Throughout this election season, a vast majority of the coverage has focused on the contentious presidential race. But in Nevada, voters will also be asked to decide the fate of several down-ballot contests.
That includes a relatively competitive race in western Washoe County where incumbent Republican Heidi Gansert is looking to maintain her seat representing District 15 in the state Senate. KUNR’s Jayden Perez spoke with Gansert about her time in office and what lawmakers should do to address the issues related to COVID-19.
PEREZ: What issue or issues are most important to you?
GANSERT: I've done a lot of work around child safety, especially in schools, so I passed a bill that required dual reporting for allegations of abuse and exploitation in schools. I also implemented the SafeVoice system, which is a K-12, across-the-board [system]. Students and staff use it for threats if someone's gonna hurt themselves or others, so I've done a lot of work around child safety.
I've done some work around cyber security, but you know, going into [the] next session, I think what's at the forefront is the budget. The state's revenue has fallen significantly for this current fiscal year. They expect revenue will be off about $1.2 billion of $4.5 billion of the total budget, so I think the challenge is how do we constrain and restrain the growth of government, and make some cuts where we need to make cuts that really make sure that we're also supporting education as much as possible? I'm really concerned about [the] defunding of K-12 because we need to make sure our students can continue to learn in advance.
PEREZ: Nevada does continue to lag behind the rest of the country in K-12 education. What do you think the state needs to do to address the public education system?
GANSERT: Well, under Governor Sandoval... there's different ways to fund a budget. Some are ongoing operational funds that you provide, and then there's something called categoricals, so categorical spending is spending that is set up in sort of layers for specific purposes with accountability. So for instance, the read by third grade program, that money was set in a separate pot that was supposed to be used to help children read by the third grade. I think that should be a given, right? We all would expect that children should be able to read by third grade, so that was one of the cuts that was made by this administration. But that type of funding, because there's a system of accountability, is really smart.
So, I think that we should continue looking at what the needs are of our students and making sure we've got appropriate funding and that we can deliver on, and have strong outcomes on, certain measures. [Those measures] would be reading, mathematics, [and] writing. Those topics are extremely critical.
Sometimes you have to do it through a system where you have significant accountability because the K-12 system is extremely large. The budget is extremely large for that, and the money, if it's not categoricals, basically what happens is [that] the checks are written to the different school districts, and then they get to spend it where they want to spend it. They may not be prioritizing read by third grade, or they may not be prioritizing mathematics or something like that, so having some extra controls and having accountability to make sure that we've got the outcomes that we need for our students is critically important--that when we invest tax dollars, that we have a way to measure the outcome and that we can increase or raise outcomes for our students so that they have higher levels of achievement.
The way that that's been accomplished is by really picking out some things that are critical for our students to learn and then measuring them, making sure that they're learning them. Let's go back to the read by third grade [program]. If a child can't read by third grade, do we have one-on-one services? Do we have after-school services? Do they have a language barrier? And how do we take care of that? So, how do we do everything that we need to do to make sure a student reads by third grade? And then, let's measure it and make sure because that will affect the outcome of what they do for the rest of their lives. If they cannot read proficiently, that really will set an individual back for the rest of their lives, so that's a very... I think that's a strong example of where we need to do better. We can do better, we need to do better and we need to be very focused on it, and it requires accountability.
PEREZ: Do you support the state's overall COVID-19 response, including Governor Sisolak’s shut down order earlier this year of non-essential businesses?
GANSERT: I think we've gotten through and been able to create safety protocols to be able to open, so I think that's the important part, is what do we do from now? I want to make sure that folks can go to work safely and be employed. Nevadans want to be employed. They want to be engaged. They want to be working. Our economy is really fragile right now because of COVID-19., so I think it's important that we wear a mask, and we do our social distancing, and do everything that we can to stay safe and stay open.
PEREZ: Would you support any tax increases aimed at addressing the financial crisis of the state?
GANSERT: So, I think we first have to look at government and see if there's some things that we can cut. I'm not sure that business is strong enough, that our economy is strong enough to withstand tax increases, so there's always this tradeoff between more government and taxes versus keeping money in the private sector for jobs, right? Some people have work to do and invest in the private sector, so I'm not sure what the answer is going to be on that. I think we just have to start with the analysis of the budget and how we're spending money.
PEREZ: Nevada's tourism industry continues to orbit gaming. With casinos vulnerable to the pandemic and people nervous, what does the state need to do to diversify its economy?
GANSERT: When I worked for Governor Sandoval as his chief of staff, I was his first chief of staff [and] one of the first things we did was we reorganized economic development. Really our objective was to diversify our economy and make it stronger, and more sustainable, and we made some inroads there. Gaming still is very large relative to the entire state, but when you look at Northern Nevada, it's a pretty small piece of the economy, so when you look at unemployment rates, you'll see that Northern Nevada’s unemployment rates are significantly lower.
I think we've been running about 8% right now compared to maybe 15% in Clark County because of the diversification, so I think we really have to focus on diversification through economic development efforts and really making Nevada a friendly place to come and to open your business. That also reinforces the need to continue to invest in workforce, whether that's K-12, whether that's the community college, or whether it's higher ed. We need to make sure we're investing in workforce so that when businesses are here, when they expand, when we have new businesses come, we've got the workforce that they need, and that Nevadans can be employed and have a high quality of life.
PEREZ: What about tax incentives? They were largely successful in bringing companies like Tesla to Nevada after the previous recession. Would you support using tax incentives to bring businesses to the state?
GANSERT: First, to start out, Nevada is a much less expensive place to operate a business than California. So, first, we have to be able to lay out the difference between our state and potentially a California or Arizona, there's some neighboring states, or Oregon, or Washington. When I worked for Governor Sandoval, we had a number of businesses come. You start out helping them recognize how much less expensive it is from a tax standpoint, from a regulation standpoint, from a cost-of-living for their employees [standpoint], [and] from a community standpoint because we don't have the density and the commutes that you have and other places. So, I think you start there, and sometimes there are tax abatements. There’s abatements set in statute. I did vote for legislation to review all that last session and it ended up getting vetoed.
I do think we need to look at what types of incentives we have and if they're really driving the types of businesses that we want in our community, businesses that pay well and are sustainable, so I think we need to look at that. I did vote for a bill, which eventually was vetoed because we knew that those statutes were set quite a ways ago, so we need to really re-look at that.
PEREZ: Since the death of George Floyd earlier this year, there have been calls for police reform, including calls to shift funding away from law enforcement to more mental health services. Would you support those types of reforms?
GANSERT: There's room for some reforms, and we passed some legislation during one of the special sessions. But when you talk about the funding, I think it's an 'and,' not an 'or.' I think we need to support law enforcement a hundred percent, and we need to be able to provide some additional services for mental health. So, it's not an either-or; it's 'and.' We need to provide these services and do a much better job than we've been doing.
It's just so unfortunate. It's just, kind of, horrible, some of the things that have happened, so we have to shift some of the law enforcement procedures. In talking to some of the leadership of law enforcement in this community, I can tell you, because they had advisory boards and there were certain holes that were already bad, so I learned quite a bit, just trying to learn what our law enforcement was already doing, and there's absolutely room for more reform. But when you talk about funding, it should be an 'and.' We should fund law enforcement and we should fund mental health services. I don't think that there's a trade off. I think there's such a strong need to make sure that we have safe communities that it's an 'and,' it's a plus up. It's not taking something away from law enforcement. It's making sure that they have the support that they need for our citizens on the mental health front as well.
PEREZ: Thank you very much for your time, Senator.
GANSERT: Alright, take care.
Jayden Perez is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism.