Paying a steep price for doing the right thing

They knew this day could someday come. But they did it anyway.

In the closing days of the 2015 Legislature, Republicans faced a stark choice: Vote for a massive tax bill and break faith with campaign promises, or vote against it, and leave a package of long-overdue education reforms unfunded.

Forty-eight of the Legislature’s 63 members — including eight Republican senators and 13 GOP Assembly members — voted yes.

They knew then they were risking their political careers to support Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget and tax plan. They knew voters are easily riled on the tax issue, and explaining a vote for taxes is always harder than criticizing one. They knew this could be one of the last times they sat in the legislative building as elected officials.

But they did it anyway.

On Tuesday, the day of reckoning came for some who cast those aye votes.

State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, who tried to move up to Congress, was defeated in a nasty primary by businessman Danny Tarkanian. Assemblyman Erv Nelson, who was making a bid for state Senate, was turned back by Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman (who voted against the bill). Appointed incumbent Assemblyman Glenn Trowbridge lost his bid for election, and freshman Assemblyman Philip “P.K.” O’Neill, R-Carson City, was defeated.

Four others opted not to run for re-election for various reasons.

Make no mistake: Despite concerted efforts by would-be conservative insurgents, several tax-supporting GOP lawmakers survived primary challenges. Speaker John Hambrick, Majority Leader Paul Anderson, Taxation Chairman Derek Armstrong, Education Chairwoman Melissa Woodbury, and Assemblymen Stephen Silberkraus, David Gardner and James Oscarson all won. Anti-tax fervor has its limits.

Just before he cast his vote, Nelson admitted to his Assembly colleagues that he’d been wrong to oppose higher taxes without more closely studying the issue.

“I have done months of due diligence, as I know all of you have,” Nelson said in that May 2015 speech. “Maybe it’s because I’m almost 60, but I’m not too proud to say, I was uninformed. I made a mistake. I sat and spouted the party line of ‘no new taxes,’ no matter what. And I dare say there are some philosophies that even if ISIS were storming our building to kill us all, we wouldn’t raise a penny in taxes. And I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Roberson, in an interview on PoliticsNOW last month, said he was proud to have advocated for the tax plan.

“You know, as Gov. Sandoval says, it’s not conservative to have one of the worst education systems in the country,” said Roberson, who is in the middle of his term and will return to Carson City in 2017. “We want to have a better education system, we want to have a better mental health system, a better health-care system, we need roads, bridges, infrastructure here in this state, people want a great community to live in, and some of that costs money. That’s just the reality of life.”

Another reality: There are times when you try to do the right thing and end up paying a steep price.

I suspect none of those who lost their seats or their bids for higher office on Tuesday would repudiate their votes for the tax plan, even in the fresh pain of defeat. When the reforms passed by the 2015 session start to show up in better test scores, higher graduation rates and more kids heading to college, all of those lawmakers will know they helped make it happen, despite paying the highest political price.

They knew this day could someday come, but they did it anyway.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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