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Governor Miller

After Richard Bryan stepped down as governor in 1988 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor Bob Miller took over the reins of Nevada state government. Although a political hegemony had developed for Democrats in Nevada, Bob Miller inherited a host of problems in his new post that threatened his power. As lieutenant governor, he'd acted the good cop to Bryan's bad cop, but now he had to make some tough decisions.

The first decision Miller mishandled (though he didn't then realize it) was not replacing Bob Loux as head of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. As volatile as the Yucca Mountain political situation was, leaving Loux in position meant Miller was forced to carry the millstone of Bryan's anti-nuclear campaign without any realistic hope of political benefit for himself. Miller couldn't negotiate with the feds for benefits for Nevada without repudiating both Bryan and Bryan's appointed director of NWPO.

Miller must also have felt he couldn't fire the mercurial Loux without being perceived by Nevada Democrats as having to give in to pressure from the American Nuclear Energy Council and their representatives from OIZ Advertising and Altamira Communications. Miller had relied on campaign advisors Kent Oram from OIZ and Don Williams from Altamira in his 1990 gubernatorial campaign (in fact the close ties of these political consultants to the governor was why they were viewed as so valuable by the nuclear industry), and these advisors were in a bitter war with Loux. As the 1994 elections approached, Miller's political situation became even more difficult because Republican Secretary of State Cheryl Lau was running a hard hitting race and threatened to control the Yucca Mountain issue by questioning Loux's competency.

As governor, Miller lost control of the most controversial agency under his administration. If Bob Loux answered to anyone (at times a question in itself), it was to Senator Bryan, leaving Miller to take the political heat for Loux's indiscretions. According to the Elko Daily Free Press:

Yesterday, we received one letter for the dump, from a private group called Bullfrog County Times, and one against the dump, from the state's "Agency for Nuclear Projects." Why they don't come right out and call it the agency "against" nuclear projects, we don't know, but we suspect it has something to do with the fact Gov. Miller is involved, and he doesn't even know the difference between a budget cut and a spending hike." [Steninger, Dan; Elko Daily Free Press, Elko, Nevada, July 1992]

Being tied to the random policies of Loux and the staff at the Nuclear Waste Project Office forced Miller into a rather inconsistant political stance. While opposing Yucca Mountain, he heartily supported continued testing at the Nevada Test Site. Also perplexing were Miller's statements in support of a Nuclear Rocket study planned by the Air Force for the test site. In reality, the risks of radiation contamination from such tests, though quite low, were still substantially higher than that of Yucca Mountain (the Challenger explosion demonstrates why). In contrast, Miller opposed reopening of the Beatty low-level radioactive waste dump in the 1993 legislative session, even though $20 million a year in fees were offered. Miller's nuclear position, in short, seemed dictated by political expediency rather than a cost benefit analysis.

If Miller's first mistake in office was not firing Loux, his second was giving in to the special interests in the 1991 legislative session. Between the teacher's union, a recessionary fall in gaming revenues and Nevadan's innate antipathy to a business tax, Miller created a fiscal vise. In 1992, the vise closed tight.

With a projected $136 million budget shortfall (approximately 13% of the budget) and no economic recovery in sight, Miller was forced to make draconian cuts across the board in everything from mental health benefits to teacher's wages, antagonizing almost everyone and pleasing no one. There were even rumors that a mental patient committed suicide as a result of the cuts in the mental health budget. While these rumors may have been unfair and unfounded, they nevertheless indicate the political difficulties Miller faced in the 1994 political campaign in the form of a compassion issue.

To put the governor and the state of Nevada's plight in perspective, there was more than the 1992 recession howling at the state's door. A whole pack of devastating fiscal wolves were circling the Silver State at the same time.

First, there was the threat of Indian gaming and startup casino operations in New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere to worry about. Miller recognized that the State's income was almost totally derived from the discretionary spending of California vacationers and from the federal government (sources that could dry up at any moment). Moreover, Nevada had been unsuccessful in trying to lure major industries to take up residence It didn't help when the governor proposed a new business tax in 1990, and then complained that the tax that resulted wasn't large enough. The tax was supposedly to cover the state's shortfall but in part covered Miller's concessions to the special interests. By the 1993 legislature, Nevada was faced with substantial recessionary loses in gaming revenues at the same time it had little concept how to attract new light-industries to stabilize the tax base.

Secondly, the Nevada Test Site was about to be substantially downsized, if not eliminated completely. One of the benefits of the end of the Cold War was the downsizing of the American military and defense in general. Nevada was vulnerable to this downsizing at the Nevada Test Site, at Nellis Air Force Base and the Tonopah Test Range. The combined job loss from these sites threatened to number tens of thousands, a huge hit on a low population state like Nevada. And these weren't just any jobs, they were high-tech, high-paying jobs with higher wages than low paying casino positions.

