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Sandoval to outline accomplishments, priorities

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm •  Published: January 12, 2013

"He gets the conservative leadership to go with it, and he paints the Democrats into a corner with it," Herzik said. "He can walk in and say, 'Hey, I gave you these taxes.'

"He comes off pragmatic and likable."

Sandoval also has bucked other GOP platforms.

He began implementing Nevada's health insurance exchange program in 2011. In December he became the first Republican governor in the nation to say he would expand Medicaid eligibility as called for under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, even though he strongly opposed President Barack Obama's signature legislation and hoped for its repeal.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality and its individual mandate that everyone obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Sandoval said he was "forced to accept it as today's reality."

Sandoval has said he will propose expanding the state's Medicaid program to encompass people up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, adding an estimated 78,000 Nevadans to the Medicaid rolls. The federal government will pick up most of the tab for the first three years, though the state will share in added administrative costs.

"My decision to opt in assists the neediest Nevadans and helps some avoid paying a health care tax penalty," Sandoval said when he announced his decision.

He also said opting in would save Nevada's general fund about $17 million for mental health programs that will now be covered by the federal government, at least for a time.

"Anybody who bothered to do the math on the Medicaid expansion would have come to the exact same conclusion that the governor did," said Pete Ernaut, a Republican consultant and Sandoval confidant.

Still, Medicaid is expected to cost the state about $200 million more than current spending levels.

The state's Economic Forum has projected tax revenues of $5.8 billion for the upcoming biennium. Combined with extending $620 million in sunset taxes, that would bring the proposed money pot to $6.4 billion, roughly the same as the current budget.

State agencies, meanwhile, have requested $419 million more than that for "items of special consideration" — a wish list of wants and needs such as $83 million for the Department of Education and $100 million for the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

At the same time, Sandoval has said he will propose tax cuts for small businesses to help them meet health care reform requirements and has pledged to veto any tax increases.

Though Nevada's jobless rate remains the highest in the nation — 10.8 percent in November — the economy has shown a more steady heartbeat from the record high jobless rate of 14 percent in October 2010.

"He's been held harmless for anything wrong with the economy," Herzik said. "Most governors looking at double-digit unemployment halfway through their term would be worried."

Though Nevada's economy is trudging upward, albeit slowly, Sandoval is unlikely to unveil any big policy initiatives.

"Usually big ideas require revenues," Uithoven said. "I don't think you'll see major policy announcements that would require large amounts of public funding."

But Nevada's stabilizing economy will be a platform for Sandoval to champion.

"The governor has the luxury for the first time in many sessions to not have a State of the State that is totally driven by budget and talk of taxes or cuts," Ernaut said. "I think he has the opportunity to think more long range and not just have to apply triage."