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November 1, 2014

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jon ralston:

An issue Sandoval would rather forget

It returns, like a terrifying Ghost of Legislatures Past — the 2003 sessions (one regular, two specials) — to haunt the Republican gubernatorial primary.

For those who experienced, nay endured, the Great Tax Non-Debate, where Gov. Kenny Guinn’s billion-dollar baby was transmogrified into a $836 million Frankenstein, having to relive the conclusion is painful. Just imagine how Brian Sandoval feels.

Recruited to be the GOP’s messiah and save the Republicans from a Jim Gibbons November albatross, he left the federal bench, was showered with huzzahs (and money) and was coasting. Then, the party’s Jacob Marley stopped being a doornail and began hammering away at lawmakers and a Democratic attorney general. Suddenly, the race tightened — despite a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll that is as credible as an abolitionist below the Mason-Dixon Line in 1860. And now Democrats, through a front group, are trying to use the Ghost of Legislatures Past to scare Republican voters to vote for a man once thought to be a Dead Man Walking.

This is a fascinating and revealing ghost story, one that indicates how Sandoval is a formidable general election candidate, surely terrifying Democrats who see him crushing Rory Reid, but also how weak a primary contender he is, possibly frightening Republicans who will vote June 8. And it shows how far both sides will go — too far — to make their respective cases.

The history: At the end of the 2003 session, a frustrated Guinn, who had proposed the largest tax increase in history, sued the Legislature to try to get the Gang of 63 to act. In a decision that shocked everyone, including the governor and an attorney general by the name of Brian Sandoval, the Supreme Court set aside the two-thirds requirement to pass taxes — a requirement voted on twice by voters and proposed by the man Sandoval now is trying to unseat.

Lawmakers eventually passed the tax increase with two thirds in each house, but the court case still caused aftershocks. Justices who signed onto the decision eventually lost or retired — and the ruling eventually was withdrawn. Gone and forgotten — until exhumed now.

Desperate to head off a likely Sandoval victory over Reid, Democratic Party-aligned groups — my sources tell me unions and the Democratic Governors Association — are funding what could be a seven-figure effort to resurrect the decision to tar the ex-attorney general as a tax-lover.

The first ad in the series began this week and it is over the top. It accuses Sandoval of working to “overthrow the will of the people,” but he never asked the court for that result. Nor did he suggest any kind of solution to the budget problems, saying at the time, “This office is not going to opine on how you balance the budget.”

But how many people will see that explanation, compared to how many will view Democratic spinmeister Dan Hart’s ads? Hart, not coincidentally, is a longtime adviser to Reid the Younger and the teachers union, which had a hand in that 2003 legal wrangling. As I have said, the dot-connecting here is not difficult, although it’s possible there is no actual coordination with the Reid campaign, which is legally banned.

Sandoval’s campaign knows their man is vulnerable on the 2003 tax issue. And they realize they must inform GOP voters that this is a nefarious Democratic plot (which it happens to be) to infiltrate a Republican primary.

But methinks they doth protest too much in Sandoval’s defense. The campaign released a rebuttal of the ad, pointing out the infirmities I have noted. But it included this statement: “It is a decision Brian did not agree with then, and Brian does not agree with today.”

Really?

I asked the campaign to provide me with one piece of evidence Sandoval did not agree with the decision in 2003. I was greeted by … silence. Because there is none.

Indeed, while he did not ask for the two-thirds to be struck, Sandoval was described as being pleased with the ruling in a Las Vegas Sun story. And if he was so outraged by the decision, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, shouldn’t Sandoval have argued for — as opposed to against — a rehearing and for — and not against — federal intervention to overturn the case? (He persuasively argued for state supremacy on the federal case.)

Yes, Sandoval was representing a client. But the client went to court to force lawmakers to act on his tax increase proposal. It may have been his job to do so as attorney general, but there’s no evidence Sandoval felt any pain in doing so.

Thanks to Democrats, though, he is about to feel some now.

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