The legacy of outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval is like fool’s gold. It looks great from a distance, but it loses its appeal once you take a closer look.
Start with Nevada’s unemployment rate. It was 13.7 percent when Sandoval was elected in 2010. After two terms in office, it sits at 4.4 percent. That’s a great accomplishment, but it was hardly unique to Sandoval. The U.S. unemployment rate dropped from 9.8 percent to 3.9 percent over the same time. So much for the idea that Nevada desperately needed the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to save the state economy.
Sandoval has also bragged about Nevada’s population growth. People are streaming into Nevada, but that’s hardly unique to his tenure. Nevada has been one of the fastest-growing states in the country since the 1960s.
Sandoval’s greatest economic accomplishment was winning election at the height of the recession and leaving before the next downturn.
A major part of Sandoval’s agenda was improving education. Sandoval and his supporters paint a rosy picture and brag about Nevada’s graduation rate hitting 83 percent. They won’t mention how Sandoval signed a bill eliminating the high school proficiency exam, which turned diplomas into a certificates of attendance. More telling is that just 31 percent of Nevada’s fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That number fails to 28 percent for eighth-graders. Not a great legacy for someone in office eight years.
Then there are the Democrats, such as incoming Gov. Steve Sisolak, who praise Sandoval’s work on education while simultaneously saying the system needs an overhaul. Pick one. What Democrats really liked was Sandoval pushing a $1.5 billion tax increase in 2015. But less than three years after that increase, liberals were already calling for billions more in education spending. So much for Sandoval’s promise at the time to “transform Nevada for its next 50 years of success.”
Next is the rainy day fund. Sandoval brags that it contains $293 million — a Nevada record. That’s good but not much of accomplishment when you consider the context. Sandoval didn’t find savings. He just didn’t spend all of the new money he raised in taxes. That included the largest tax increase in Nevada history four years ago and a new tax on marijuana in 2017.
Then there’s the Public Employees’ Retirement System. Its official — and artificially low — unfunded liability was $10 billion in 2011. Today, it’s around $13 billion. That despite contribution rates for nonpublic safety employees jumping from 21.5 percent to 28 percent during Sandoval’s tenure. Those rates are going to 29.25 percent next year. Sandoval didn’t even try to overhaul PERS.
Finally, look at Medicaid expansion, which Sandoval signed off on in 2013. It contributed to a doubling of Nevada’s Medicaid enrollment over the past five years. That begs the question: If the economy is as good as Sandoval claims, why is 20 percent of the state on Medicaid?
The more pressing issue is that the federal reimbursement rate for individuals eligible under the expansion is declining. That’s going to cost an extra $210 million next biennium.
Sandoval liked to talk about a “new” Nevada, but governors have been leaving office with a growing economy, an ever-larger government and a failing education system for decades.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at email@example.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.