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Nev. Governor Faces Long Odds to Block Yucca Nuclear Dump

Profile: Guinn, fighting his biggest battle, says the key issue is safety. No alternative exists, Energy chief tells a House panel.

April 19, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — For all the arcane debate surrounding the use of Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear waste repository, Gov. Kenny Guinn says the argument should be all about the children.

"We owe it to our children and their children to demand that the government follow the law and guarantee that a dump site in Nevada won't become a health hazard," said Guinn, who is fighting the biggest battle of his political career.

Last week, the Republican governor vetoed President Bush's selection of Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a $60-billion burial ground for spent nuclear fuel rods. On Thursday, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a committee of the House, which is widely expected to support the administration, that there is no alternative to Yucca Mountain.

To block the project, Guinn needs about 15 more votes in the Senate. He knows the odds are against him, but Guinn grew up as an underdog and forged a successful career that belied his childhood.

The man who would become a teacher, a school superintendent, a university president and governor, with child welfare issues consistently topping his agenda, is the son of illiterate fruit pickers who migrated from Arkansas to the small Central California town of Exeter.

Like his parents, he picked grapes, plums and peaches in the fields on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. "Kids like me--Arkies and Okies--were told we wouldn't be going to college, so we should take auto mechanics and agriculture classes," Guinn said. "And I said, wait a minute, I am going to go to college."

His career moved swiftly, from a teacher in Visalia, Calif., to a long-range planner for Las Vegas' school district. Within five years, he was the district superintendent. "I wanted to end up in a position where I could help children," said Guinn, who is married and has two grown sons. "Education is how children overcome adversity."

Guinn left the district and plied his financial and management skills as the head of a bank and a gas utility company. While chairman of Southwest Gas Co., he agreed to serve a year as interim president of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, which was polarized by a debate over athletic versus academic priorities. Guinn, by now a wealthy businessman, kept $1 of his salary and donated the rest to scholarships.

As governor, Guinn expanded the state's Medicaid system to provide health benefits to 25,500 children, compared with the 1,700 children served previously, and he earmarked proceeds from the state's tobacco settlement to fund college scholarships.

Best known for its casinos and sex trade, Nevada is the fastest growing state in the country. From 1990 to 2001, its population has grown by 72.5%, to 2.1 million, including many young families with school-age children seeking jobs and affordable places to live.

A political novice, Guinn was promoted by the local political machinery as an ideal gubernatorial candidate because of his civic involvement. He amassed the biggest campaign war chest in the state's history, and in 1998 easily defeated then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones to become Nevada's first Republican governor in 16 years.

"Everywhere I've been . . . I've set priorities and implemented long-range planning," said Guinn, 65. "I felt I still had a lot to give and the right background. What I'm doing now isn't that different from what I've done all my life."

Said Dina Titus, who heads the state Senate's Democratic caucus, "It's hard to be critical of Kenny because everything he does is so middle-of-the-road. He hasn't made any big mistakes. In his heart, he wants to always do the right thing. He should have been a Democrat."

A former topless dancer and an attorney who lost election as a justice of the peace are the only ones challenging Guinn's plans to occupy the governor's mansion for another four years.

Jones says she will vote for Guinn but chides him for not aggressively pursuing state tax reform. Nevada does not tax personal or business income, and the state is facing a significant budget deficit.

"He has spent an inordinate amount of time researching and educating himself on potential budget deficits, yet has been somewhat restricted by his political handlers in taking a strong leadership role, which I think he would enjoy," Jones said.

Instead, Guinn convened a committee of civic and business leaders to explore new state revenue sources. Where others say Guinn was playing it politically safe by dodging new-tax issues during his first term, Guinn said he would rather launch tax legislation formed by consensus than propose his own. "I don't think a governor has the right to say I think I know what's best for you," he said.

But these days, he's telling his president to walk away from Yucca Mountain.

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