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May 26, 2015

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Memo from Carson City:

Sandoval plays Scrooge McDuck with his political capital

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval delivers the State of the State address at the Legislature in Carson City on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.

A favorite with political donors and the public, Gov. Brian Sandoval is rich in political capital. But when it comes to spending it, he’s a miser.

Sandoval’s State of the State speech last week was notable for its lack of big ideas or bold policy proposals that would change the state’s current course.

On the conservative side — he ran two years ago as the conservative candidate — he said nothing about changing prevailing wages on public works projects or construction-defect reform, the process for suing homebuilders that conservatives say is a cash cow for trial lawyers. Both are big priorities for Republican lawmakers this session.

He said nothing about changing the state’s collective bargaining system, which led to labor impasses between teachers and Clark and Washoe county school districts last year. In Clark County, the school district eliminated 1,000 teaching positions because of automatic raises for teachers ordered by an outside arbitrator.

Sandoval didn’t mention public pension reforms, a huge future liability for the state.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there was no mention of the state’s tax structure. No significant money for new programs. No additional money for infrastructure.

In short: No big, bold ideas.

Sandoval’s State of the State speech demonstrated his attempt to avoid the potentially explosive, hot-button issues facing the state ahead of his 2014 re-election campaign.

It reaffirmed his image as a careful chief executive whose approach to governing is to put a firm hand on the tiller for a steady-as-she-goes way of guiding the state.

In many ways, it makes sense. The state is in a fragile economic recovery after a tumultuous recession. Both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats, which would make a hard-right agenda tough to sell.

And Sandoval faces re-election in a state with changing demographics. Democrats now have a significant voter-registration advantage — 100,000 — and a superior political operation.

Indeed, Sandoval already has made two bold decisions to neutralize potential fights with the left. He decided last year to extend tax increases that would otherwise expire this year, and he agreed to expand Medicaid.

“I think the governor has approached ... areas that he believes can receive bipartisan support in this session,” said Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno.

He noted that his caucus members had bills prepared on pension reforms and prevailing wage.

Gerald Gardner, Sandoval’s chief of staff, agreed that the session would be marked more by comity than contention.

“I think at this point, we have more things we’re likely to agree upon with the Legislature than we disagree upon,” Gardner said.

Asked about how Sandoval was spending his political capital, Gardner said the office “is not thinking of it in those terms.”

The administration is willing to have conversations about changing collective bargaining, such as “evergreen clauses” that allow for the automatic extension of contracts, he said.

But the governor will be able to point to significant “legacy projects,” he said.

“The governor is going to be able to say that this session was the beginning of huge education reform initiatives, in terms of greater investments in K-12,” Gardner said.

The 2013 session would mark the start of rolling back the taxes passed in 2009, Gardner argued.

Robert Uithoven, a conservative political consultant, said the speech was pragmatic.

“He’s aware that he’s not going to waste time or political capital fighting for things that he’s not going to get,” he said. “There are some conservatives in the state who would like the governor to be more conservative. But I bet every one of them would rather have Gov. Sandoval in office and re-elected than have somebody that might fit their ideology a little more but is at risk in 2014.”

Plus, he said, the governor “knows he’s not going to win re-election if he doesn’t win a majority of independents, period.”

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