintendent of schools
• Hired in 1978 by Nevada Savings and Loan, appointed chairman of the board in 1987
• Hired as Southwest Gas Corp.’s president in 1988
• Served as president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas at a salary of $1 a year
• Elected Nevada governor in 1998
• Re-elected in 2002 with 68 percent of vote
• Resides in the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City while also maintaining family home in Las Vegas
• Now building a home in Reno
Source: Official State of Nevada Web site