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Hugh Jackson: Rules of disengagement

<p>Hugh Jackson</p>

Hugh Jackson

The state superintendent of education (admit it: You didn’t know Nevada had a state superintendent of education) “resigned” a couple weeks ago. James Guthrie was effectively forced out when it became clear he was a potentially controversial figure who might sour the sweet nothings that pass for Gov. Brian Sandoval’s governorship.

Guthrie championed education “reform” from the right — that sort of “reform” which often as not means little more than paying teachers less and destroying their union. Guthrie was a true believer and his ideology was no secret to Sandoval. During his first year in office, when he hired Guthrie, Sandoval occasionally muttered right-leaning things about education “reform.”

But whatever Sandoval’s commitment to that, it was no match for his blandly cheerful dedication to avoiding controversy. If Sandoval entertained any thoughts of emulating other Republican governors and attempting to inflict some hardcore, right-wing agenda on the public schools, he’s backed off.

Good. That’s not what this is really about, though.

Guthrie’s departure, accompanied by some grousing by Guthrie that Sandoval didn’t seem interested in education policy, underscores an emerging narrative about Sandoval’s administration: The governor just isn’t very curious about public policy generally.

I started to wonder in 2011, when Sandoval was on Jon Ralston’s show, and Ralston asked him some questions about the mining tax. Admittedly, I am a full-on mining-tax nerd — some of Ralston’s questions referenced my research. But it didn’t take an expert to be taken aback by Sandoval’s blithe nonresponses, which consisted mostly of repeating that he “believed” the system was jim dandy. Subsequent statements he’s made about both taxation and federal regulation of the minerals industry only reinforce the impression that he has never given the industry any serious thought.

Regular readers of this column (all nine of you) know that Sandoval has nothing that fairly could be called an economic policy. Like most Republicans, he sputters talking points about low taxes. But unlike many governors, he’s made no high-profile attempt to champion a signature policy. The governor’s office did release an economic development blueprint, but it was merely a watered-down and unfunded version of proposals prepared by Brookings Mountain West. Sandoval never discusses the relative positions of primary industries, the structure of the workforce or any data or facts that indicate some thirst to comprehend the relationship between state policy and the dynamics of the economy. He just professes his “belief” that now is not the time to raise taxes.

The biggest stamp a governor puts on Nevada is through the budget. Sandoval’s first legislative session, two years ago, was shaped not by a bold Sandovalian initiative, but a state Supreme Court ruling that forced him to adopt policy leftovers. The Sandoval budget now under consideration at the Legislature has been most commonly described as “status quo.”

And this is just weird: During an interview last week with local Univision affiliate KINC, conducted in English, Sandoval was asked if he supported “the legalization of the 11 million undocumenteds” in the U.S. “Well, I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” he answered. “If you’re referring to the dreamers?”

As interviewer Martha Saldana pointed out, dreamers are part of the 11 million. But how can a governor — who has been asked by national Republicans to recruit Latino candidates, no less — not immediately recognize an obvious and simple question about comprehensive immigration reform? Ever since the election, and certainly over the last couple of weeks as a group of senators try to hammer out legislation, immigration has been one of the most discussed public policies in America, and that discussion is almost invariably accompanied by references to 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Sandoval’s borderline befuddled response brought to mind former U.S. Senate candidate Sue Lowden’s contention in 2010 that Barack Obama had won Alaska in 2008. You know, Alaska. In 2008. When Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate. It still amazes me when would-be professional politicians don’t pay much attention to politics.)

As governor, Sandoval has shown remarkably little passion for anything other than being blandly cheerful — with one exception. Sandoval moved heaven and earth to secure early passage of online poker legislation, and then gushed effusively over the new law that might someday make a huge difference to, oh, a half-dozen casino executives. Nevada’s resort industry was very keen for the bill. Two of Sandoval’s closest political handlers, Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro, lobby for the Nevada Resort Association. Sandoval might not be engaged in policy. But Ernaut and Ferraro are.

Sandoval wants to win reelection next year by saying as little as possible — nothing, preferably — lest he offend someone. That’s smart political calculus, s’pose, and if the economy rebounds (despite Sandoval, not because of him), it’ll probably work, especially if Nevada Democrats continue to treat him with kid gloves.

Between now and the election, as Sandoval fights hard to avoid, well, a fight of any kind, cynics will dismiss Sandoval’s evasiveness as politics as usual. Some may even marvel at how polished it is.

But the possibility can’t be ruled out that when Sandoval avoids fact-based explanations of policy and relies instead on vacuous nonresponses, it’s not just because he’s being coy. It may also be because he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t really care.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3, and blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner.