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Gov. Candidate Steve Sisolak: Education, Healthcare, Jobs Top Agenda

Steve Sisolak

Early voting has begun in the Nevada primary, but that doesn’t mean candidates have stopped campaigning. When KUNR last spoke with Clark Commissioner and Democratic Candidate for Governor Steve Sisolak, he explained that increasing access to healthcare, expanding economic development and improving schools were his top priorities.

He recently sat down with our political reporter Paul Boger to dive a little deeper and talk about the issues.

As somebody running for governor, what do you see as the most important issues facing Nevada?

I don't know if you can narrow it down to just one, but I've got several that we're focusing on and I'll go through three of them.

One of the big ones is healthcare. I'm concerned that we've got senior citizens who are still not covered, even though 89% of the people in the state are covered with the expansion of Medicaid. We need to do more. We're short on providers, so the second medical school will help in terms of providers. We need to add mental healthcare to the healthcare scenario because mental healthcare is just as healthy and important as any other doctor visit that you might have. I think we need to expand coverage of those areas and make sure that it's affordable and accessible. Having healthcare that's neither affordable nor accessible is not having health care, so I want to focus on changing that.

The other two that we're focusing on is our education and jobs. I'm a big believer, I spent 10 years on the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents and dealing with job issues. Our teachers, if we want to recruit and retain the best teachers, we have to start paying a decent wage and we're not doing that. We have to invest in education in a way that we haven't done before that gets actually down to the teachers. You have a teacher that's making in the high $30,000 or $40,000 a year and they have to spend $2,000 of their own money to buy school supplies and they buy granola bars and bring it in for the kids who don't have lunch; that's not a reasonable income. We need to invest more teachers.

The other thing that I'm concerned about is that we need to reduce class size in the K-12 area. In higher education, I have a different outlook on things. I spent 10 years, like I said, on the board of regents, and one of the difficult things that I would have is you work with a student and it takes about five years to get a four-year degree. Spending 5 years, they have $80,000 or a $100,000 in student loan debt; that's just insurmountable and they end up with a liberal arts degree that can maybe pay them $30,000 a year and that never pays that debt off. I think we're leading kids down the wrong road, kind of overselling and under delivering.

What I want to focus on is that we've got a shortage of trades, whether that trade be the culinary arts or plumber or pipe fitter or carpenter or a laborer or an auto mechanic, a paramedic, whatever it may be, and in the junior and senior years, particularly in high schools, expose them to various trades that might be available. I was up here at AACT and these are kids that were sophomores in high school were doing welding and doing actual machine lathing, metal lathing on a machine, which is a tremendous skill. I can tell you that those students will have a job before they graduate from high school. It's a good paying job. Those jobs pay upwards of 60, 80, a $100,000 a year. They have no student loan debt and it's an opportunity that we need to give the kids, and I want to do everything we can to take the stigma away from having a trade as opposed to having a diploma that really doesn't guarantee them a job.

I want to Circle Back to K-12 Education. What do you see as the number one way to improve schools here in Nevada?

Well, there's not just one way; there's a plethora of ways. First, if you want to have a good education system, the backbone of that is first-rate educators. To have first-rate educators, you need to pay them. We've got a lot of our schools, I bet people don't realize, that don't have libraries or librarians anymore. That's been cut as part of the budget cuts, so I want to fix that.

I want to have reduced class sizes. I was with a lady that was teaching, a young woman that was teaching Spanish. She had 42 kids in her class. She was teaching Spanish and had to ask for two more desks because she had two more kids come in, so that's 44 kids. It's being a babysitter as opposed to really a structural learning scenario for the students.

One of the ideas is paying teachers more, if I understand correctly, and that costs money. You're a South Nevada guy, a Clark County guy, do you support the Nevada plan as it's written or how do you fix it?

Well, not exactly how it is. I think we need to make some changes, so what I would like to do is, first off, the DSA formula is 50 years old. It has not been adjusted in 50 years. There has to be some changes. Now, we had the Commerce tax and a lot of money was raised. Businesses stepped forward and supported education, but that money went to specialty schools like the victory schools or zoom schools or ELL, that type of thing. We need to get more dollars in the regular classrooms, so what I would propose [is to] develop a task force, a blue ribbon panel that's made up of the former governors. If you get Governor Sandoval and Governor Bryan and Governor Miller, the governors that we have, to sit down and say, 'Hey, look, let's take this all head on because this is everybody's problem.' This isn't my problem; this is a problem as a state and we need to get some expertise in there.

We need to look at the DSA formula and hold schools with what they're getting now, but new revenue that comes in should be directed toward the schools that are underfunded now or currently not getting what they, I would call, [an] equitable amount of money. Everything is on the table; the only thing that's not on the table is doing nothing and one of them is we can, I think, generate more money through the formula and get it into schools.

What about school choice?

I think that the issue is going to continue to come up. The issue I have is that I can't support diverting any money currently that's going to public schools. I mean, it's so underfunded with where we are right now compared to the national average. We need to adequately fund public schools before we can get into giving money to private schools. I know a lot of parents want that choice to go to a private school, a parochial school, whatever it might be, but I think we need to fund our public schools equitably and sufficiently.

Switching gears, you’ve talked about healthcare. We've heard a lot over the last year-and-a-half about efforts to repeal key aspects of Obamacare. How would you secure funding for Medicaid in light of those efforts to repeal?

We cannot leave our most vulnerable population, which is our seniors and our children, without having adequate healthcare, adequate access or affordability to healthcare. The state is going to have to come up with--some states have set up their own Medicaid system. I don’t know if we can get there yet as Nevada, quite frankly. I think we need to work with our congressional delegation to ensure that we have money coming forward to make sure that we can fund Medicaid and people can be delivered the care that they need.

As governor, where would you fall on the DACA debate? How can the state protect those individuals?

First off, I have a couple anecdotes I’d like to give you on that. I’m supportive of DACA. Those kids that have come, and through no fault of their own, they’re here and they’ve become integrated in our society.  They are definitely contributing members of our society. That being said, I sit on the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Fiscal Affairs Board and we deal with this. I can tell you we’ve been reactive, we’ve never been proactive. We’ve never gone to doors and knocked on doors and deported folks that we take into custody. Then again, if somebody commits a violent crime, I’m the first one that’s going to stand up and say you don’t belong here. We don’t need you here and we don’t want you here and we do cooperate if somebody is convicted of a violent crime and that they need to be deported because our money shouldn’t be spent on that, and our citizens shouldn’t have to deal with that. It’s reactive.

I think that Nevada, our country, has always been a melting pot. It’s always welcomed everybody and I think we need to continue to do that.

Would you work to create a sanctuary state law, or do you oppose the current efforts to get a sanctuary state ban on the ballot?

How I feel is similar to what Governor Sandoval has said. I mean, it’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned. I think people who are pushing one way or another are fear mongering. They’re trying to instill fear into people. I’ve seen this at certain activities when I go to speak to people, you know, they’re afraid. I don’t want them to be afraid to talk to the police department -- which is one of the problems that we have. When you have witnesses to crimes that are afraid to come forward and talk because if they’re not documented they can be deported for being a witness to a crime, that’s not fair. I think that we need to assure people that it’s a safe place to live. We can work with our federal delegation because immigration reform is done on a federal level and make sure we’re on the same page moving forward.

Since October 1, you’ve been very vocal about your desires to implement the state’s background check law. I’m curious, because the A.G. has already ruled it unenforceable, so what do you do as governor to fix that?

I think Sandy Hook is the initial thing that set my feelings on guns the way they are today. I’m not in favor of the situation that we’re in right now as it relates to Question 1 – the background check. I’m confident that we can sit down, if the goal was to find something that would work, sit down with our federal partners and say, ‘Hey, look, how can we do these background checks and make sure that they get done?’ When you’re dealing with people that, for example, have a domestic violence or restraining order against them and they can go on Craigslist and find a weapon and get it 10 minutes later when you’re paying cash. We’re losing lives and that's something that is simply not tolerable.

A lot of folk have talked about the commerce tax in regards to education and it being important to education. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans say it’s a job killer; it’s the largest tax increase in state history. Where do you fall on that debate?

That was something that was vetted last session. I’m certainly not in favor of repealing it. If you repeal it, you've got to find some money to fill that hole and I don’t know what anybody plans to fill that hole with it. I mean, the legislators and the governor made the decision that that was the best way to go to address the needs at that time. I respect that. I agree that it solved it, and I wouldn’t be willing to make any changes to it unless somebody came up with a plan to adequately fund the needs of the state without a commerce tax.

How do you work to attract businesses here to the state and diversify the economy?

I think what we need to do, and I guess it’s kind of a sports analogy, but you can’t hit a homerun every time. Sometimes, you've got to try and get a single and drive a runner home, or you've got to bunt and be out a bunt. We can’t always [do that] seeking the 2,000-4,000 job companies. There is nothing the matter with getting a bunch of 50-employee companies to come here, and that 50 employee company is going to grow and become a 500 or 2,000-employee company over a period of time, so I think we do need to step back a little bit and not just try and hit it over the fence every time. We need to just hit a single and get a company that will employ 40 or 50 people and encourage them to grow and we’ll be better off.

You’ve been a major supporter of the stadium down in Las Vegas. Why is that and what are you hoping to accomplish?

We had a very good special session that the governor called. He appointed me to the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee that vetted this and I would venture to say that there has never been a project that has been vetted more than that stadium and convention center were vetted. It was kind of like, you get one with the other one. You can get one without the other one because some people supported one and some supported the other.

The hotel industry, who supported both of them, their main concern is putting heads in beds. They’ve got 160,000 rooms on Las Vegas Boulevard, on The Strip, that they have to fill every single night. That’s a lot of people to bring into town. They constantly need to reinvent themselves and come up with new attractions and new events to get people coming here, so we came up with a plan that will not cost the citizens of Nevada one penny. Not one penny. It’s all paid for by tourists that come in and that's an increase in the room tax. Every city has a room tax, so what we’ve done, the resort industry wanted both of these things and they agreed to these two room tax increases.

The two projects together will provide 32,000 construction jobs. That’s not 3,200. That’s 32,000 construction jobs. It would fill the T-Mobile Arena twice with the number of people that are going to be working on construction there. It’s going to be 14,000 permanent jobs as a result of that. Those jobs are huge to me. Those jobs are absolutely, incredibly important to me because we’re putting people to work.

Secondly, the stadium is owned by Clark County. No billionaire is getting a subsidy. Clark County owns that stadium. We put up a little more than a third of the price and they put up a little less than two-thirds of the price. They do get to play there. They get to run the stadium. UNLV and Southern Nevada will get to play in that stadium. That will be their new home area, but that stadium is owned and the property of Clark County. The tax revenue that is going to be derived is the result of that stadium being there, is going to be an increase of approximately $35-40 million per year. Now that is the sales taxes, the LET taxes that will be paid on non-football events, employee tax, commerce tax, all of those taxes that are going to be paid is going to provide the state with and extra $40 million a year of which $13 million+ is going to go into education. That stadium is going to provide an extra $13 million a year for education and I think that’s a good thing.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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