Freshman Orientation: Democratic Assemblyman Justin Watkins

Justin Watkins
Justin Watkins. Photo Courtesy Nevada Legislature.

ASSEMBLYMAN JUSTIN WATKINS

  • Freshman Democrat who unseated one-term Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones.
  • Represents District 35, which lies south of the 215 Beltway west of Interstate 15. Includes Enterprise and portions of Southern Highlands.
  • District 35 leans Democratic (39 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 24 percent nonpartisan in the 2016 election).
  • Watkins didn’t have a Democratic primary opponent.
  • Watkins won 54 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election against Republican incumbent Brent Jones, a stridently anti-tax lawmaker who owns bottled water company Real Water and assembled a slate of conservative candidates to challenge moderate Republican incumbents who voted for a tax increase last session.
  • Serving on Corrections, Parole, and Probation; Judiciary; Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Mining; Transportation committees in the 2017 session.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION:

Justin Watkins was born in Las Vegas in 1979 and raised in the horse properties near Floyd Lamb State Park. His father taught science at Western High School from 1964 to 1993, while his mother worked as an elementary school clerk. He graduated in 1997 from Cheyenne High School, where he won the Nevada State Wrestling Championship at 135 pounds. He earned a degree in civil engineering from Oregon State University in 2001 before attending the University of San Diego School of Law, where he graduated in 2004. He’s married to fellow lawyer Marni Watkins and has two daughters, Adyson and Sydney; they’re all moving up to Carson City during the legislative session. His interests include traveling and spending time outdoors.

CAREER

Watkins worked for an engineering company for three years during college, but was inspired to try the law after interning in Washington D.C. and meeting a mentor who moved from engineer to lobbyist. Watkins is a managing partner at Atkinson Watkins & Hoffman, which also does business as Battle Born Injury Lawyers and focuses on personal injury and other civil cases. He said he didn’t think he could run for Assembly because of his work and family commitments, but was encouraged to try it by friends and his wife.

ON NEVADA AND THE ISSUES:

What are you most proud of about Nevada?

“In all honesty, I wasn’t a big fan of the state as a kid growing up. I wanted to get out as a kid and I did, but then after I came back after law school, I love it and I can’t imagine living anyplace else. The amazing thing is the entrepreneurial spirit of the state. If you have an idea and you’re willing to work hard then you can make that work. My wife is from New York, and I don’t see that same kind of accessibility to success. You can have an idea, but it doesn’t really matter because old money drives everything.”

Does anything embarrass you about Nevada?

“The easy answer to that one is our reputation for our schools. It was difficult for me to convince my wife to want to stay in Nevada once we knew we had a family because she thought that we’d be doing a disservice to our kids. Now rankings aren’t everything, and that doesn’t always tell the whole story and I’m the product of public school education in Las Vegas, but there’s also the aspect that perception is reality. I think that is a dark cloud that’s been hanging over our state for the better part of a generation.”

What are your top priorities in the 2017 session?

“I got that question a lot during the campaign -- what are my legislative priorities? I really see this more as my civic duty. I just want to make the best, most informed votes I can.

But as a private citizen, I’ve been working with a couple people about finding partnerships in the community between the resorts and the union halls to create a charter school that would work on two or three shifts and would somehow mirror the workforce. We give our parents the label that they are disinterested in their child’s education and I think that to a large extent, we’ve provided them a platform by which it’s hard for them to be interested. They’re at work most of the time while their kids are at plays, are doing projects and are at parent-teacher conferences. If we could have the parents and the students on similar schedules then I think we would have more parent involvement. And we know that the more the parents are involved, the better the kids do.”

Should we raise taxes, and under what circumstances?

“I can’t foresee a scenario in my head right now where it would be a good idea to raise taxes.. That’s not to say somebody can’t put something in front of me. But we just raised taxes and we  broadened the base. We’re starting to see some tax income hopefully in 2017 from recreational marijuana sales, and the governor’s projections seem good. That doesn’t seem it should be a priority this session.”

What might we cut in the budget?

“I suspect that 150 days from now, whatever answer I would give you I would want to completely retract. The information is going to completely change the way I look at it. As a first-time legislator, I haven’t seen my No. 1 program that needs to be cut or needs to be altered in some way.”

How do you plan to diversify Nevada’s economy and create more jobs?

“I think in order to really diversify the economy we need a tax structure that works for companies that move in, but we also need an educated workforce. I don’t think what’s preventing companies from moving here is taxes. It’s getting an educated workforce to work for them, or getting key employees to relocate to a place with such dismal education rankings. It’s not something that you can fix in three or five years. We’ve underfunded education for my entire life, which is 37 years, and it’s impractical to say that that can be fixed in one session.”

What should we do next on solar?

“There are a lot of really smart people who are working on energy policy on both sides of the aisle and not one of them has told me they have the answer. One of my bill draft requests is to bring back net metering on an incremental basis. It’s a Band-Aid until we have a better policy, but I think it’s foolish to live in this state and not to use solar panels all the time.”

What should Nevada’s next step be on the stalled Education Savings Account program?

“I’m in favor of ESAs. The language of the bill would not be the language I would’ve written, but I certainly think there’s a place for ESAs. We need to do something different. I’m an outsider from my caucus on this issue.”

What should Nevada’s minimum wage be?

“I don’t know the answer to that because I like to state my positions based on data, and I haven’t had access to data to say what the answer to that is. But I think that minimum wage increases probably do make sense,” he said, pointing to statistics that American households have more people working but bring in about the same discretionary income now as they did in the 1970s. “Just jumping up to $15 from where we’re at would have unintended consequences for the workforce. I think if you were to go to $15, it would need to be over the course of quite a number of years.”

Will you work across the aisle, and on what issues?

“I can’t see an issue on which I’d be unwilling to work across party lines. I’m pretty moderately based. Fiscally I lean toward a more conservative approach, socially I lean more left. The good thing about Nevada is the Republicans aren’t as socially right as in other states, and I don’t think the Democrats are as fiscally left as in other states.”

Where do you stand on recreational marijuana?

“The criminalization of marijuana is a burden on our law enforcement, judiciary, and prison systems,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal before the election. “It also creates a dangerous black market that endangers our children and threatens our community.”

Do you support expanded gun background checks?

“Federally licensed firearm dealers, who are required to perform background checks on all gun purchases, should not have to compete with "private" gun dealers at gun shows who advertise ‘no background checks,’” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Even if you do not think that background checks make us safer (I happen to think they do), this loophole must be closed for fairness in commerce.”

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This story was updated Jan. 26, 2017 to clarify the nature of Watkins' job at an engineering company before he attended law school.