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Fool’s gambit

Like grizzled chess players in Central Park, the opening moves in Nevada’s budget game have taken their predictable turns. Gov. Brian Sandoval opened with a no-new-taxes, $5.8 billion budget. Democrats countered with hearings filled with testimony about the devastation that would result.

We may end up exactly where things stood during the contentious 2003 session: Democrats trying unsuccessfully to pass taxes, Republicans refusing, the government facing a shutdown.

What if the Democrats played the game differently?

Put aside for a moment the wisdom of Sandoval’s budget, and assume Assembly Speaker John Oceguera and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford won’t find the votes they need to add money to Sandoval’s budget.

What if instead of trying to persuade reluctant Republicans of the need for tax increases, they accepted $5.8 billion is all there is to spend, and went to work re-writing the governor’s budget under that cap?

What if they erased money Sandoval has programmed for economic development, and diverted it back to Nevada’s schools?

What if they closed the Commission on Economic Development, the Commission on Tourism, and the subsidy to the Nevada Development Authority, on the theory money should never be given to companies that don’t need it when there are kids who do?

What if Democrats enacted reforms to reduce the prison population, say, legalizing marijuana and reducing penalties for nonviolent crimes not involving children or seniors? What if they agreed to close the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison? The money saved would go back to schools.

What if Democrats accepted some things they definitely don’t want, such as the 5 percent cut to state employee salaries? What if they agreed to consolidate state agency functions the way gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid first suggested, some of which Sandoval has embraced in his budget? And what if they took some more radical steps, such as temporarily closing state museums and parks, once again, diverting the money to education?

There’s plenty of precedent — experts have said Nevada’s problem when it comes to diversifying its economy isn’t taxes, but the low regard in which state schools are held. Improve education, and you’ll attract the kind of companies that will move the state forward.

Politically, it’s a winner, too: Sandoval would be hard-pressed to veto a budget that doesn’t raise taxes, even if he loses some of his pet priorities. And Republicans in the Legislature would embrace a pro-education budget that doesn’t raise taxes.

Democrats, however, say it just won’t work. And the numbers tend to bear them out. Education and human services account for 83.3 percent of the state budget, leaving only 16.7 percent to reallocate.

Depending upon whom you believe, the cuts to K-12 and higher education are between $427.3 million (Sandoval’s figures) and $667 million (Democrats’ numbers).

“It’s worth thinking about,” allowed Oceguera, generously. But he said restoring education cuts would be difficult without jeopardizing the budgets for health and human services and public safety. The rest of the budget pie is a slice too thin to feed the beast.

“There’s not enough there,” said Horsford. “It’s an issue that there are more needs than there is revenue.”

Horsford said he’s reviewed the budget extensively looking for ways to repair the cuts to schools, but came up empty. Instead, Horsford said, the solution is to “build a better budget.” He’s vowed repeatedly, in fact, not to pass Sandoval’s existing plan.

“None of us want to raise taxes,” he said. “I agree with Governor Sandoval’s concern about not wanting to raise taxes now. But I’m equally concerned about shortchanging our children’s future.”

So it’s back to the chess board, and an ugly endgame in June.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at (702) 387-5276 or at ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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