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Gov. Sisolak reflects on his first term, the pandemic and Nevada's beleaguered unemployment system

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak is sitting at a desk and signing a bill. He is looking down at the bill and wearing a face mask. There is a name plaque in front of him on the desk, and the seal of Nevada is visible on the wall behind him.
Nevada Governor’s Office
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed AB4 into law on Aug. 3, 2020, in Carson City, Nev., which sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters during the 2020 election.

In the early days of the pandemic and his first term as Nevada governor, Steve Sisolak closed casinos, which was the first time that’s happened since the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.

In this conversation with KUNR’s Noah Glick, Sisolak talks about COVID-19, vaccine mandates, economic recovery and his regrets related to the state’s unemployment system.

Note: In honor of Nevada Day, KUNR's Noah Glick recorded interviews with four Nevada lawmakers, including Governor Steve Sisolak, Congressman Mark Amodei, and U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen. Each interview is lightly edited for clarity and the length of the interview was determined by the availability of each lawmaker.

Noah Glick: I want to start with the pandemic. I think that's on everyone's mind. There [were] a lot of actions that had to be done last year, a lot of tough decisions. You closed casinos, issued several emergency declarations, you've been encouraging people to get vaccinated. In your mind, do you think you did enough? Is there more that you could do? What else needs to be done to help with the pandemic?

Governor Steve Sisolak: Nineteen months ago, we started fighting this pandemic and I remember, I think it was March 6 [of 2020], we had our first case. I was back in Washington in January that year and I got a briefing from the White House and they never thought it would be anywhere near as severe as it is. And here we are 19 months later, I never thought it would last this long, when we had to shut down casinos and put people out of work.

It's been difficult. I mean, we have lost almost 7,000 Nevadans as a result of this and that weighs on my mind and on my heart every single day. There's going to be 7,000 empty chairs around the tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. And we did the best we could. We tried to save as many lives, and that was my priority from day one, is to save lives and not overwhelm our healthcare system.

I think we did a great job of that. At the beginning, all we had to fight was social distancing and wear a mask (if you could get a mask), wash your hands and sing happy birthday to make sure you wash them clean enough and wiping down your mail when you brought in the house. We didn't know as much about the [virus], and now we've learned a lot more about the virus. Now, we have a tool that could absolutely stop it, which is the vaccine.

Some people are saying they've had the disease, so they have the antibodies. That's just not the same as getting the vaccine. We'd like to get everybody vaccinated, and it's going to open our economy back up. I mean, our economy took a big hit. Our unemployment reached close to 30% and overwhelmed our DETR (Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation) system, which they've done a good job coming back from. And part of the cause of that was the fraud that was included in there, that that had to be weeded out, but they've done a good job.

We're now coming back; we're at about 7.8%. That's coming down as we continue to open up more and more businesses. I'm proud of the folks in Nevada, the residents here, the people [who] call Nevada home that have done so much to try to fight it. They've taken care of themselves and their neighbors, our Nevada National Guard's stepped up in a way. Those are our neighbors and our family and our friends that, I mean, they did everything from directing traffic to cleaning nursing homes, to doing testing, doing vaccines. And I'm thankful for that.

You've seen the best and kind of the worst in society through this pandemic. Some of the worst is social media, the way it's played things up and, and the hate that's out there is bad. But, you've seen an awful lot of great things. I mean, groups having food banks and food drives and delivering lunches to first responders. And, so we've seen the good and the bad, but we're closer to the end certainly than we are to the beginning of this pandemic. And I'm hopeful that before too long, we'll be able to move forward even further.

Glick: There's a couple things I want to follow up on. We're talking about vaccines, but also you did mention DETR. I'll get to that in a minute, but you you've been encouraging people to get vaccinated this whole time. Would you support a strong, broad based vaccine mandate similar to the one that president Biden is issuing, or where do you see your role as governor in issuing mandates?

Sisolak: You know, I don't want to mandate it for the private sector. We've asked them to get vaccinated and a lot of them have taken us up on that, encouraged their employees to get vaccinated. We do have a situation with state employees where you have to get vaccinated or tested on a weekly basis, especially those that are in a high efficiency type position where they're dealing with people that are potentially, could [be] infected with the [virus], but I don't want to make it a mandate statewide, to have that come [to that].

I hope that people will see the benefit in the science, which is what we have followed from the beginning. I don't claim to be a doctor. I never went to medical school. I don't understand medicine. I've got, I feel, some of the best medical minds on my medical advisory team and they have given us advice, and we followed that advice to the best we possibly can. And, and I think that's what's helped us be as effective as we can be.

