Activists opposing cuts to education, social services and other programs bused 200 people to Carson City to pack the Assembly chamber as a visible sign of protest during Gov. Brian Sandoval's State of the State speech last week.
Two of the bus riders, Karla Valle of Reno and her mother, Maria Christina Valle of Mexico, gave up their assigned seats in the gallery, however, so they could get their picture taken Monday evening with Nevada's first Latino governor.
"Welcome, we love you," Karla Valle said as Sandoval greeted her mother. "We are very happy you are our governor."
The public display of affection demonstrated Sandoval's popularity even among people who oppose some of the Republican's ideas. And it illustrated the vast amount of political capital he has at his disposal to sell his $5.8 billion proposal, which makes deep cuts in order to balance the budget without raising taxes -- something he promised to do in his 2010 campaign.
That gives Sandoval an advantage over Democratic leaders of the Nevada Legislature going into the biennial session beginning Feb. 7. And it makes it more difficult for Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera to press their case to boost spending, especially if it means passing higher taxes or fees.
"The governor is in a position of power," said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. "We have a governor that's engaged again. We have a governor that's communicating again. We've had no leadership in the past four years. And so we're seeing a return to normal for Nevada."
Former Gov. Jim Gibbons, who also opposed raising taxes and lost the GOP primary to Sandoval, vetoed dozens of bills and budgets during his combative four-year term. During that time, both the Assembly and the Senate had the necessary two-thirds vote to override his vetoes, including his veto of an $800 million tax package patched together at the end of the 2009 session.
Highly unpopular, Gibbons was plagued by personal scandal that ended in his divorcing while in office. He rarely worked with lawmakers, but instead fought both Democrats and moderate Republicans, making him one of the state's weaker governors.
In 2011, Democrats don't have enough members in the state Senate or Assembly to guarantee a party-line two-thirds vote, which is necessary both to approve taxes under Nevada law and to override any veto. And the political climate is such that even some Democrats, such as North Las Vegas Sen. John Lee, have said they won't support tax increases in a recession.
Democratic leaders seem to recognize the challenge of dealing with Sandoval's honeymoon period in an anti-tax climate. He was overwhelmingly elected with more votes than any 2010 candidate except two Nevada Supreme Court justices who ran unopposed.
Both Horsford and Oceguera have criticized his budget, saying it cuts too deeply and doesn't make businesses share any sacrifice. Yet neither has criticized the man himself or openly called for specific taxes or fees to raise revenue.
"I respect the office of the governor very much," Horsford said last week during a series of pre-session budget hearings. "Gov. Brian Sandoval is an upstanding citizen and a person that cares deeply about this state."
Horsford's remarks came after GOP state Sen. Barbara Cegavske of Las Vegas accused Democrats of rudeness during the hearings, although Sandoval's chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, and Budget Director Andrew Clinger said they were treated well.
Without getting personal, Horsford said Sandoval's proposal found $1 billion in extra revenue for his general fund budget by using "trickery" and "gimmicks," including borrowing $190 million against future insurance premium tax collections and transferring $425 million in bond reserves for school districts into an operating account to cover kindergarten through 12th grade costs.
"To suggest that to ask delving questions of representatives of his office about his state budget is somehow rude, I disagree respectfully with my colleague," Horsford said, referring to Cegavske. "I do not apologize for being a proponent of public education. I will continue to ask any and every question that I feel needs to be brought forward, because that was what I was elected to do."
So far, Horsford as the top Democrat and chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, has been the most aggressive in questioning Sandoval's strategy of holding the line on taxes while cutting the 2011-13 budget by 6.4 percent, with even deeper cuts to schools and higher education.
Horsford has said the governor's budget is essentially dead on arrival. It's unclear how much backing he will get, however, from his Democratic caucus in the state Senate, where the party holds a slim 11-10 majority.
On the Assembly side, Oceguera has been working closely with two key lieutenants, Majority Floor Leader Marcus Conklin of Las Vegas and Ways and Means Chairwoman Debbie Smith of Sparks, to present a united Democratic front.
Oceguera, who is termed-out and, like Horsford, has aspirations to run for Congress, has played the diplomat.
Conklin and Smith have been sharper, slamming Sandoval's budget as offering quick state fiscal fixes by putting more burden on schools, universities and local governments to cut salaries, budgets and programs to pay for only essential services.
"The whole list is short-term solutions and shifting from one place to another," Smith said. "It looks like there are no long-term solutions with this budget."
But the Democrats haven't offered any solutions of their own, saying they are just getting started in crafting a budget plan.
"That's what we're here for," Smith said, a week before the 120-day session gets under way.
Democratic leaders all refused to be pinned down on how they might raise revenues, although they said any new taxes or fees should be as broad as possible, spreading the burden in a state where businesses don't pay corporate income taxes.
"I don't think we can say," Oceguera said when asked if new revenue is needed. "We have to go through the process."
Sandoval, after delivering his televised State of the State address Monday, challenged Democrats to put up or shut up, saying legislative leaders should present their own plan to find more revenue if they think his budget falls short.
"If you are not going to follow our plan or my plan, where are you going to get the money?" Sandoval asked at a post-speech news conference in response to Democratic critics. "Let's see both sides of this debate. My cards are on the table."
Joyce Haldeman, lobbyist for the Clark County School District, said educators see major flaws in Sandoval's budget, and not just in cuts that could mean thousands of layoffs but also in the legally questionable attempt to spend money reserved to pay debts. Yet she fears Sandoval has the upper hand, for now, while Democrats are struggling to find a strong counter message.
"You wonder if the Democrats have a plan," Haldeman said after attending an education budget hearing.
As for the governor, Haldeman is hoping Sandoval listens to cries from parents and teachers not to gut education and to progressive advocates and Democrats who want him to put the possibility of tax and fee increases on the negotiating table.
Asked how to counter Sandoval's popularity, Haldeman said, "With information."
She added, "He will hopefully change his mind."
And if he doesn't, are there enough votes in the Legislature to defy Sandoval's no new taxes pledge?
"I don't know," Haldeman said. "It's one thing to vote for a tax increase. It's another thing to override your governor."
Jan Gilbert, a lobbyist for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, or PLAN, helped organize the buses to Carson City. She said advocates will keep up pressure on lawmakers and work to inform the public about the impacts of budget cutting at a time Nevada needs to improve its education system and lags in social services and other measures of quality of life.
PLAN is among groups arranging protests at town hall meetings Democrats scheduled to hear citizens' concerns. Teacher and public employee unions and other labor organizations, who are powerful forces in Nevada, plan at least $500,000 in ad campaigns, phone banks and social media attacks on Sandoval's proposal to reform and reduce government.
"The more people hear about the budget, the worse it's going to get for his image," Gilbert said. "Sure, it's his honeymoon. He's a very nice man. He did a good job on his speech. But the devil's in the details."
Dale Erquiaga, Sandoval's senior adviser, said the governor realizes he will need to keep reaching out to Nevadans to explain his ideas for reviving the state's depressed economy and improving education by making schools more competitive. Just two days after his State of the State message, Sandoval spoke to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, a friendly audience.
"He'll use the bully pulpit of his public office," said Erquiaga, a longtime friend of Sandoval's who knew the governor when they were growing up in Nevada. "He'll be visible as much as he can. We know that part of our job is we need to continue to sell the plan."
Review-Journal reporter Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.