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Hugh Jackson: The measured pointlessness of Gov. Sunny

<p>Governor Brian Sandoval / PHOTO: MARK DAMON</p>

Governor Brian Sandoval / PHOTO: MARK DAMON

“…THE OVER-ARCHING policy of this administration throughout this economic downturn,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said as he concluded his biannual State of the State speech last week, is that “we cannot cut our way out, we cannot tax our way out, we can only grow our way out.”

The governor’s summation might have been more convincing had the assorted micro-initiatives revealed earlier in his address had anything to do with promoting economic growth. They didn’t.

OK, that’s not entirely true. The governor’s decision, announced last year and reiterated last week, to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare will mean hundreds of millions of dollars will flow to Nevada and constitute a larger and more lasting economic stimulus than, well, the economic stimulus.

But that’s Obama’s policy, not Sandoval’s. Had Sandoval had his way, Obamacare would have been declared unconstitutional.

As for his own policy prescriptions, to be Sandovalian is to be Lilliputian: Additional spending on all-day kindergarten and English-language learning in amounts so small as to be little more than window dressing; a similarly cosmetic financial commitment to a “Knowledge Fund” to promote entrepreneurialism; a small tax cut for businesses that already pay almost no taxes.

A few days prior to the State of the State, it was learned that Sandoval had (unofficially) directed state gambling regulators to draft an online poker bill. Online poker may create more pathological gamblers in Illinois than jobs in Nevada. But web poker is a “new frontier,” Sandoval gushed in his speech, while urging the Legislature to treat this particular legislation with singular urgency and pass the bill in 30 days.

Because web poker is Nevada’s most pressing priority.

As negligible as it is forgettable, the governor’s diminutive agenda fairly if unintentionally reflects what Sandoval calls the “over-arching policy of this administration throughout this economic downturn.” But his phrasing is inaccurate. It’s not an “over-arching policy,” it’s an over-arching political strategy: Generate as few headlines as possible, tread water, and hope Nevada’s economy continues to rebound (state economic policy, or lack thereof, notwithstanding) through 2014, when Sandoval will assume unwarranted credit for a recovery while asking Nevadans for a second term.

On the bright side (where I’m always looking), the Republican governor’s lack of any core vision save for getting reelected in a state that went for Obama twice renders him almost an innocuous caretaker of a governor, a political sycophant always seeking the path of least resistance and unwilling to pick a fight.

For instance, in his first State of the State speech two years ago, Sandoval sported prevailing wingnut fashion and lashed out at public employees’ collective bargaining rights and benefits. None of that noise time around.

And there is the aforementioned Medicaid expansion. Republican governors around the country continue to bow to Tea Party sentiment and vow not to expand Medicaid. The federal government pays nearly all the immediate cost of expansion and ultimately never less than 90 percent. And — spoiler alert — despite chest-thumping theatrics from the likes of Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, every state in the country will expand Medicaid eventually. Jan Brewer, the certifiably kookwit governor over the river in Arizona, has already seen the light. But Sandoval, and probably more to the point his political team, deserves credit for making Nevada the first state with a GOP governor to favor logical pragmatism over knee-jerk anti-Obamaism and opt for expansion.

In his speech last week Sandoval parroted his party’s obligatory nonsense about “Nevada’s employers cannot afford higher taxes,” which would be more convincing if the tax burden on Nevada’s employers wasn’t already the lightest in the nation. But unlike his party’s fire-eaters — and his wildly incompetent predecessor — he’s not clamoring for more cuts to Nevada’s bare-bones government. While it would be heartening to believe that Sandoval understands how more spending cuts in Nevada would hurt the economy, Sandoval as governor has failed to demonstrate fluency or even much of an interest in economic policy. Rather, his handlers, clearly unconcerned about any potential challenge from the right in the 2014 primary, have determined it would be best if their general election horse looks nice and not mean.

Besides, Governor “Sunny,” as Sandoval has been charitably dubbed, wants to avoid controversy. Major controversy should be easily avoidable in the 2013 legislative session. Any agenda for Nevada’s future, any at all, would by definition stand in stark contrast to Sandoval’s by virtue of existing. Alas, as demonstrated in Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis’s banal response to Sandoval’s speech, if Democrats are in possession of such an agenda, they have yet to reveal it.

Thanks to a stilted and awkward manner of public speaking, Sandoval is incapable of delivering a speech that inspires. But his painfully unwatchable presentation is a fitting match to an “over-arching policy” wherein the most lofty goal is hewing to the status quo in as unsettling a manner as possible.

Sandoval’s every move is carefully calculated by his handlers to give their Republican the best possible chance of winning reelection in what is increasingly a Democratic state. Obviously.

What is less obvious is why Brian Sandoval wants to be governor in the first place.

HUGH JACKSON blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner (www.lasvegasgleaner.com) and co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.