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Take a deep breath and do budget right

There’s something unsettling happening in Carson City.

No, no, besides Republicans introducing tax increases and Democrats in the minority trying to figure out whether they want education reform enough to allow the Republicans to take credit for what could be the biggest sea change of the new century.

What I’m talking about is the reverse logic of setting the spending priorities, then raising taxes to balance the budget. That’s deep blue thinking, the kind you’d expect to find in California, Illinois or Taxachussetts.

Yet here we are in tax-averse Nevada and all the credit/blame goes to Gov. Brian Sandoval. He’s the man who tipped the process on its head by declaring war on substandard education.

Normally, the good government argument says the Legislature should figure out how much it has to spend, then craft programs it can afford.

Not this cycle.

When Sandoval set out a program of popular education reforms, he threw down the gauntlet to the Legislature to pay the $1 billion-plus bill. Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, did his part and rammed the governor’s tax plan through the upper chamber. Now comes the fun of trying to get the more divided Assembly to concur.

But does it need to be this way?

Why don’t we at least take a look at the expense side and see if we need every last dime envisioned in that tax plan?

If I’m making a big-ticket purchase, I don’t reach for my wallet when a slick salesman quotes full retail price. I tend to shop, haggle, reconsider whether I need all the bells and whistles. Does that make me cheap or frugal? That’s a distinction the Legislature should contemplate.

Everybody has bought the basic premise — public education is broken and is hurting the state’s economic competitiveness on a number of levels. A large scale fix will take a serious increase in funding.

But do we need all those bells and whistles?

Shaving $100 million or so — roughly 10 percent — off the full menu of reforms could give legislators the wiggle room they need to carve out a better deal for small business. That, in turn, could free up the votes necessary to avert a disaster of inaction.

The operative question is whether this becomes a game of political chicken with various sides willing to sacrifice the best chance of reform in the name of ideological purity. The villains in the piece could turn out to be any of several factions — no-tax purists, hard-line Sandoval backers pushing too hard for victory, Democrats whipsawed by teachers, unions and their own concerns about the 2016 electoral cycle. Other deal-killing factions are waiting in the weeds.

It’s virtually impossible for legislators to take a deep breath this late in the session. Yet that’s exactly what is called for here. We all know more now than we knew when the session began. It’s time for a reset of priorities.

As our colleagues at the Review-Journal have pointed out, the envisioned expansion of pre-kindergarten programs can’t be accomplished within the two-year budget period. Not enough teachers; not enough classrooms; not enough planning time. Maybe we start the planning now and slide the largest part of that program’s cost out until the 2017 budget.

The same is probably true of some other aspects of Sandoval’s grand plan. Nobody is saying anti-bullying programs or technology upgrades aren’t necessary. There just may be cheaper ways to get there.

Then again, Southern Nevada needs more than Sandoval’s $9 million investment in the creation of a UNLV Medical School. The full $27 million is the fastest route to conquering another major societal shortcoming and unleashing a new wave of investments and jobs. Let’s get it done. Now.

The core issues here are immense and Sandoval’s bold actions have moved us closer than ever to meaningful change. Blowing it now would be unsettling, even by Carson City standards.

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