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To preserve his legacy, Sandoval needs a Laxalt victory

The best thing Gov. Brian Sandoval can do to preserve his legislative accomplishments is to quit defending them.

Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s announcement Wednesday that he’s running to replace Sandoval made official what’s been obvious for months. What’s been more interesting is seeing Sandoval’s political allies shift their loyalty to Laxalt.

“Far too often, as you all know, we hear politicians promise one thing and then do another,” said Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison in his introduction of Laxalt. “We’re often disappointed in leaders who abandon their principles. We don’t need another rudderless politician as the next governor of Nevada. What we need is an authentic, genuine, principled conservative like Adam Laxalt.”

Intentional or not, this is the conservative critique of Sandoval — by his own handpicked lieutenant governor. Sandoval, infamously, pledged not to raise taxes when he ran for governor. He then passed the largest tax increase in Nevada history in 2015. This included a tax on gross receipts called the commerce tax, despite voters rejecting a gross-receipts tax by a 4-to-1 margin at the 2014 ballot box.

Sandoval promised one thing and did another, frequently disappointing Nevada conservatives.

Sandoval, though, was wildly successful in implementing his legislative priorities, especially after Republicans gained control of the Legislature in 2015. He passed new school funding, but restricted its use to his programs. He passed a yet-to-be-implemented requirement that schools hold back third-graders who can’t read. He passed a small, well-designed school choice bill.

In 2015, Sandoval also signed a host of changes to Nevada’s collective bargaining, prevailing wage and public pension laws. Those measures were compromises with Democrats. Rather than eliminate prevailing wage mandates, for instance, Sandoval signed a bill allowing schools to pay 90 percent of it.

When Democrats took back control of the Legislature in 2017, they immediately tried to roll back Sandoval’s reforms. “You can’t keep a promise on a bad deal,” said Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, on the Senate floor in April.

Sandoval saved his reforms by vetoing 41 bills.

Laxalt, certainly, is more conservative than Sandoval. It’d be hard to find a Republican not named John Kasich who isn’t. But paradoxically, Sandoval is endangering his legislative victories when he attacks Laxalt for disagreeing with him.

Consider the commerce tax. Laxalt wants to repeal it. Sandoval has attacked Laxalt for that. But no matter how much Laxalt wants to repeal the tax, he doesn’t have a realistic way to do it. Barring a miracle, Democrats are going to control the Assembly in 2019. Even if the ongoing GOP recall efforts against three current senators succeed, Democrats could control the upper house by winning just two competitive races in 2018.

The commerce tax — barring a successful referendum — is safe. Sandoval’s other reforms are not. If a Democrat becomes governor, Democrats will repeal Sandoval’s carefully orchestrated compromises. The reforms will be gone. A soon-forgotten hiccup as our state races to the left of California.

Sandoval and Laxalt will have policy disagreements. But because Democrats will control the Assembly, a Laxalt victory only means the status quo continues.

How supportive Sandoval is of Laxalt will show if Sandoval is more worried about perceived public slights or preserving the policies he put in place.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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