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Sandoval talks tax reform at Western Governors Association meeting

Gov. Brian Sandoval expressed confidence Sunday that he’ll be able to work well with a more conservative Legislature, although he said he may need to tweak his plans for major tax reform with new GOP lawmakers in mind.

“The dynamics have changed because of the election,” Sandoval said, speaking to reporters after wrapping up a two-day winter meeting of the Western Governors Association in Las Vegas.

About nine or 10 legislators have signed pledges not to raise taxes, making Sandoval’s promise to find more revenue to boost education spending more challenging.

He could propose getting rid of some tax breaks and exemptions to find more money, or offer conservative lawmakers long-sought education reforms in exchange for supporting new taxes, especially if the governor allows some existing levies to expire.

Many of those who signed the no tax hike pledges are among newcomers in the Assembly who won election Nov. 4 thanks to a GOP wave of voter support that put Republicans in charge of Nevada government.

Sandoval, a Republican, easily won re-election. But the GOP also took over majority control of the Nevada Senate and Assembly as well as winning all the top constitutional offices that run the state government.

Incoming state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, has vowed to support Sandoval’s spending plans during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in early February. The GOP has a slim one seat advantage over Democrats, or 11-10 seats.

The 42-seat Assembly, however, is about evenly divided between moderates open to tax reforms and conservatives who have won leadership roles and have expressed opposition to new taxes.

The GOP holds 25 seats compared to 17 seats held by Democrats.

The incoming GOP caucus leader and presumed Assembly Speaker, Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, has said he’s open to tax reform, however, making the upcoming session unpredictable and more difficult for Sandoval to navigate and Hambrick to lead.

Sandoval said Republicans need to show they can govern or face the prospect of losing election in two years and control of the Legislature.

“If they go too far, they’re not going to be the speaker and the majority leader two years from now,” Sandoval said. “They’re not going to be chairmen and chairwomen of various committees. … It’s not just about them. It’s about Nevada.”

“We’re in a very critical time in our state,” he added. “It’s about solutions and working together and letting people know we can get things done.”

Sandoval’s comments came after a governor’s policy round table discussion during he and four other GOP governors addressed challenges ahead in light of Republican success in the Nov. 4 election. Sandoval is chairman of the nonpartisan governor’s group.

Reid Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who covers state government and politics, moderated the forum. The meeting was held at the Four Seasons.

In Washington, Republicans also won majority control of the U.S. Senate and made gains in the House, which already was led by the GOP.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said voters are tired of Washington gridlock and want to see more bipartisan solutions. He said states are leading the way in innovation and the federal government shouldn’t stand in their way.

“We need to bring back the concept of federalism,” Herbert said, noting that the states created the centralized federal government and not the other way around. “There’s got to be a renewed appreciation of the role of the states. We do innovate. We do create. And when we fail, we fail in our own states. We don’t screw up the whole country.”

“The states are the best hope for America,” Herbert added.

Sandoval said it’s too soon to say whether his budget proposal will extend a $600 million-plus package of taxes that are scheduled to sunset.

Also, he said he’s just now hashing out what sort of tax reforms he will propose with the support of major Nevada industries, including gaming, mining and retailers who have blocked tax hikes in the past.

“I’ve got to make some decisions in the next few days,” Sandoval said.

The governor is building his final spending plan after the economic forum last week estimated there will be about $6.3 billion to spend on public education and state programs in the upcoming 2015-17 state budget. That’s about $1 billion short of agency requests, prompting Sandoval to tell agency chiefs to submit new, lower budget proposals.

Time is running short, Sandoval said. He delivers his inaugural address Jan. 5 in Carson City when new government leaders are sworn in. He’s scheduled to deliver his State of the State address on Jan 15, when he’ll also unveil his two-year spending plan and deliver it to the Legislature.

Sandoval said he has already met with most of the legislative leaders. He said he’s been delivering the same message he did election night.

“My message election night was, ‘Let’s get to work,’ ” Sandoval said. “We can accomplish great things. We can improve education. We can improve health care. We can continue to broaden our economy.”

Sandoval said he was surprised at the depth of the GOP wave, which helped several candidates win unexpected victories.

“There are a lot of people who got elected in Nevada who didn’t expect it,” he said. “And I didn’t expect it either.”

He said he’s eager to work with the newcomers, although he added that there will be a steep learning curve during the 120-day legislative session.

“There’s going to be a lot of education to do,” Sandoval said. “There’s a very narrow window to demonstrate that they can lead, that we can lead.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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