Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2017

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The governor:

Sandoval’s popularity won’t get budget passed

Legislative alliances no guarantee of support for cuts-only stand


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Governor Brian Sandoval greets Senators Shirley Breeden, Sheila Leslie and Dean Rhodes as they make their ceremonial announcement that the Senate is in order and ready for business during the first day of the 2011 legislative session Monday, February 7, 2011 in Carson City.

To hear some tell it, Gov. Brian Sandoval has almost Jedi-like powers of persuasion — a simple “you will support my budget” accompanied by a smooth pass of the hand and legislative Republicans fall in line.

Republican lawmakers who make public comments revealing a willingness to raise taxes are quickly invited to his office so Sandoval can address any concerns with his cuts-only budget. In at least two cases — Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, and Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora — those lawmakers have emerged voicing resolve to support the governor’s agenda.

His charm offensive has extended to Democrats. He has spent the past three weeks meeting with every legislator, extracting from Democrats — and Republicans — a list of priorities to use as leverage as the budget battle heats up.

Although his popularity has taken on outsize dimensions inside the Legislature — Republicans seem to revere him and Democrats seem sometimes cowed by him — that doesn’t mean he’ll win.

For all his prowess and popularity, Sandoval confronts a number of fault lines that could open a divide between the governor and the Republican lawmakers he needs to get his budget past the Democratic majority.

“He’s charming, I’ll give him that,” Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “But charm doesn’t get you everything.”

Consider the Jedi’s potential vulnerabilities:

Recently released poll numbers show that although Sandoval remains popular with voters, he doesn’t have the ironclad popularity many lawmakers and political observers appear to attribute to him. A poll released by the Retail Association of Nevada shows voters are in more of a wait-and-see mode as Sandoval wades into his second month as governor, according to pollster Glen Bolger.

“He is not as bulletproof as some people assume he is,” Bolger said. “It’s not to say he is weak. He’s off to a good start, but a long way to go. And there are a lot voters for whom the jury is still out.”

Democrats will test this vulnerability as they and their constituency groups attack his budget. (In a sign of their regard for Sandoval’s popularity, the attacks will focus on the budget not the man.) They hope voters will be turned off by its steep cuts in education and that they’ll find his adamant refusal to discuss a tax increase an unreasonable and rigid position.

“Everything needs to be on the table,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas. “You can’t maintain an ideological position that keeps you from tackling the real problems of the state in ways that are courageous.”

The other vulnerability: Some legislative Republicans have indicated they would part ways with the governor if Democrats agree to a host of reforms on their top priorities: public employee pay and benefits, collective bargaining rights, construction defect litigation.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, routinely prefaces his caucus’ support of Sandoval’s budget with: “at this point.”

Republicans’ unified support is crucial for Sandoval. Democrats would need to pick off five to get the two-thirds vote to pass a tax increase and override Sandoval’s promised veto.

“If there is some serious give from Democrats on some of those significant areas, that would evoke some serious discussion on our side about whether to enter into a true give and take (on taxes),” said Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno.

Another issue on which some Republicans might part ways with Sandoval is the sunset on the tax increase passed in 2009. Sandoval has vowed to veto any bill lifting the sunset.

But not all Republicans agree that lifting the sunset amounts to a tax increase.

“Keep everybody’s taxes exactly the same in exchange for reform? That would be very hard to say no to,” one Republican lawmaker said.

Still, even when they entertain scenarios that run counter to the governor’s positions, Republicans are reluctant to state it in those terms.

“I can’t imagine a time where he would not sit down to discuss it if there is enough reasonable give and take,” Hickey said. “Brian is not a political ideologue. He has a pragmatic sensibility.”

Yet Sandoval maintains he would not negotiate his position on taxes, even if Democrats give on the priorities in the Republican caucus, or even to get his own education reform package passed.

“I am not going to support any tax increases under any circumstances,” Sandoval said.

Such discussions won’t get serious for weeks. So for now Sandoval is focused on his “constituency of 63” — the members of the Legislature who will be considering changes to and ultimately voting on his budget plan.

He hands out his cell phone number to lawmakers. Those who go to bat for him get a friendly phone call from him thanking them for their work.

“It’s important for me to know what their priorities are and get to know them better,” Sandoval said. “It’s important to have a personal relationship with each legislator.”

The effort has won him that glowing reputation with Republicans in the Legislature.

“He has the character, the strength, the stamina and the staying power to lead,” state Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City. “He’s a unique politician.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, chimed in along the same lines, noting both Sandoval’s political pedigree and talent. “I’m kind of jealous,” McGinness joked.

But it’s still the easy season. What the governor — for all his perceived popularity — and lawmakers think of one another as the 120-day session draws to a close will be the test.

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