A tax? For schools? Is Sandoval a Republican?

At least we now know why the Democrats didn’t recruit a substantial candidate against Gov. Brian Sandoval in the last election.

It would have been hard to find anyone capable of running to the left of our popular Republican. But given the sorry state of Nevada’s public education system, that might actually be a good thing.

The state possesses few viable Democrats with politics more progressive than those espoused Thursday by Sandoval in his State of the State, in which he called for a $7.3 billion two-year budget. That includes $1.5 billion in additional revenue: $580 million in the “endless sunset” tax extension, $80 million in increased cigarette taxes, and $440 million from a new fee on business licenses.

A Republican suggesting a big bump in a business tax?

Forgive me if canaries are circling my head. I’m feeling a little dizzy now that Nevada politics has turned upside down.

The new business tax proceeds would go directly toward Nevada’s foundering public schools with its Dickensian motto: “Please, sir, I want some more.” Although teachers union officials have stated publicly a willingness to embrace proposed system reforms, most Nevada Republicans are probably still trying to get their heads around a proposed $440 million tax increase suggested by one of their own.

But what makes critics of the governor’s plan more embarrassed: the idea of a Republican increasing the business tax to improve public education, or the fact our K-12 system ranks among the poorest in the nation?

Predictably, Nevada’s hard-core conservative Republicans had their crewcuts on fire over Sandoval’s checkbook approach to education reform. Their motto: “He wants some more!” Chuck Muth, town crier of the GOP’s new Assembly raucous caucus, lambasted Sandoval on behalf of his gang this week with a widely circulated blog headlined, “America’s Worst Republican Governor.”

Depending on whether they hold the line, and keep their voices raised to that deafening howl that has the state’s political establishment cringing, the Assembly right-wingers will be either tea party-style heroes or out-of-touch patsies. Odds are they’ll be frozen out of most of the adult discussions very soon.

With a nod during his address to former Democratic Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Sandoval’s strategy would appear to be to run to the left in order to forward what is at its heart a laudable agenda: a hint of reform with a healthy infusion of funding to help the school system climb toward a C-plus in the grade book.

Who knows, maybe it will work.

As a 35-year resident and a longtime observer of the Legislature’s biennial budget rugby, Hobbs, Ong & Associates President Guy Hobbs finds Sandoval’s passion for improving the public school system refreshing. But he’s also watched the state budget process long enough to know substantive changes to Nevada’s tax policy are much easier discussed than done.

“I think from the standpoint of biting off what you can chew, it’s a step in the right direction,” Hobbs said of the governor’s plan.

He’s right. And Hobbs was relieved to hear Sandoval’s realistic call to eliminate the “sunset” misnomer from a stop-gap business tax that has been on the books for more than a decade. Like Alaska in summer, this is an endless sunset.

Although Sandoval has what many consider substantial political capital — he would have had a lot more if he’d defeated a viable challenger last November — his legacy will surely depend on how hard he fights for the tax increases that will fuel promising programs for the army of at-risk students in our public schools.

This is precisely where his focus ought to be.

“In the 35 years I’ve lived here and watched all of this stuff develop, I don’t think there’s anybody, Republican or Democrat, that would with a straight face say they’re proud of the way the education system has performed here,” Hobbs says. “When you look at the numbers, it’s hard to be proud of some of those rankings. For Sandoval to bring that into the forefront is a very refreshing thing.”

Hobbs was on hand in 2003 when Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, also an education advocate, called for a big tax increase on behalf of public schools. He knows a lot can happen between the State of the State and the end of the session. So don’t be surprised if the increased business license fees plan morphs into another form of revenue generation.

A Republican governor just called for a substantial business tax increase and a new focus on improving public education.

Maybe that makes Sandoval a Democrat in spirit or a Republican in Name Only. But it also makes it clear he’s paying attention.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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