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New Nevada governor Brian Sandoval faces tough times

CARSON CITY, Nev. — Brian Sandoval becomes Nevada's 30th governor on Monday, inheriting a shattered economy that he has promised to fix without raising fees or taxes.

It's a tall order no matter what the circumstances. But Sandoval will also have to navigate a treacherous political climate including a Democrat-controlled Legislature and new leadership in the Republican caucuses, while facing the difficult task of carving out a new congressional district for Nevada.

Sandoval is already taking heat from Democrats for sticking to his strong conservative stance as he pledged to not raise taxes despite a projected budget deficit of $1 billion to $3 billion. Democrats believe the economic situation is so bad that Sandoval needs to show some flexibility.

"It would be more helpful if the governor would join in the conversation rather than sticking to a campaign talking point," said Democrat state Sen. Sheila Leslie, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who called the budget crisis "terrifying."

Sandoval, 47, became the first Hispanic in Nevada to win a statewide election as attorney general in 2002 and the former federal judge and chairman of the Gaming Commission will hold the same distinction as governor. He left a lifetime federal appointment on the bench to challenge incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons, trouncing him in the June primary and defeating Rory Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in November.

While the resume is impressive, Sandoval is untested as a chief executive.

Sandoval said little during the campaign on how he'd balance the budget. At first he promised a plan before the election, then said it would be irresponsible to spread speculation before his budget was proposed.

He touted his visits to 100 businesses and schools to listen to their ideas, and vowed to "get on a plane" to court businesses to relocate to Nevada, where the 14.4 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. The state also leads all others in bankruptcies and foreclosures as it tries to claw its way out of the Great Recession.

A recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures said Nevada's general fund budget gap ranks highest in the nation, 32 percent the next fiscal year. Already most state workers are forced to take an unpaid furlough day each month to save money.

Sandoval has said raising taxes is "the worst thing you could do" during a recession.

"Nevada families and businesses are suffering, and our budget cannot worsen the problem," said Sandoval, who wants to roll back state spending to 2007 levels.

Democrats and Republicans alike have questioned whether the state can cut its way out of its fiscal mess without severing critical services, trimming higher education and further cutting K-12 public education — already at rock bottom nationally for graduation rates and per-pupil spending.

Complicating the task is a Legislature that will be searching for its own identity. One-third of the Legislature's 63 members are "true freshmen" who have never served in either the Senate or Assembly. And only Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, retained his position as caucus leader in the upper chamber.

Heidi Gansert, tapped as Sandoval's chief of staff, was Republican minority leader in the Assembly before choosing not to seek re-election this year. She was replaced by Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, who raised eyebrows and the ire of conservatives when he suggested Nevada consider extending the sales tax to groceries.

Assemblyman John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, assumed the role of Assembly Speaker after Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, was termed out.

The biggest shake-up came in the Senate when Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, with 38 years in the Senate, stepped away from the role after rural conservatives mounted a challenge.

Though Raggio backed Sandoval — the two are law partners in the same firm — Raggio's record is that of a moderate who has supported tax increases, along with budget cuts.

"There's only so much you can cut before you get to what I call essential services that need to be provided by the state," he said earlier.

Over the years Raggio has been increasingly critical of the anti-tax stance of the conservative wing, and this year removed himself from the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

"I think it's important, that way they will have a free hand to push their views on the budget," he said.

It remains to be seen whether he will wield behind-the-scenes influence over his fellow lawmakers and the governor during budget negotiations.

Sandoval has said he'll release his blueprint when he gives his State of the State address Jan. 24.

"In January we'll get to look at his budget plan. I expect to see some fairly radical cost shifting, reductions, thousands of layoffs, perhaps," Leslie said.

Minority leader Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, also expressed misgivings about the budget, though he said he's looking forward to working with the governor to find solutions.

"It is a very serious problem," McGinness said. "I hope the governor has a magic formula to make it work."