A few days after the election last year, Assemblymember John Oceguera—who would become Assembly speaker in February—told the Las Vegas Sun that when Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval got a good look at the state budget, he would understand how foolish his no-new-taxes campaign pledge had been.
“When the governor talks to the budget office, the fiscal guys, it’ll take 20 minutes to realize what the problem is,” Oceguera said. “When you take $3 billion out, even hard-core Republicans cannot stomach what those cuts are.”
It happened exactly as Oceguera predicted. Sandoval found that there was simply not enough revenue to adequately serve the public’s welfare and safety. But he was unwilling to break his promise or to severely cut spending. So he wrote a state budget that let him keep spending up and pay for it by raiding local government treasuries.
It was a dangerous thing to do. It solved his political problem, but local government budgets were already, if anything, in greater peril than the state budget, and local functions are always more important than state functions in protecting the public.
State legislators of both parties joined the governor in this recklessness. By dumping their political problems on local governments and passing the hard decisions on to local officials, they showed the same contempt for public safety as he did. State legislators are chronically disdainful of local governments, always quick to point out that “counties are the creatures of the state.” But it’s no more politically easy for local officials to raise taxes than it is for state officials. In fact, it’s more difficult because state government has imposed all kinds of tax caps and requirements for public votes on local officials.
Gov. Sandoval and state legislators were willing to put Nevada, its communities and its people at risk in order to avoid purely political problems of raising more revenue through taxes and ducking decisions. It was easier, though more cowardly, to dump that job on local governments. The Supreme Court of Nevada, which fortunately put an end to this venture—using a case that hung over from the 2009 legislature, when the same kind of thing went on—seemed to go out of its way to point out that needed but unpopular decisions do not constitute a state emergency that allows public officials to shed their responsibilities and hand them over to local officials.
Brian Sandoval created his own problem. He didn’t need to take the no-new-taxes pledge to win the Republican primary or the general election for governor. He painted himself into a corner. He was willing to sacrifice the public’s interests for a little political convenience. He constantly expresses his admiration for former Gov. Kenny Guinn, but he is no Guinn.
And those Democrats and Republicans who enabled his rash actions can’t blame the governor, since they joined in.
It was irresponsible of Gov. Sandoval to come to the table after tying his own hand behind his back. It no doubt did wonders for his popularity, but a leader is judged not by pandering but by leading. He had a duty to approach his job unencumbered by pledges designed to placate factions of his political party. Last week one of his aides said the governor “will not gamble with the state’s future.” That should have been worded, “will not gamble further with the state’s future.”
As public officials, the governor and legislators’ obligation is to all Nevadans. So far, Nevadans have come in a distant second.