Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2018

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jon ralston:

Gov. Sunny sees a silver lining in every cloud

One of many supplicants who recently met with Brian Sandoval left disheartened by the grave picture the newly minted governor painted of the state’s budget. But he was almost equally struck by something else:

“He’s so damn likable,” the insider confided, echoing what many (myself included) who have known Sandoval for years have come to believe, as are others who are just meeting him in his new job. But it’s more than that — or is it less?

After I interviewed Sandoval last week on “Face to Face,” he continued to radiate optimism like some kind of irrationally exuberant Gov. Sunny, unconcerned that a supernova may be nigh. You constantly want to ask yourself: Why is this man smiling?

For some reason, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of optimism seems apt here: “The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong.”

Granted, no one wants a governor mimicking Cassandra during an economic cataclysm the likes of which this state has never seen. But Gov. Sunny seems unreasonably unrealistic about the state of the state two weeks before he delivers his State of the State address, revealing a $5.3 billion budget that will cement his credentials as a math mechanic, but leave many wondering whether he will be a bold visionary.

Nevada has specialized in gubernatorial mechanics, some of them skillful and impressive stewards. But what the state needs is not someone who can return us to the Gibbonsworld mantra of “no new taxes” and provide no long-term strategy for getting out of the economic morass.

Conservatives are positively joyous that Sandoval appears to be Jim Gibbons but with the ability to actually get things done. Liberals are despondent for the same reason.

When he delivers his speech Jan. 24, Sandoval will unveil a budget that taxes counties to take on responsibilities they have not had before without any way to pay for it, and he will slash the higher education budget but allow the regents to tax students and families with higher tuition and fees to maintain funding levels.

Sandoval seems to honestly believe — and he repeated it on “Face to Face” — that he can diversify the economy, create jobs and attract new businesses by making the low-tax, low-regulation pitch to companies elsewhere. But Nevada has always had a low-tax, low-regulatory environment and the economy is strikingly narrow and will be until the state makes a commitment to education, higher and lower, and does not reflexively embrace a libertarian-on-steroids Zeitgeist.

Take higher education. Gov. Sunny does not seem to think the regents will have to choose between access and quality. “There are ways with financial aid to assist those that need assistance to ensure they have access to the university system,” he said. “There is financial aid in the system and they can move it from scholarship-based to need-based scholarships. There are ways where everyone can get access. If they choose to raise access as part of their solution, then they can do that.”

But it’s not that simple. On the same day Sandoval was saying that on “Face to Face,” at a conference at UNLV, representatives of other states were talking about how they kept their economies alive with vibrant educational systems, producing graduates who energized the workforce and were valuable consumers of goods.

Two of the people Sandoval most admires, the late Kenny Guinn, and Bill Raggio, late of the Legislature, either would not or do not buy the new governor’s argument. Raggio said as much last week on “Face to Face” and Guinn, if he were around, would point out the same disconnect.

It is hard to invest in the future when you won’t invest in the present. Few argue that raising taxes in a recession makes any sense, and Sandoval is right that few can afford to pay higher taxes right now.

But to avoid the discussion, to argue, as Sandoval does, that solving the short-term math problem cannot occur coincident with a discussion of broadening the tax base and making Nevada an attractive place to live is myopic.

I hope Sandoval is, to use Raggio’s word, more flexible than he so far has seemed and that he realizes, in the retired state senator’s construction, that circumstances change. But more than anything, I hope he has the ability to, finally, elevate the discussion beyond palaver.

Sandoval’s motto, unveiled at his inauguration last week, is: “Optimism is the foundation of courage.” Let’s hope so. For too long, with recurring problems that demand bold, decisive action, this state has been a coward’s paradise.

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