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May 29, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Some things you can’t take off the table

“This takes the issue off the table in terms of politics.”

— GOP state Sen. Greg Brower on Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to extend expiring taxes, “Face to Face,” 3/26/12



In one short television appearance, state Sen. Greg Brower illuminated just how drenched in politics and how bereft of substance the debate over taxes continues to be in Nevada.

Beyond the usual, binary discussion — to tax or not to tax — and the serially unserious bleating about tax pledges, what Brower’s Kinseylan gaffe (accidentally telling the truth) illuminates is a more stark truth: This is more about Campaign 2012 for Republicans than any policy consideration, and we can trust promises about Session 2013 votes on taxes about as much as pledges that taxes will sunset on a certain date.

We don’t do anything halfway in Nevada; we just do nothing.

Some context: Two weeks ago, Gov. Sunny beamed about the economy while announcing he was committing — please remember that word — to extending expiring payroll and sales taxes to ensure education would not sustain further cuts.

“In addition to avoiding further cuts to education, this decision means there will be no need for tax increases in the next session,” Sandoval said. “Nevadans will pay no more than they are in the current biennium.”

Tax issue? Off the table. GOP legislative candidates’ worries about this issue in campaigns? Off the table. Democratic challenge to Sandoval? Off the table.

And thus the table was bare as Team Sandoval had ensured GOP leaders would fall in line. Brower, locked in a difficult re-election bid against Sheila Leslie, told the Nevada News Bureau that he was “solidly behind him,” even though he had not supported extending taxes in ’11 when, coincidentally, he wanted to be a congressman.

All tax positions, you see, are situational. Before any of the Norquistians say I am only bolstering their Lilliputian arguments for the pledge, not so. These elected officials change their positions for political reasons because the policy considerations — broadening the tax base, funding government at reasonable levels — are static; their calculations are not.

But Brower’s pretzel logic was even more twisted and on display Monday evening in Reno on “Face to Face.” Consider:

First, Brower told me Sandoval wanted to “take advantage of the revenue sunset taxes would bring, and I support him in that.” Solidly, it seemed.

But just a few moments later, his feet of clay on the issue became evident when pressed: “This is just at the planning phase. We haven’t voted on anything yet. Nothing is final.” And then the coup de lack of grace: “This takes the issue off the table in terms of politics.”

Governor, about those troops behind you: Ever heard of friendly fire?

Brower’s rhetorical peregrinations then took him to reaffirm his support for the governor and promise not to cut education. But he also said this is just “for planning purposes,” and when asked about committing to extend the taxes, replied, “No one has committed to that. What we’ve supported is the governor’s idea to plan to have the revenues.”

Really?

The governor’s office’s reaction was unequivocal: “In order to avoid cuts to education and other essential services, revenues from the sunset taxes will need to be continued.” Sandoval seems ... committed.

During the interview, Brower told me about the clear contrast he will have with Leslie. But if they both support extending taxes and both oppose education cuts, where’s the big difference? And while we know where Leslie will vote on almost any tax increase, how do we know which Greg Brower will cast a vote?

The issue here, though, is not whether he should sign a pledge. To his credit, Brower demurred, saying, “Any legislator worth his or her salt needs to evaluate the situation session by session and react accordingly.” Spoken just as the man whose seat he took — the late Bill Raggio — would have said it.

But the real question is when governors and lawmakers will look past their own re-election and actually talk about the elephant in the room — yes, elephants can’t be taken off the table — and that is a tax structure that doesn’t meet the needs of the current Nevada economy and won’t sustain Gov. Sunny’s utopian vision of a diversified Silver State.

I could point out that the argument of removing the sunsets on two terrible taxes to provide more money is paradoxical with the declaration that the economy is recovering. But that would expose their political ploy and defeat my policy purpose.

Brower may be right about the politics. But what Sandoval announced — especially considering his “committed” legislative backers — took nothing substantive off the table.

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