Governor sets tone for session

Wednesday’s State of the State address was vintage Brian Sandoval: right down the middle.

In presenting his vision for Nevada and the two-year budget intended to help the state realize it, the Republican governor pitched enough policies, programs and projects to appeal to just about everyone. And he held back enough to leave both Democrats and Republicans – especially partisans on the fringes – annoyed.

For the folks on the left, he proposed more full-day kindergarten and English instruction in public schools, expanded Medicaid, more mental health services and increased spending overall.

For the folks on the right, he backed school choice and a payroll tax cut that keeps more small businesses out of the levy’s reach, and he vowed he wouldn’t support any increases in the tax rates Nevadans are paying now.

In response, Democrats grumbled that Gov. Sandoval’s budget – the funding blueprint the Legislature will start work from when the 2013 session convenes in two weeks – didn’t spend nearly enough money on K-12 schools. Some conservatives were disappointed the governor didn’t use the speech, which was televised live across the state, to champion reforms to collective bargaining and public employee retirement benefits.

They should have known better. It’s simply not Brian Sandoval’s style to pick fights, especially in public. And he certainly wouldn’t use his platform, at the ceremonial start of the biennial session, to antagonize the very people who’ll decide whether his policy priorities pass or fail. Wednesday’s speech was, like the governor himself, optimistic and forward-looking.

“We are emerging from the worst economic crisis of our generation. … And state revenues are growing again because our economy is growing again,” Gov. Sandoval said.

Most importantly, he set the tone for a constructive session, one in which the Democratic majority and Republican minority treat one another with courtesy and have the respect to hear one another’s ideas, despite pre-existing differences. There will be give and take. Gov. Sandoval’s veto power will serve as a moderating influence because Democrats do not have the votes in either the Senate or the Assembly to override him.

Certainly, Democrats want to spend far more than the $6.55 billion Gov. Sandoval has allocated. Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, have backed an education agenda – full-day kindergarten at every elementary school, pre-kindergarten at low-income schools and reduced class sizes – that could add $1 billion to the budget. While being typically evasive about wanting to increase taxes, they’ve promised to start an open debate about “revenue” the first week of the session.

A re-evaluation of early education makes sense, given that lawmakers of both parties now back Gov. Sandoval’s proposal to end social promotion. However, one of the best education reforms the Legislature could pass is a collective bargaining reform: making elected bodies, not unaccountable arbitrators, settle contract disputes. Last year, an arbitrator gave Clark County School District teachers pay raises the public couldn’t afford, resulting in the elimination of 1,000 teaching positions and increased class sizes. If an arbitrator makes similar judgments in the years ahead, pay raises could consume all of Gov. Sandoval’s proposed funding increases for K-12. We hope Gov. Sandoval can leverage this change so his initiatives aren’t wiped out by labor disputes.

Gov. Sandoval is right to strike a balance between funding the state’s highest priorities while trying to avoid new burdens on a fragile economy. Right down the middle. Gov. Sandoval’s roadmap for Nevada looks about right.

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