The most dangerous, least dangerous branches

For one brief, shining moment, Democrats and Republicans not in the Sandoval administration or the state legislature thought the Nevada Supreme Court had saved the state budget.  The justices unanimously ruled that the legislature could not take $62 million from the Clean Water Coalition in Clark County and use it at the state level.

Gov. Brian Sandoval expressed some willingness to consider approving the taxes and fees designed to “sunset” in June.  The 2009 legislature passed these measures, and then-State Sen. Bill Raggio insisted that they end within two years, for politically logical reasons:  If Democrats wanted the revenue to keep coming in, they would have to give Raggio and his fellow Republicans something in return, like a more favorable redistricting of legislative and congressional seats than they might otherwise have supported.  But Raggio proved too liberal for his fellow Republicans, and he retired from the legislature after his caucus tossed him out as its leader a mere 38 years into his Carson City tenure.

Then Sandoval backed away after declaring that he was, after all, a federal judge, and knew something about the law.  The state high court’s decision could apply to numerous other actions that could cost the state more than $600 million.  Perhaps some of the sunsetting taxes, which supposedly would bring in about $700 million, would be acceptable, if Democrats agreed to tie “reforms” to them.

Several questions and points pop up:

If Sandoval knows the law so well, why did he include the money grab in his budget in the first place?  Why didn’t he know the Nevada Supreme Court would rule against it?  Could it be that he is nothing but a phony? That’s too kind.

Sandoval said, “No new taxes.”  He has kept insisting on that mantra because he dreams of being either Jim Gibbons or the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012.  But when the high court blows a hole in his budget, he backs away from that?  And this, after finding new funds and putting them into public education, which he wants to cut because it needs reforming.  Despite his resemblance to Gibbons, Sandoval seems to have found the Republican he most wants to emulate —  Mitt Romney, who looks like an overly-hair-gelled weather vane.  That isn’t the kind of behavior that gets you nominated for high office in a party that prizes total capitulation to the far right.

Has anyone noticed that this is the second time the Nevada Supreme Court has entered the sticky wicket of budgetary matters?  In 2003, the legislature couldn’t pass the $800 million tax hike proposed by Gov. Kenny Guinn, whom Sandoval lionizes as a hero before trampling on his legacy.  The state senate could muster the two-thirds vote needed, but the Assembly kept running aground at 27-15 — “The Mean Fifteen” and worse — as Democrats called the right-wing Republicans determined to stop Nevada from elevating itself from being part of the Third World.

Guinn ultimately sued the legislature.  Acting on his behalf was the noted legal expert, Nevada Attorney General — Brian Sandoval.  The high court ruled 6-1 that the part of the Nevada Constitution requiring the two-thirds vote was unconstitutional, because it conflicted with the provision requiring the funding of public education.  The Assembly reconvened, and finally, Battle Mountain’s John Marvel said this thing had to end, voted for the tax hike, and everybody went home.

This time, no one jumped all over the Supremes.  The decision and circumstances differ, but it’s a reminder that our democratic republic sometimes contradicts its own laws, and those who know something about the law need to step in.  No, not Sandoval.  Real experts.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.