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Sandoval’s weak link still holding

I believe Brian Sandoval when he says he won’t sign tax increases into law if elected governor.

There’s no political reason for him — or any Republican governor — to do so. If Senate and Assembly leaders fail to secure the two-thirds supermajority required to pass tax increases, an inflated spending plan never makes it to the governor’s desk in the first place. And if the votes are there, the Legislature can override the governor’s veto with the identical two-thirds margin, as it did in 2009.

Why would Sandoval, the front-runner in the GOP gubernatorial primary, break a central campaign promise — and commit political suicide — by signing tax increases into law when lawmakers can be made to take full blame?

This reality offers little comfort to skeptical fiscal conservatives, who are sticking by unpopular Gov. Jim Gibbons or throwing their support behind former North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon in Tuesday’s election. These voters don’t trust Sandoval. Why?

When Sandoval resigned his federal judgeship last year to run for governor, he was given a job by powerhouse law firm Jones Vargas — the employer of Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who controlled the end of the 2009 session by providing the GOP votes needed to raise taxes by $1 billion. Raggio has endorsed Sandoval.

On April 29, Jones Vargas hosted a fundraiser for the Assembly Democratic Caucus, a union-owned collective determined to raise taxes even higher in 2011.

Meanwhile, another Jones Vargas partner, Tammy Peterson, is seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate District 8. She’s the party elite’s choice to take out incumbent Republican Barbara Cegavske, the only senator to vote against tax increases in both 2003 and 2009.

So Sandoval’s employer is spending money to elect tax-hiking Democrats, one of his co-workers and political supporters is a tax-hiking Republican, and another of his colleagues wants to take out the most reliable Republican vote against tax increases.

Jones Vargas represents so many interests that it’s hedging its bets — as it always has. Its partners know two-thirds of the Assembly Democrats occupy such safe seats that they can’t be beaten in November. Playing nice with big spenders (not to mention playing both sides) ensures access for the firm’s army of lobbyists.

But it’s also fodder for conservative conspiracy theorists, who worry Sandoval’s circle is molding him to be a governor who’ll throw principle out the window to play ball with the establishment.

Then consider Sandoval’s refusal to sign a pledge to oppose all tax increases, and his role in the 2003 budget battle — as attorney general, he asked the Supreme Court to compel gridlocked lawmakers to fund public schools and pass a balanced budget — and some Republicans see the second coming of Kenny Guinn.

It’s still Sandoval’s biggest liability in Tuesday’s election. The mailboxes of registered Republican voters have been overflowing with hit pieces from a Democratic front group, the Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs, reminding them of Sandoval’s part in the Supreme Court’s horrible Guinn v. Legislature decision in 2003, painting him as an unabashed tax hiker.

The six-figure ad campaign is tied to the likely Democratic nominee for governor, Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, who wants no part of Sandoval in the general election. The Committee to Protect Nevada Jobs takes some interesting liberties with the 2003 debacle:

— “Sandoval argued before the Supreme Court that the twice-passed, voter-mandated law requiring a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature to raise taxes was unconstitutional.” Sandoval did no such thing, and Guinn’s petition for a writ of mandamus made no argument of the sort, either. The Supreme Court decided to temporarily set aside the two-thirds supermajority requirement all on its own.

— “Brian Sandoval was instrumental in forcing the largest tax increase in Nevada state history.” Yes, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have made its legally dubious (and since overturned) ruling if Guinn hadn’t ordered Sandoval to carry his water. But in the end, the 2003 Legislature obtained the two-thirds support the constitution requires to pass tax hikes, rendering the ruling moot.

All of this has enlivened what would have been a boring gubernatorial primary. Montandon never had the money or the statewide range of support needed to make this race interesting, and Republican women are turned off by Gibbons’ divorce and personal baggage. Sandoval will win Tuesday, probably very easily. A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey conducted for the Review-Journal this past week showed Sandoval with a 14-point lead over Gibbons and a 14-point lead over Reid.

Democrats would have been better off saving their dough for the general election. Rory Reid can’t run to the right of Sandoval in the general election and expect anyone to believe him.

Voters should be more concerned about legislative candidates’ positions on tax increases, anyway. Lawmakers will decide whether your tax burden rises next year, not Sandoval or Reid.

Back on the ballot

State Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, is the only GOP lawmaker who voted for tax increases last year to face voters this year. He’s being challenged in the District 9 Republican primary by Elizabeth Halseth.

Republican voters haven’t seen such a dynamic since 2004. Back then, 20-year incumbent Sen. Ray Rawson was challenged by Assemblyman Bob Beers after Rawson voted for the 2003 tax hikes. Rawson lost by 12 points.

Nolan’s record of supporting tax increases would be enough to sink his re-election bid by itself. Then Nolan went and got himself involved in the criminal prosecution of a buddy, first testifying to the man’s good character, then leaving a phone message with the sister of the man’s rape victim suggesting she could see a payday if she helped Nolan exonerate him.

The bar has been set for stupidity by an incumbent. Now Nolan needs a miracle to make it to the general election.

But, proving that Nevada politics sometimes works in mysterious ways, guess who’s back on the ballot at the same time? None other than Rawson, trying to keep the District 7 Board of Regents seat he was appointed to last year. The post lets the dentist oversee his personal legacy to pummeled taxpayers: UNLV’s dental school.

He’s hoping voters have forgotten that they fired him six years ago.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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