Glick: Well then, circling back to DETR, I, at least, heard from several Nevadans who were frustrated with the system last year, whether it was delayed checks, not getting checks. So, just looking at the state's unemployment system, what have you done so far to help fix the issues with the system and what else needs to be done to prepare for the next big surge or the next big strain on the system?

Sisolak: That's a great question and there's no doubt DETR has let a lot of people down and that's very unfortunate. Understand that when we got here, so many people were unemployed, the strain on the DETR system, we were processing more claims in a week than normally we would process in a year. I mean, that's how overwhelming it was. The system crashed, and we got it up and it crashed, and we got up and it crashed, and it was over and over. It just could not handle the amount.

Now, people say, 'Why didn't you just pay everybody?' Over 50% of the claims that have come in have been fraudulent. 50%, which is hundreds of millions of dollars in claims, [would have been] put into the DETR system. Now, if we'd have just paid all those claims, the employers would've had to replenish the unemployment fund. I mean, that would've come out of their pocket, and that wouldn't have been fair.

Unfortunately, when you have a tragedy or a difficult situation, there's always gonna be somebody that's going to try to take advantage of it for their own personal [gain]. That clearly happened with DETR, but what we have done is the federal money that we got, we've invested in a new computer system, and it should be able to handle this type of capacity. But understand, and I've talked to other governors and I just was with President Sandoval, when things are going good, you don't think of investing in the unemployment system, because we don't have that unemployment problem. So, nobody invested at that time. And then when you really need it, the system is, it's antiquated, is saying it politely, it was just broken. We got stuck with that and we tried to work it as best as we possibly can. We brought as many people on as we could, and we're going through the claims one at a time.

Glick: I do want to shift a little bit. We're not talking re-election campaign or anything like that, but I do want to talk about elections just because there's been such a big story made out about election security. Nevada's own secretary of state has come out and said there has not been any evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, so I just want to ask, do you think that there is an issue with election security in the state of Nevada?

Sisolak: Well, we always want secure elections, but I think what you said is absolutely true. I think there was absolutely no evidence of any fraud in our last election. And I commend Secretary Cegavske for what she did and all of our registrars of voters across the state that are responsible; they did a great job. It's [a] tough job. It's not easy.

Under the new system, everybody will be getting a mail-in ballot, which is going to make it even easier for them. We've expanded voting opportunities. You should not have to decide between your health and your ability to cast the vote. I mean, you should be able to have both of them, and that's what mail-in voting is going to be able to do. It's going to make it more convenient and, hopefully, there'll be more participation. There'll be more of a participatory process as we move forward because of the changes that we've made, but the election was not stolen. It was a good election. I'm proud of the way that our officials ran it, and we're looking forward to the next one.

Glick: Well, with that being said, I just have to ask you this question. Who is the current president of the United States?

Sisolak: Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris is the vice president, so there's no doubt whatsoever of who the President and the Vice President of the United States are.

Glick: I do want to talk briefly about the economy. Again, one of the things I'm hearing a lot from folks is the challenge that working parents are facing right now, whether it's daycares shutting down or have shut down due the pandemic. Anytime a kid has a slight cough they're back at home, all kinds of things. What can be done from a state level to help working parents as we continue this economic recovery from the pandemic?

Sisolak: That's a great issue, and daycare, childcare, is an enormous problem. There's nothing more important to a parent than knowing that their child is in a safe place when they're at work. That's one of the reasons that people are not going back to work as quick as we'd like them, is because they're not confident that their kids are going to be in a place. You're right.

When the schools shut down, most parents relied on, you know, school taking care of 'em. Then oftentimes Grandma and Grandpa met them after school and took care of them until Mom or Dad got home. Well, now Grandma and Grandpa stayed home because they didn't want to get COVID and they didn't want to be exposed and nobody wanted them exposed, so our whole synergy [and] structure changed as a result of what happened.

A lot of the daycares did have to close as a result. I think we need to do more [to] encourage employers to provide onsite daycare, which we've done with a lot of the hotel resort properties, to provide onsite [care, so] the parent knows that the child is safe. It's in the same vicinity. And encourage businesses that people want to go on that line to do so, to make the licensing a little easier, because there's no doubt it's difficult to find and it's expensive. I mean, daycare is extremely expensive. You get somebody that if you've got two kids and it's $250 a week per child for daycare, all of a sudden you're in $500 before you make a nickel. So, it's a huge, huge problem for everyday moms and dads, and we need to help them out on that regard.

Glick: I just want to highlight one of the big topics that you were pushing hard for this year with innovation zones. Now I know with the caveat that Blockchains has since withdrawn the proposal, but I'm just curious to know, you were big on innovation zones, it sounds like a lot of people in your own party were against it, Storey County officials had come out and said, 'We don't need this kind of thing.' So, I'm just curious to know you're thinking behind that. Why that was an important priority for you?

