Over the cliff we go

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, an empty car pulled up to the State of the State Address in Carson City, and Gov. Brian Sandoval stepped out.

Sandoval’s attempt to raze Nevada’s government and become his party’s Senate or vice-presidential nominee in 2012 or 2016 wasn’t a surprise. He didn’t rise above his campaign rhetoric, and merely sounded like a broken record of some previous governors, especially his immediate predecessor.

Nevada’s economy is a shambles, and Sandoval wants streamlining and diversification. So do we all, and we have heard this song before. But other states throughout the West aren’t just talking about it; they’re doing it through partnerships between education and industries, and by combining cuts with increased taxes, knowing that gutting education won’t attract companies that need an educated work force that wants educated children.

Given the obvious need for revenue, Sandoval’s no-new-taxes stance would simply wind up forcing local officials to raise taxes. And by cutting already underpaid teachers and state workers, Sandoval will deprive Nevada of the tax revenue they would generate and inspire those who can to leave.

By contrast, Speaker John Oceguera’s response was more realistic about Nevada’s needs and future, and revealed more willingness to compromise, to pursue policy over sloganeering. To say Oceguera sounded more gubernatorial than Sandoval isn’t saying much; the target was historically low.

And that’s the point. Recently, KNPR’s State of Nevada brought together state archivist emeritus Guy Rocha (nobody knows Nevada better), its senior producer Ian Mylchreest (also a trained historian), and yours truly to discuss our best and worst governors.

Interestingly, our bests came from the last half-century and provide lessons for—and about—Sandoval. Grant Sawyer, elected in 1958, stood out above all for supporting civil rights, Lake Tahoe’s preservation and gaming regulation, even when those issues hurt his popularity. He fought with an often-recalcitrant Legislature, taking what he could get rather than demanding all or nothing, and supported the Black Book to exclude alleged mobsters from casinos, although he thought it was unconstitutional. He put Nevada’s interests over ideological rigidity.

I also said nice words about Paul Laxalt, who defeated Sawyer and served one term, then went to the Senate and fame as Ronald Reagan’s best friend. A devout conservative, he pushed not only for corporate gaming, but also for a medical school and community college, which—the horror—expanded state government. He put Nevada’s interests over ideological rigidity.

Everybody agreed about Mike O’Callaghan, whom I put just behind Sawyer. He fought for fair housing and better social services, and backed tougher gaming regulation. Despite his devotion to social justice, he was careful not to go too far during a troubled 1970s economic climate. He put Nevada’s interests over ideological rigidity.

Rocha hailed Kenny Guinn for the Millennium Scholarships, which enabled more students (including Guy’s daughter) to go to college, and pushing the 2003 tax hike to bring state services almost to Third World levels. Guinn was a lifelong Republican and had to fight his own party. He put Nevada’s interests over ideological rigidity.

All of them knew how to compromise, and no doubt a compromise will avert the doomsday that Sandoval loosed upon us. The key is for Clark County’s delegation to remember it has a two-thirds majority.

True, that delegation is divided ideologically. But the reason Sandoval’s insider friends got him to give up a lifetime federal judgeship wasn’t their fear of taxes, or even of Jim Gibbons winning the primary. My theory—and I’m sticking with it—is that they wanted a Republican governor in charge of redistricting. If northerners, especially Republicans, want legislative and congressional seats, they need to appease Clark County. Oceguera and state Sen. Steven Horsford have a big chip to play.

Sadly, that’s just politics. You can read the Brookings Institution’s reports or just look around to figure out that our recession will continue long after everybody else’s if we rely on tourism, the same policies of cutting without thinking, amputating key services that would help diversify the economy and then bandaging the scars. We elect our leaders to provide leadership. Sandoval proposes to lead us over a cliff.

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