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August 30, 2015

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Polished knife still cuts deep into state’s budget

It sounds familiar: Gov.-elect Sandoval vows to slash state spending, not raise taxes. Does he bring anything different to the budget table?

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Gov. Brian Sandoval recently met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about funding for Medicaid, Nov. 27, 2010.

He has the no-new-taxes mantra down pat. And he is promising what could be severe budget cuts. So it might be easy to dismiss Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval as Jim Gibbons 2.0 — just a newer version of the outgoing governor.

Same basic policies, more polished packaging.

Gibbons did it with a smirk, Sandoval does it with a smile. What’s the difference?” asked Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which represents liberal interests.

But members of Sandoval’s team say the metaphor grossly oversimplifies the governor-elect. There are differences between the two men that will distinguish the new administration, Sandoval’s supporters say.

For starters: Sandoval doesn’t speak with the same disdain for government that Gibbons did.

Gibbons has appeared almost eager to carve up the state bureaucracy over the past four years. He continued to insist state government was “bloated” during round after round of budget slashing.

Gibbons also seemingly prefaced every statement about the budget with the phrase “these are tough times.”

Sandoval, on the other hand, expresses optimism about the state’s future. And when he talks about budget cuts, it’s in vague terms and with a heavy expression — a reluctant reaper, with no other options.

And, unlike Gibbons, Sandoval has appeared willing to cultivate allies, including Democrats. Sandoval recently traveled to Washington, where he asked U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for increased federal funding for Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Sandoval’s and Reid’s offices sent out a joint news release with a photo of the two.

Gibbons had sent letters requesting the help, but it’s unlikely the current governor would have met with Reid or posed for a photograph with him.

Critics, however, say style points will be irrelevant when the state’s next governor is judged. His most immediate and pressing challenge — balancing the budget — will be the yardstick.

It is early, to be sure. Sandoval has yet to take office and is only beginning to develop a budget plan. Despite promising during the campaign to release a proposed spending plan, he will not do so until Jan. 24, when the constitution requires it, his staff said.

But given the dire financial situation that will immediately confront Sandoval upon taking office, his promises not to raise taxes or fees, and to rely heavily on cuts, have given an indication of what his budget will look like.

Sandoval shrugged off comparisons to Gibbons.

“I’m not comparing myself to any previous administration,” he said in a Nov. 19 phone interview from a Republican Governors Association meeting in San Diego. “I’ve had an extremely productive two weeks” meeting with legislative leaders from both parties, as well as interviewing potential department heads.

“We’re two different people,” Sandoval said. “I have great amount of respect for the office of the governor.”

The day after this month’s election, Sandoval requested to meet with Gibbons, whom he defeated in June’s primary. Gibbons, who suffered a broken pelvis in September, has not responded, though he ordered state agency chiefs to cooperate with the incoming administration.

Heidi Gansert, Sandoval’s chief of staff and a former Assembly Republican leader, said Sandoval will be personally involved in staffing and budget decisions. Gibbons delegated many of those responsibilities.

He will also reach out to legislative leadership and across the aisle.

But promises of compromise might not mean much if taxes are off the table.

“Compromise means give and take,” Fulkerson said. “If he’s not willing to address the state’s revenue problem, that’s not engaging. That’s ‘my way or the highway.’ ”

Others are taking a more cautious approach in evaluating the incoming governor.

Jon Sasser, an advocate for health and human services for the poor, disabled and elderly, said, “It’s way too early” to make comparisons to Gibbons. “I haven’t given up hope yet. But there’s no great promising signs.”

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, praised Sandoval’s choice of Terri Janison, current president of the Clark County School Board, as his director of community relations.

But on the budget, she said, “I’m concerned he hasn’t moved off his campaign talking points yet.”

Danny Thompson, executive secretary of the AFL-CIO, said Sandoval’s decision to retain many state agency chiefs was a good one. As for the budget, Thompson said the Legislature can override him.

“I think the budget he has proposed has always been irrelevant,” Thompson said. “The Legislature is the one who crafts something that works.”

Gansert said Sandoval will be relevant during the 2011 session despite his position on taxes. His fellow Republicans have made gains in both the Assembly and Senate, meaning he will have leverage at the table.

“Gov.-elect Sandoval is a strong leader,” she said. “We’ll be negotiating the budget, negotiating reapportionment, negotiating reforms.”

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