Sisolak: Worker diversification is what's so important to me. Innovation zones was one way to do that. I'm dealing with half a dozen other ones right now to diversify our economy, both north and south. I thought that innovation zones provided that. It didn't work out. It's unfortunate. Some people are just not open to any type of change or to new situation. I mean, I toured several autonomous vehicle plants and as candid as I can be, when I grew up, I would've never thought that I'd walked by a car that drove by itself and [would be] delivering pizzas or groceries to somebody's house. You know, I could never have imagined that. And I walked into these plants and I saw how they operate, and it's absolutely amazing.

You have to have the vision and the foresight to understand that industries are changing. We need to change the way we do business. We cannot continue to just be entertainment and hospitality. It's great industry, supports an awful lot of people, provides an awful lot of people with a livelihood and helps our economy. But, that can't be the only thing that we have, because if it is, every time there's a problem anywhere in the country, our economy suffers worse than anybody else. So, we need to do more in terms of manufacturing, in terms of distribution, in terms of production, and that's what the hope was with high tech and innovation zones. It didn't work. It was something worth looking at. I'm willing to look at any idea that anybody brings forward.

Glick: I do want to shift real quick to climate change. As you've seen firsthand, the destruction that this wildfire season has brought to the region, brought to the state. Wildfires are getting bigger, more destructive. We're in the middle of historic drought right now, so I'm just curious what have you done as governor to help Nevada become more climate resilient? And what else in your mind needs to be done to help us reach some of the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accord?

Sisolak: Well, you know, we've done everything we possibly can as a state. I wish the federal government would be there in terms of joining the Paris Climate Accord. Our renewable portfolio has gone up, we've increased that. I drove from Las Vegas to Laughlin for an opening of a facility in Laughlin and the number of solar farms that are going up is extraordinary. We're producing more and we need to continue to produce more.

We need to be more proactive in taking care of our forests. What happened up close to Tahoe, and I'm telling you, I went in there. We flew in there and it was so bad. We had to turn around. You couldn't fly that way, and the smoke was so heavy. That being the case, you couldn't even put up your aircraft to fight that fire. I mean, it was devastating. It was as close as you could imagine to getting into the bowl at Lake Tahoe. And if it got into there, it would take generations, not years, generations to bring that back.

The water quality is clearly going to be affected as a result of the fire, and that's going without the drought situation that we're facing. You're right. The fires are getting quicker. They're more severe. It's now not a fire season anymore. All year long is a fire season, we're dealing with fires all year long. We need to be better. We're going to invest in terms of resources to help fight these fires. We're going to use some of the federal money we're getting to help invest in some of those resources. We need to pay our firefighters more money.

I mean, you got these federal firefighters that are going in there that are getting $14 and $15 an hour, and that is one of the toughest jobs I've ever seen. You're going in there and you see them covered with dirt and soot and doing everything they can to stop that fire from going. If we're going to ask them to do that work, we need to provide those resources to help them do it.

Climate change is real. It's affecting in so many ways. I mean cities are getting hotter in the summertime. The heat is lasting longer, and then there's a a cold factor. I mean, it's changing and it's something that's not necessarily for my generation, it's for the generations that are going to follow us to know that we did everything we could to make sure that we reduce our carbon footprint and eliminate it at some point to make sure that we protect our environment.

Glick: Final question from me. What would you say is your biggest or proudest accomplishment over the last year, year and a half or so? And what's something that you wish you could have gotten done?

Sisolak: Well, I think what I wish we could have gotten done is what we've mentioned earlier. I wish we could have had a handle on DETR earlier. Nobody is prepared for a pandemic of the magnitude that we faced. Nobody's prepared for that, and we found out that a lot of our infrastructure was not set up for that and we're doing better to try to make it set up for that, so the next time it comes along in five years, 10 years, a hundred years, we'll be better suited, we'll know more to do that.

What I'm most proud of is the people of Nevada that have come together to try to help their neighbors, to try to help their friends and their families and to help our entire community, to get us back on track. There's no denying it. We suffered incredibly during the pandemic, we suffered incredibly, but we reached out whether that was to our tribal communities and some of our reservation land, whether it was to the seniors that were in vulnerable situations, whether that was through school kids, [and] it was as teachers that reinvented entirely how they taught their students.

Nobody dealt with distance learning five years ago. I mean, they had to come up with a plan, but we gotta a device, an iPad, in every student's hand that needed one so that they could continue their education. So, I'm really proud of the people of Nevada that stepped up and helped us get through this. And, and I know they'll continue until we're through it. We are a resilient state and we will come back stronger and better than other before - and I'm confident of that.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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