In his State of the State address, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval described a letter he enclosed in a time capsule that’s meant to be opened 50 years from now, when Nevada turns 200 years old.
“As I wrote, I realized that the success or failure of the governor and people of Nevada in 2064 will largely depend upon our decisions today,” he said during Thursday night’s speech.
Sandoval followed that with calls for a $1.1 billion tax increase and a major expansion of education programs. It’s a bold agenda for a state that has consistently rejected moves to add money to its education system, has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation besides the District of Columbia and ranks near the bottom in per-pupil funding.
Sandoval’s lofty plan could be derailed by a squabbling crop of lawmakers and a tax-averse population that just last year overwhelmingly rejected The Education Initiative, a ballot measure that would have imposed a 2 percent tax on businesses making $1 million annually. Voters also turned down a measure that would have cleared the way for a tax increase on the mining industry.
But the timing of Sandoval’s plan means it’s not likely dead on arrival. Widespread Republican wins that gave Sandoval GOP majorities in both houses in the Legislature, a rebounding state economy and the political capital the popular governor has accumulated through his first term combine to give him a chance to make his mark.
“He had a huge win and is singlehandedly responsible for the Republican sweep,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “He’s in a position to start thinking of his legacy and what he wants to be remembered for.”
Sandoval’s budgets in 2011 and 2013 were colored by the state’s recession woes. His policy goals included fairly modest reforms to teacher tenure laws and the first steps into expanding full-day kindergarten. His newest proposal blew the others out of the water, calling for a statewide expansion of full-day kindergarten, doubling funding for English Language Learners, and putting millions more toward students in poverty, children with disabilities, gifted students and kids with autism.
Democrats said it sounded a lot like the agendas they’ve been proposing for years, but couldn’t accomplish in the time they were in the majority in the Legislature, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion. “I never imagined the day where a Republican governor would be proposing things I’d been fighting for all this time,” said state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Vegas.
Sandoval proposed paying for education and other projects with a major tax increase focused on businesses and by continuing taxes that are scheduled to expire this summer. The “sunset” taxes have been repeatedly extended since they were first passed under the provision they would end two years later.
Sandoval’s ambitious proposals drew the ire of anti-tax conservatives, who condemned them as job killers and a breach of trust. They have vowed to oppose the governor’s plan when lawmakers convene Feb. 2.
“The people of Nevada were told that this huge tax hike package was only necessary to weather the worst of the housing meltdown and economic crisis of 2009,” said Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas. “It is time for the Legislature to keep its promise.”
But the mood toward taxes and education funding appears to have softened as the state’s economy revs up. Nevada’s job growth rate is the third highest in the nation, and the unemployment rate is about half what it was when Sandoval took office. Electric car company Tesla has come to Nevada on his watch, and the state has landed a coveted slot as a national drone test site.
“For the last at least 10 years here in Nevada, we’ve been trying to plug holes and trying to survive until the next biennium,” Nevada System of Higher Education Regent Trevor Hayes said. “We’ve dug out of the hole and now’s the time.”
Proponents say that if anyone can pull it off, it’s Sandoval.
“Brian Sandoval is a leader who you saw at his best tonight,” Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison said. “Somebody who gives a vision, gives us a pathway to get to that conclusion and brings all Nevadans together.”