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August 4, 2015

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Sandoval paying political price for breaking pledge to not raise taxes

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AP Photo/Lisa J. Tolda

Gov. Brian Sandoval, right, is joined by legislative leaders Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas to announce a budget agreement Wednesday, June 1, 2011, at the Nevada Legislative Building in Carson City.

Governor Sandoval Interview

Governor Brian Sandoval says he's proud of Nevada for reaching a compromise on the budget. Why did it take a Supreme Court ruling to force the Governor into negotiations? And what does he say to critics who claim he's forgotten his no new taxes pledge? And to those who say he's forsaken the state's most vulnerable citizens? We'll ask him next in this exclusive interview.

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Sun Coverage

When then-candidate Brian Sandoval was asked for the umpteenth time about raising taxes during a Republican gubernatorial debate in April 2010, he was prepared with his answer.

He told the conservative Reno crowd: “I’ve said very specifically, I’ll not be raising any taxes. I’ll be vetoing any tax.”

Asked further about tax increases passed by lawmakers in 2009 and scheduled to expire or sunset on June 30 this year, Sandoval had a ready answer.

Sunset “is a beautiful word,” he said. “I look forward to saying goodbye.”

After striking a budget deal with Democrats that includes extending some of those tax increases, the decision to break those campaign promises is a blemish on the governor’s record.

Many will see his policy as a reasonable response to difficult circumstances. Yet he broke his word to get there.

This was a corner Sandoval painted himself into, against the wisdom of those who actually know the budget. In the Republican primary, his vow allowed him to be as conservative as the incumbent he was challenging, Gov. Jim Gibbons.

In the general election he stood firm. “I’ve made a commitment that any tax increase, I’m going to veto. It’s the worst thing we could do,” Sandoval said during a debate with his opponent, Democrat Rory Reid, a few days before the election. “We have an amount of money to spend. That’s it.”

After the election, and he had begun assembling his budget, Sandoval remained resolute in his promise to never, under any circumstance, sign a tax increase.

The governor declined a request for an interview for this story. But he and his staff cited the Nevada Supreme Court decision, handed down May 26, which raised the possibility some of the revenue transfers from local government that he had proposed were unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court decision was a game changer,” Sandoval said on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” last week. “It changed the entire dynamic with regard to the budget. How we budget now, how we budget in the future. I had to respond to that as governor of the state.”

Sandoval’s reversal broke a legislative stalemate. When he announced the budget agreement, he was flanked by legislative leadership and about 40 lawmakers. All were smiling.

That’s the difference between campaigning and governing. Campaign statements are simple things. They don’t require nuance or compromise. And they don’t come with asterisks that say “unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise.”

After Sandoval indicated he would support tax increases, he succeeded in placating conservatives for a time as he worked on a compromise with legislative leaders. But once the deal was announced, the backlash was quick and fierce.

As Sandoval announced the budget deal, Americans for Prosperity unleashed a robocall slamming him: “He promised us he would balance the budget without new taxes, and not only is he going back on his word, now he is leading the charge for more spending.”

Tea Party groups sprung into action, calling on members to contact lawmakers, urging them to oppose the deal. Republican committee chairmen in Elko and Churchill counties signed a letter opposing the budget deal. “Conservatives are feeling just a little duped, and extremely disappointed,” they wrote.

•••

When Sandoval left the federal bench in September 2009 to run for governor, his early statements about taxes were cautious. He promised not to raise taxes, but refused to sign a pledge to that effect, saying he didn’t want to tie his hands.

In a radio ad, he promised to oppose a “corporate income tax” — something no one had proposed.

A turning point came in April 2010, when Sandoval went on a radio show hosted by then-first lady Dawn Gibbons.

“Is there any situation in which you would consider raising taxes?” Gibbons said.

Sandoval: “No.”

The Sun, at the time, asked Sandoval to expand on this position.

The campaign issued a statement: “I do not believe in raising taxes.”

Then during the 2010 special session, Gov. Gibbons helped broker a budget deal that raised fees on mining and other businesses. Sandoval attacked, calling it the “liberal” approach. Sandoval had won the trust of the most fiscally conservative elements in the Republican Party.

•••

The Republicans who plan to vote against the budget agreement, many of whom have signed no-new-tax pledges, said voters would revolt if they broke their promises.

“The people in my district would not be happy if I voted yes,” Assemblyman Richard McArthur, R-Las Vegas, said. “But I guess it depends on your district.”

Sandoval will “probably take a little bit of a hit” from voters, McArthur acknowledged.

But Sandoval isn’t the only Republican who is reversing himself: The entire Republican caucus in the Senate signed a letter stating their opposition to extending the 2009 tax increases. At least some are expected to vote for the deal now.

“We seek to make it clear to those who negotiate and advocate for tax increases this session, whether those increases be new or an extension of the 2009 taxes set to sunset this year, that we remain firm in our opposition.”

Asked about the letter, Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, used the same argument as the Sandoval administration: The Supreme Court decision changed everything.

(McGinness wouldn’t say whether he would vote for the budget deal he helped broker.)

Adam Stryker, Nevada director of Americans for Prosperity, said his membership feels it “got stabbed in the back on this one.”

“They want (the lawmakers) to know there are ramifications for their vote,” he said.

But Stryker doubts Sandoval will suffer much politically for breaking his promise.

“He doesn’t have to run again until 2014,” Stryker said. “The economy will have improved by then. And he’ll be seen as showing true leadership in pulling both sides together.”

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