Las Vegas Sun

August 10, 2022

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Jon Ralston:

Sandoval was good, but his luck was better

It’s better to be lucky than good. And in his first six months as governor, Brian Sandoval has been both.

Except for the mewling on the right about Sandoval shredding his no-tax pledge, most of the post-session commentary has focused on the performance of the Legislature. But what of the governor, who defined the session from the outset with his foolish pledge and then defined the denouement by wisely, ahem, adjusting it?

Sandoval’s political performance — I separate this from his budget policy, which I thought was short-sighted and constrained by his read-my-lips pledge — was impeccable. Sandoval is the fifth governor I have covered and perhaps none of his predecessors had his rare combination of almost uncanny likability, verbal parrying skills and message delivery discipline.

But the governor also benefited from two serendipitous events late in the session that fundamentally changed his budget and, perhaps, how he is perceived: The $300 million added to the state economic forecast by experts at the beginning of May and, three weeks later, that stunning state Supreme Court decision that allowed/forced Sandoval to agree to extend expiring taxes he previously had said would be a violation of his sacred promise.

Sandoval also was fortunate in another sense, too: His Democratic foils in the Legislature played right into his hands. They obviously wanted to raise taxes from the word go, but would not come clean while still launching blistering attacks against the governor. So all Sandoval had to say at many junctures was: I have a plan. Where’s theirs?

Yes, he was good. But oh, so lucky, too.

Let us review:

Sandoval came into office on a “one Reid is enough” landslide, defined less by his no-tax promise than by what his last name wasn’t. But he repeated that no-tax pledge after his election and in his State of the State.

I am convinced he came to believe what he said — that any tax increase would be damaging to the state’s recovery, that jobs would be lost. I — and many others — believed that his balancing act tipped the scales too far away from the carnage a no-taxes budget would impose on a parsimonious state. But almost no one — including those most vehemently opposed to his policies — believed him to be malicious or the kind of unthinking clod his predecessor, Jim Gibbons, was when he chanted a no-tax mantra.

But this is not so much about nice guys finishing first as about how personality can define how politicians are perceived. Sandoval was relentlessly respectful of his opponents and when he brought wavering Republicans to his woodshed, you can imagine him charming them with blandishments rather than hectoring them into submission.

Sandoval not only was a superb salesman for his own policies, but he also showed another discerning quality of an effective leader: He put excellent people around him. With longtime, successful consultant Pete Ernaut always orbiting the office, Sandoval also installed Heidi Gansert as his chief of staff and Dale Erquiaga as his senior adviser. It seemed almost a triumvirate at times because they meshed so well, with the governor giving voice to policies and numbers provided by Erquiaga, a nonpareil wonk who jousted with the media on a weekly basis, and Gansert, who had legislative relationships that were important and has the ability to not answer a question with a smile as well as Sandoval.

As talented as this team was, they needed help from external forces.

The improving economy — Sandoval can’t take credit for it, either — allowed him to beef up his budget and make Democratic tax pleas even less credible. And that transformative intervention from the high court took the pressure off both Sandoval and loyal GOP lawmakers, many of whom did not consider extending those taxes as the same as voting for new ones.

So what now?

Six months does not a leader make. Sandoval luckily avoided a special session and a possible government shutdown in the fall. But if the economy worsens, he may wear it — and some on the right will be happy to supply the ill-fitting garb.

The real question is what does the governor do if some of the state’s most powerful forces make good on a campaign to put a tax plan on the ballot, similar to the broadening ideas the Democrats proposed? Sandoval has said he is open to reform, but that is code on the right for a tax increase and much outside money may flow into the state to block such an effort.

Facing re-election as he goes into his second session, Sandoval may insist his tax pledge is operative once again and play it safe. He would do it in a nice way, of course. But that would not be good and certainly not lucky for the state.

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