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October 2, 2014

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GOVERNOR’S RACE:

Sandoval lays claim to anti-tax allegiance

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Brian Sandoval

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Gov. Jim Gibbons

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Michael Montandon

Sun Coverage

Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval has flirted with the role and hinted at it. Now, he has made it official: He will seek to be the most fiscally conservative candidate for governor.

Sandoval declared as much in a radio interview with first lady Dawn Gibbons, whose husband, Gov. Jim Gibbons, Sandoval is trying to unseat.

Dawn Gibbons: “Is there any situation in which you would consider raising taxes?”

Sandoval: “No.”

And that’s that.

When asked Monday for more detail from Sandoval — who many thought was the most centrist in the Republican field and thus better positioned to defeat the Democrats’ nominee — his campaign said he was unavailable. A written statement from the candidate said: “I do not believe in raising taxes.”

Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon and a spokesman for Gibbons rushed to confirm that they too would have offered the same answer — there is no circumstance imaginable under which they would consider raising taxes.

That GOP candidates are trying to flash conservative credentials is not unexpected. With the conservative Tea Party movement in full throttle and more conservative voters making up the base in a typical Republican primary, it’s not too difficult for a candidate to read the tea leaves.

But in staking out such black-and-white positions, Republicans are almost begging for accusations of hypocrisy down the road — when merely cutting state spending will become more difficult, according to experts — if they err in the eyes of the anti-tax watchdogs.

Consider Gibbons, who ran on a promise not to raise taxes and even put it in writing when he signed a pledge in 2006. Since then, the governor has been accused numerous times of violating his vow — including counting a voter-approved tax increase in his budget and supporting fee increases, even when the industries agreed to them.

Sandoval said in his Monday statement that Gibbons raised $50 million in fees during the past special session, the “liberal approach” to balancing the budget.

The next governor will find keeping a promise not to raise taxes difficult, if not impossible, according to some experts.

When the Legislature convenes in 2011 to pass the state’s next budget, Nevada will face a deficit estimated at between

$2.5 billion and $3 billion in a $6.5 billion two-year budget. Those who have studied the state’s finances say it will be almost impossible to balance that budget without additional revenue.

“Based on the current economy, that would be a significant challenge,” said Mike Hillerby, former Gov. Kenny Guinn’s chief of staff. “Can you physically do it on paper? Yes. Can you balance it in a way without a federal judge taking over significant portions of state government? That becomes interesting.”

Cutting spending by that amount would require significant cuts in services, raising the possibility that interest groups would challenge the adequacy of education, prison and health systems, said Hillerby, who supports Sandoval for governor.

Jeremy Aguero, principal with financial firm Applied Analysis, said, “Having reviewed the budget, I don’t know where you cut another $2.5 billion or $3 billion without taxes.”

Conservative lobbyist Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Motor Transport Association, said the state still needs to look at cutting its spending and stop vilifying the businesses that pay taxes. But, “We would need to cut a lot. I don’t know if all those cuts are tenable. Last I heard, we could fund all of (K-12) education and half of higher ed, and it will take up the entire state budget based on the revenue we have right now. Absolutely there will be a tax increase in the future.”

Mary-Sarah Kinner, a spokeswoman for Sandoval’s campaign, said the candidate is talking with experts about what, beside taxes and cuts, can be done. She pointed to his plan before the last session that involved selling or leasing back state buildings to raise money, as well as cutting teacher and public employee pay and raiding local government funds.

“Brian Sandoval is the only candidate for governor to offer a budget fix without raising taxes,” she said, noting that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid refused to offer a short-term plan and Gibbons’ end game raised some fees.

Sandoval’s position comes as a surprise to many longtime watchers of state politics, where Sandoval was an assemblyman and the attorney general before he left for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench. During his time in Carson City, he developed a reputation for building consensus with Democrats.

In an interview in September, Sandoval said that when he served in the Legislature in the 1990s, he voted once to allow the Washoe County Commission to raise the sales tax. He also said he voted to raise the property tax in Clark County to build new schools.

In 2003, as attorney general, Sandoval filed a lawsuit and personally delivered it to the Supreme Court to try and compel the Legislature to balance the budget, and pass a tax increase. (His campaign gave a transcript of testimony in which Sandoval told the Assembly: “This office is not going to opine on how you accomplish balancing the budget, only that you must balance the budget by July 1, 2003. How you get there is the business of this body.”)

Sandoval’s campaign said despite his recent bold statements, he will not sign the written “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a litmus test for conservative anti-taxers such as Chuck Muth, a Nevada political consultant.

“He prefers not to sign something that will tie his hands behind his back,” Kinner said. “He does not believe in raising taxes.”

Montandon last month signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He had resisted for months, he said: “I worried about being put into a box. But it also holds you to a standard. Spending is the problem, not the taxation side.”

Dan Burns, Gibbons’ state spokesman, said the governor also does not support raising taxes under any circumstances. The $200 million room tax increase he included in the 2009 budget was approved by voters in an advisory question. “The governor has said all along that he will not stand in the way of the people. This isn’t a dictatorship. If people want something, they’re willing to say ‘yes’ to some sort of tax hike like that, the governor will not stand in the way.”

Gibbons cut a compromise deal in the 2010 special session that included fee increases on mining claims and foreclosures.

Each of the Republican candidates said he would equate extending taxes that are scheduled to expire in 2011 with raising taxes.

Reid, the likely Democratic nominee, was unavailable for comment, according to his campaign.

Reid spokesman Mike Trask would not directly answer whether there were any situations in which Reid would support a tax increase. He pointed out that the three white papers Reid has released charting how he would govern were all revenue neutral.

Reid has said that before the November election, he will come out with a plan to balance the state’s budget. But he wants to wait until after a legislative study commission looks at Nevada’s tax structure and quality of life issues.

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