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Sandoval speech leaves Democrats with tough choice

For decades, Nevada Democrats have wanted to tax business revenue to better fund public schools.

And, coincidentally, Nevada has a governor who wants to tax business revenue to better fund public schools. The Senate’s majority leader is game, too. So is the Assembly speaker.

Should the fact that all of those elected officials just happen to be Republicans stand in the way? Or is this one of those moments where — to quote another popular Republican, Ronald Reagan — “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit”?

Nevada’s Democrats face a political crisis amid a pragmatic opportunity: Achieve a long-held goal and do the right thing for Nevada’s current and future students, even if it’s the state’s Republicans who get to crow about the victory. It’s a tough position, especially for those in leadership, who are supposed to be looking to regain the majorities lost in the 2014 elections.

Gov. Brian Sandoval surely borrowed some Democratic ideas, even some Democratic rhetoric, when he strongly endorsed in Thursday’s State of the State speech a progressive business license fee that rises based on gross receipts, as well as a number of other ideas to improve education.

And, coming on the heels of the tongue-lashing administered by Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson during the campaign, the Republican agenda for education has to sting all the more. (Roberson, you’ll recall, told the Review-Journal editorial board last year that, “The Senate Democratic caucus and its leadership are incompetent and they’re failing the people of Nevada. The Senate Democrats have not got the job done.”)

Surely, Democrats can hear the campaign trail rhetoric two years from now: “Democrats held the Assembly since 1985, and the state Senate since 2009, and they failed to pass a comprehensive plan to raise revenue or improve schools. But the Republicans took over, and in one session, we fixed the problem Democrats couldn’t solve for decades!”

It’s not entirely fair. Yes, tactical errors were made, particularly during the 2011 session, when a supposedly viable margins tax plan was flubbed in the closing days. But the fact is, Democrats have never had a veto-proof supermajority in both houses, and over the past 15 years, they’ve faced strong opposition from Republicans in the Legislature (think the 2003 Legislature’s “Mean 15”) or in the governor’s mansion (think one-term Gov. Jim Gibbons). And given that one of Gibbons’ lasting legacies to his state is the constitutional requirement that the Legislature muster a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes, fixing the problem becomes all the harder.

But that doesn’t erase the fact that 2015 presents Democrats with a tremendous opportunity. Embracing the governor’s proposal would mean achieving a long-sought goal, even if there’s no political reward at the end of the session. For Democrats, waking up in June knowing the state’s schools are on a stronger footing is a likely outcome.

Of course, Democrats aren’t exactly rushing to endorse Sandoval’s proposal. They’re looking at various alternative taxes, saying none are completely off the table. (I am reliably assured, however, that it’s not likely they will embrace the regressive sales tax on services advocated in a study commissioned by, but not endorsed by, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce.)

And that’s fine. Roberson has said he will hear all ideas in the committees of the upper house, although he wants to pass a plan out of the Senate by the second month of the four-month Legislature. Perhaps there are ways to improve upon the governor’s ideas without losing the two-thirds support that will be necessary in both houses to pass a tax reform plan.

Ultimately, however, this debate may come down to a choice between politics and pragmatism for Senate and Assembly Democrats. And in that moment, it’s incumbent upon them not to lose the once-in-a-generation opportunity to work with willing Republicans to do the right thing for the state.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

 

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