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STEVE SEBELIUS: Sisolak stumbles, but on the right path

There’s no doubt that Gov. Steve Sisolak has made mistakes in his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Miscommunication about precisely what was allowed and what wasn’t plagued the early effort. A “suggestion” of closing nonessential business had to be turned into an order. That order later had to be expanded.

Until Thursday, when the governor announced May 15 as a target to begin Phase 1 of the reopening plan, the timeline on easing coronavirus measures was mostly a mystery.

And waiting until the day before his stay-at-home order was to expire — and announcing that he would extend it on “Good Morning America” — could have been better executed.

On the other hand, the coronavirus is unprecedented and, up until recently when the statistics came in, the governor really didn’t know when the state could reopen. A spike in the numbers could still delay reopening.

There are plenty of people in business in Nevada who have legitimate concerns about the shutdown, a fear of losing their customers, their employees, their years of hard work. There are legitimate frustrations over the unemployment insurance system that was clearly never designed to handle the volume of calls triggered by this crisis.

But there’s plenty of criticism aimed at the governor that’s less legitimate.

Some of the people who have criticized Sisolak for “not having a plan” to reopen the state will now instantly turn to criticizing the plan he did put forward. They see this crisis as an opportunity to begin laying the groundwork for 2022, when Sisolak will be back on the ballot.

You didn’t expect them to suddenly say, “Well, we demanded a plan, and the governor gave us one. That’s all we asked for. Thanks, gov!” Did you?

But that disingenuousness pales next to those who accuse Sisolak of being a power-mad dictator who is callous toward business, insensitive toward unemployed workers and worthy of recall.

Given a second or two of calm reflection, the flaws in that argument become apparent.

First, the professional: Closing down much of Nevada’s private sector has had a devastating impact on Nevada’s economy. Unemployment is soaring, and the state’s once-robust unemployment insurance fund is going to be severely tapped once all the backlogged claims are paid.

Every day the closure lasts — especially because it includes casinos — the hit to the state’s budget grows larger.

This will all fall on Sisolak to fix, either in an increasingly inevitable special session or the 2021 session — or, more likely, both.

Raising taxes — always an uphill battle even in the best of economic times — will be virtually impossible now. Who has the money to pay increased taxes? And what taxes would the state even raise? Nevada is looking at a recession and a long recovery.

That means the governor and the Legislature will have to cut budgets, furlough or even lay off state workers and curtail government services. Those cuts will make residents and state workers unhappy. And who will they blame for the problems?

That’s right: Sisolak.

Which brings us to the political. Sisolak is a first-term governor who wants a second term. His handling of the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath will be a big factor in how voters treat him at the polls. Because of that, Sisolak widens and deepens his political problem every day the state is shut down.

And the politics don’t stop there. A huge drop in revenue doesn’t just mean no taxes for state coffers. It means no money for political donations. Business leaders whose companies are hurting are far less likely to have the money or the motive to make contributions. That makes Sisolak’s re-election harder.

Both professionally and politically, we have ample evidence to take Sisolak at his word — that he’s concerned about saving lives even at the cost of commerce and labor — and virtually no reason to buy into the theory of darker, hidden motives. As the governor himself said on Thursday, nobody wants the state open for business more than he does.

Yes, there are things Sisolak could have done better. He would no doubt admit that himself. But when we — ahem — recall Sisolak years from now and reflect on the unprecedented early dark days of the coronavirus, it’s far more likely we’ll remember a governor who stumbled while doing his best to do the right thing, rather than a would-be autocrat who fiddled while Nevada burned.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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