Las Vegas Sun

November 15, 2018

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Jon Ralston:

Brian Sandoval 2.0 sees tax policy differently from Sandoval 1.0

If history began this week, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s move to extend expiring taxes could simply be seen as a political masterstroke and a policy imperative.

But even if time started ticking with the creation of Brian Sandoval 1.0, the man who ran for governor in 2010, Sandoval 2.0 cannot escape the bed his progenitor made, despite his admirable announcement Tuesday, which is the half-right thing (I’ll get to that) to do.

I have little doubt that Sandoval 2.0 decided, on the eve of budget instructions to his chiefs, that he could not countenance

$600 million in cuts, mostly to education, in his second biennium. I also believe Sandoval 2.0, as politically nimble as they come, understands the benefits, which include a no-tax session before he runs for re-election, checkmating any Democrats considering a bid while flicking away any challenge from the right (unless, of course, Sharron Angle takes him on).

“In order to avoid cuts to education and other essential services, revenues from the sunset taxes will need to be continued,” Sandoval 2.0 said in a statement.

You know who he sounds like? Two of his heroes — the late Gov. Kenny Guinn and the late state Senate legend Bill Raggio, who were conservatives who weren’t afraid to say when additional revenue was needed to avert cuts they considered unconscionable.

It’s annoying and trite, but it’s also true when Sandoval says he doesn’t want to be whipsawed between cuts for the elderly (Medicaid) and children (education). But growing caseloads and education roll-up costs are not new, and it must be said that Sandoval 2.0 has a much different attitude than Sandoval 1.0 — and saying we are coming out of a recession (maybe) does not quite sell it.

Sandoval 2.0’s spin is that he is not advocating for a tax increase because, as one of his advisers put it, “No Nevadan is paying more taxes under him.”

True. As far as it goes. Which isn’t quite two years.

You can argue whether it is a tax increase to extend sunsetting taxes. I have always contended that it’s simple algebra: If the law says you are supposed to pay tax rate X on Day Y and the tax rate becomes X plus Z on Day Y, that is a tax increase.

You know who agreed with me? Sandoval 1.0.

During his campaign, when he was an absolutist against raising taxes, and during the 2011 legislative debate, Sandoval 1.0 repeatedly said he believed extending the sunsets was a tax increase. Period. No wiggle room.

Toggle forward a little bit in our truncated history and you find Sandoval 1.0 boasting in the wake of 2011 session that he worked with Democrats to craft a bipartisan compromise and pass the expiring taxes to save his budget. But what Sandoval 2.0 does not say is that Sandoval 1.0 was fully prepared for a legislative train wreck of historic proportions, was willing to stand his ground on the sunsets and force the Gang of 63 into repeated special sessions, if necessary. If not for a serendipitous Supreme Court decision that jeopardized a sizable chunk of his budget, Sandoval 1.0 might still be explaining how schools failed to open last fall.

The fact that the governor was wrong then about the money needed to fund a reasonable budget and that he readily assented to extend the sunsets after the court decision does not necessarily negate his righteousness now. But which is the real Brian Sandoval?

Here’s what I thought and still think: Sandoval 1.0 was unreasonably afraid of Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2010 and locked himself into a reflexive sound bite he didn’t really believe, and one that Guinn and Raggio at the time would privately have criticized. The alacrity with which Sandoval 1.0 surrendered on the sunsets after the court decision is evidence enough.

What Sandoval 1.0 has in common with Sandoval 2.0, though, is that the 2011 compromise simply filled a hole, just as Tuesday’s announcement does, and with taxes (sales, payroll) that actually should be eliminated or reduced as the base is broadened. And that’s where my characterization of him as half-right comes in.

State Senate Democrats were foolish to say in a statement they “don’t believe it does enough,” allowing the governor and Senate Republicans to pillory them in the campaign to come. But they were right when they went on: “Unfortunately, by not addressing the long-term problem and clinging to stagnant levels of education funding, the governor is only postponing the inevitable crisis that our schools and our state face.”

There is still time, and hope springs you-know-what. Meanwhile, at least the governor is willing to bridge the gap.

It doesn’t always happen with updates. But, history aside, I like Brian Sandoval 2.0 much better than Brian Sandoval 1.0.

I just wonder if it’s the final version.

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