But the popular first-term governor is taking heat from conservatives and his about-face on extending taxes that would have expired could fracture the Republican caucus when the Legislature convenes again next year.
Sandoval campaigned on a no-new tax stance, though he never set his signature to it on paper.
“I intend to stick to my pledge,” he said the day after winning election in 2010. “I believe raising taxes would be the worst thing we could do.”
But six months later, the new governor came under criticism from conservatives when he agreed to extend $620 million in temporary taxes that would have expired June 30, 2011, to plug a late session budget hole after a Nevada Supreme Court ruling raised legal doubts about funding sources used to balance his budget.
Last week Sandoval announced he would not propose cuts to education or other vital state services in his upcoming budget proposal and instead would extend those same taxes now due to “sunset” in June 2013. Sandoval said the move will avoid the need for additional taxes to fund state government.
“This is a very pragmatic move. A bold move, because he’s essentially taking on the Tea Party right,” said Eric Herzik, political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Herzik said there’s a certain safety in numbers in that tact if Sandoval can keep enough support for extending the taxes.
If not, “you have this ugly debate about who’s a true Republican, a true conservative,” Herzik said. “That’s political infighting that has to make a Democrat smile.”
To soften the blow — and deflate momentum for a handful of proposed initiatives that would raise taxes on mining, casinos and businesses — Sandoval also said he’ll call for a “flat” budget.
Nevada’s economy, highly dependent on gambling and sales taxes that tanked in the Great Recession, is recovering and “there will be no need for tax increases in the next session,” he said.
Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, was one of six conservative Republicans who voted against the budget and tax extensions in 2011, calling it a tax increase that “will do nothing to turn our economy around.”
He signed the no-tax pledge at a Tax Day Tea Party rally two years ago, proclaiming “I put my promise to you in writing that I will stand with you as a consistently clear voice for smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom.”
But last week the legislative freshman fell in step with the governor over continuing the temporary taxes into the next two-year budget cycle.
“Gov. Sandoval has outlined a prudent and fiscally responsible preliminary budget framework,” Roberson said. “I am grateful for his tremendous leadership. I will stand with him and support him.”
Others aren’t so eager to follow the leader of the Senate Republican caucus.
“The senator is flip flopping,” said Jeri Taylor-Swade, a Tea Party activist in Las Vegas. “He’s got two years to worry about his election so he feels like he’s safe.”
The barbs have been equally harsh from conservative blogger Chuck Muth and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a private free-market think tank.
Muth accused Sandoval of “waving the white flag” without inducing concessions from Democrats over such conservative favorites as construction defect reform, school voucher, public employee benefits and collective bargaining.
Some hardline Republicans aren’t so willing to back the governor without such trade-offs.
Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, who opposed the 2011 tax extension, said he understands the concern about education funding, but added, “I’m not going for something unless it comes with more reforms.”
In the Assembly, Republican caucus leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, noted that most members of his caucus last session were willing to negotiate extending taxes in return for some government reforms. He said any future discussions on extending taxes would go hand in hand with a detailed review of the budget and other changes sought by Republicans.
“To be pragmatic and hard-nosed about things you want, I think that’s what’s expected from legislators in both parties,” he said.
Some think Sandoval is leading his party back to the middle and is a sign that the Tea Party’s influence in party politics may be waning as the economy improves.
“It doesn’t seem to have the driving force it did a few years ago,” said Fred Lokken, political scientist at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Taylor-Swade, the Las Vegas Tea Party activist, scoffed at the notion.
“People say that the Tea Party is fizzling out because they don’t see us standing on street corners with signs anymore,” she said. “We are at work. We are involved in the party and are helping candidates getting re-elected.”
To underline her point, she said, “Sen. Roberson will have a hard time winning in two years.”