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December 10, 2017

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Sandoval’s shift to pragmatism: Is it enough?


Sam Morris

Gov. Brian and Kathleen Sandoval

Gov. Brian Sandoval

Gov. Brian Sandoval

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s shift from a conservative’s conservative to pragmatic CEO came in late May, as the end of the legislative session approached with Democrats and Republicans in a budget standoff.

A lobbyist for the Nevada Supreme Court hand-delivered to Sandoval’s office a decision by the court declaring unconstitutional the use of $62 million from a Southern Nevada clean-water fund to prop up the battered state budget.

According to Senior Adviser Dale Erquiaga, the governor took the opinion on the use of Nevada Clean Water Coalition money — passed before he was in office but similar to financial moves he had proposed — to the Governor’s Mansion, a few blocks away, and read it.

Upon returning to his office, Sandoval, who’d run on a vow to not raise taxes under any circumstance, said, in effect, “This changes everything.”

The governor’s budget had been balanced assuming that such local money could be seized by the state. That was no longer an option, in the former federal judge’s view. Sandoval would back off his pledge to allow temporary tax increases passed two years earlier to lapse.

That decision provided a way for the stalemate — which pit Democrats, who wanted to extend those taxes, and Republicans, who had followed Sandoval’s lead in opposing them — to end.

The governor traded his support of extending the taxes for changes in teacher tenure and the way educators are evaluated.

The 120-day legislative session ended on time, averting what some thought would be a state government shutdown.

It was Sandoval’s most decisive act during his first year in office. But not everyone was pleased with the governor or the deal he helped broker.

Conservative Republicans, some of whom had been skeptical of Sandoval’s conservative bona fides during the Republican primary, were disappointed that he hadn’t stood firm on taxes or at least driven a harder bargain on what he traded for his support of them. Some thought he should have fought to change the bargaining rights of public employees unions and their benefits.

Democrats, for their part, were disappointed that the budget would be cut again despite the modest tax extension. Adding to Democrats’ disappointment, the extension was for only two years, setting up a similar fight for the 2013 Legislature.

The anecdote can be read as Sandoval’s re-emergence as a moderate — reflecting his reputation during his time as a state lawmaker, attorney general and federal judge — rather than the ideological stances he took on the campaign trail.

The anecdote can be read another way: At a moment of crisis, Sandoval had been engaged and hard working and had reached out to members of both parties, even if it was in a mostly undramatic way.

Sandoval had been blessed with a low bar. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, during his lone term came across as disengaged at best, and combative and lazy at worst.

Upon taking office, Sandoval met personally with each of the 63 legislators. The Nevada System of Higher Education chief, who had an adversarial relationship with Gibbons’ administration, is now part of the governor’s cabinet. Sandoval diligently attended the various boards he sits on, arriving well-versed on the day’s agenda with a binder of backup material annotated with brightly colored Post-its.

“Political wins and losses aside, his biggest accomplishment is restoring the integrity of the office,” said Pete Ernaut, a close friend and political adviser who helped persuade Sandoval to leave the federal bench and run against Gibbons. “Whether it’s the legislative or business community, those who are in contact with him say he works hard, is very affable. He’s someone they like.”

But observers across the political spectrum wonder whether competence is enough for a state battling highest-in-the-nation unemployment, a housing crisis and sagging education system.

Asked about his first-year accomplishments, Sandoval mentions changes in the education system, such as teacher tenure and appointing the state superintendent.

The heavy lifting on those issues, however, was done by Assembly Democrats, who took heat from the teachers union, one of their key constituencies, which opposed the changes.

Changes in the state’s economic development system that Sandoval championed, again with the help of legislative leaders, are works in progress.

One business lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sandoval has not yet shown he is equal to the task of turning Nevada around.

A conservative political operative complained of Sandoval’s cautiousness, and that he did not do enough to reform how government works.

Guy Rocha, a state historian and former state archivist, said, “We have a handsome, smiling governor. He’s accessible, visits a lot of schools, businesses, events, veteran ceremonies.”

But, he said, “can he be the leader Nevada needs right now? Is he the architect of Nevada’s 21st century? My response is, I don’t see it yet. I don’t see enough to say, ‘He’s the man leading us out of the wilderness.’ We’re still waiting.”

The state will have a better measure of Sandoval in 12 months, Rocha said.

Ernaut thinks it will be fair to judge Sandoval’s record in two years.

“His first year in office has really been one of triage,” Ernaut said. “Now at this point, with the economy stable, if not growing slightly better, the next two years will be the real test. The types of programs and ideas he furthers between now and the next session, what he’s able to come out of next session with, will be far more defining than what came out of this past session.”

Sandoval said he continues to reach out to businesses and coordinate education and job training with the needs of the private sector. He repeated that changes in the education system were significant, including making the state superintendent report directly to the governor.

Asked if he should have been more aggressive in pursuit of his agenda, Sandoval answered cautiously.

“We can disagree, but it doesn’t have to be personal,” he said.

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