A third threat was the collapse of the economic miracle in the neighboring state of California. The bloom was off the rose in the Golden State and they were reduced to using IOUs to pay employees in mid 1992. Miller knew very well that California's weakened economy was suffering a malaise worse than the rest of the U.S. and this might hurt Nevada. The Silver State is in many ways only a province of its bigger neighbor, dependent on a bloodline of vacationers with discretionary income.

Finally, bills before congress prompted by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt threatened to wreck mining interests in Nevada by shifting taxation from the production to the prospecting end of the mining cycle and to attack cattle ranching by raise grazing fees. Though perhaps well intentioned by eastern politicians, in a state with little other viable manufacturing or industrial base than mining and ranching, these bills promised economic havoc.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

The fifty to a hundred million dollars in yearly benefits suggested in Bennett Johnston's 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act would have saved Miller politically from all these headaches. Kent Oram of OIZ Advertising, who was handling the public relations for the American Nuclear Energy Council, made Miller aware from the beginning with frequent phone calls that such sums were available and not mere Washington rhetoric. Oram had run Miller's previous political campaigns and so the governor knew very well what Oram could do for him (or against him) in regard to obtaining benefits for the State. The simple political solution would have been for the governor to accept money from the Nuclear Waste Fund for studying Yucca Mountain while still opposing the final siting of the repository in Nevada. Thus, Miller was given plenty of opportunity to make a graceful separation from the the anti-Yucca Mountain policies of Richard Bryan before the 1994 campaign.

Mayor Jan Jones of Las Vegas, a Democrat, took the unprecedented step of opposing the sitting governor in the 1994 primaries. Jones made a bold political move to encircle Miller on nuclear issues by voting to allow the transportation of radioactive landfill to the Nevada Test Site. As noted by political columnist John Ralston:

At first, it was only a momentary tingling when I noticed the Las Vegas City Council, led by Mayor Jan Jones, refused last week to join a state law suit designed to prohibit 16,000 truckloads of radioactive dirt from being trucked onto the Nevada Test Site from Fernald, Ohio. Union officials insisted the lawsuit would shut down the test site while an environmental impact statement was conducted.

Now, though, I feel an overdose coming on as the last couple of days have seen virtually every Nevada pol from Las Vegas to Washington become involved. And even better, this lawsuit seems to have caused a percolation of a problematic issue - the test site jobs vs. anti-nuclear dump rhetoric - which has complicated a debate that once seemed so one sided.

"This rips asunder the thinly welded alliance on the nuclear issue," said one veteran of the slippery slope. And what it also has done is transformed what was a short-lived off-off Broadway play showing at City Hall into A Chorus Line of political performers. . . . . .

Governor Bob Miller: Mr FOB No. 1 {Friend of Bill Clinton}, with the unions mobilizing and Jones already with them, said he feels consideration needs to be given to amending the language. [Review Journal, July 14, 1994, p7B, John Ralston]

NUKE LITE

The reason John Ralston, the usual insider on Nevada's political dirt, had heard so little about the nuclear waste issue in 1994 was because of the secret agreement between Miller and the nuclear forces to not conduct a campaign of mutual destruction in Nevada in the 1994 elections. Called "Nuke Lite" by insiders, Senator Bryan was also included in the 'hands-off' political deal which canceled a million-dollar-plus campaign against Miller and Bryan by the nuclear industry. In exchange, Miller apparently made a backroom deal with his friend Kent Oram to negotiate for benefits after the election and to take care of the difficult Loux by finally moving him to the side.

Unfortunately for Miller, the nuclear issue did not die in the 1994 campaign with the defeat of Jan Jones. Republican candidate Jim Gibbons attacked Miller claiming the Governor had allowed Bob Loux at NWPO to deliver million dollar plus contracts without Requests for Proposals and without competitive bids. Gibbons argued that if Miller were so lax in his oversight of this agency because of cronyism, the governor couldn't be trusted to run other agencies as well.

Gibbon's also opposed Yucca Mountain, so his argument that Miller had sold out to the nuclear industry and Kent Oram in a crass deal to throw the election was particularly biting. With the upcoming revision of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1995, Nevada risked not only having a Monitored Retrievable Storage site shoved down its throat, but also risked having its future potential NWPA benefits erased. Miller's credentials as a Friend of Bill Clinton had not significantly slowed the repository study and now with a Republican Congress set to be elected Gibbon's attacked Miller's ability to keep the site out of the state.

The nuclear industry thus once again shot itself in the foot by taking the low road on Yucca Mountain with Machiavellian backroom deals. The decision to forward nuclear industry interests within the Washington Beltway and through scratch-your-back politics with Governor Miller instead of through of Nevada voter education boomeranged and became a primary issue in the 1994 campaign.