Freshman Orientation: Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager

ASSEMBLYMAN STEVE YEAGER

  • Freshman Democrat who succeeds Republican Assemblyman David Gardner, whom he defeated in the general election.
  • Represents District 9 in the southwest part of Clark County.
  • District 9 leans Democratic (40 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 23 percent nonpartisan in the 2016 election.)
  • Yeager ran unopposed in his Democratic primary election.
  • He defeated Gardner by 10.6 percentage points in the general election, or about 3,000 votes.
  • Chairing Judiciary Committee and vice chairing Corrections, Parole, and Probation; he is also sitting on Health and Human Services and Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION:

Steve Yeager was born in 1978 in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. He grew up in southeast Michigan before attending the University of Michigan, where he received his bachelor’s degree in history and Spanish. He briefly considered trying to get his Ph.D. in mathematics before enrolling in law school at Cornell University. He is married to Bita Yeager, a former Las Vegas Township Justice Court judge. His hobbies include hiking, reading, writing and traveling.

CAREER:

Yeager worked in corporate law at a large law firm in Phoenix for five years before moving to Las Vegas to join the Clark County Public Defender’s Office, where he currently works. He worked as a lobbyist for the public defender during the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions. He is also a member of the Clark County Bar Association, the Howard D. McKibben American Inn of Court and the Hope for Prisoner Advisory Council.

ON NEVADA AND THE ISSUES:

What about Nevada are you proud of? Does anything embarrass you about Nevada?

I really think I'm most proud of just the amount of tourists that we have coming and what we have to offer. Not just Las Vegas, but Las Vegas is the number one example — everyone knows Vegas, everyone has a Vegas story, and I think that's a testament to the kind of tourism industry and the kind of experience that we offer to folks that year in and year out, now we're getting 40 plus million people coming to Las Vegas I mean I just love that about that. I love it when you tell someone you live in Las Vegas and they say, "Oh you live on the Strip?" It's a funny question and there was probably a time I thought that as well. But I think we just do a phenomenal job.

Obviously there are other parts of Nevada, Northern Nevada, Tahoe, even just the public lands, the beauty of the state and to be able to expand that. That's essentially, historically, that's what our economy is based on is tourism and I think we do a really, really great job of providing a great experience and being great hosts for folks. That always makes me happy when someone says, "Oh I'd never been to Vegas before and I had such a great time" or "I'd never been to Tahoe before, I can't believe how amazing it was." To me that's what the Nevada story is about.

Embarrassing? I think the obvious one is public education. It's hard to be proud of where we are on the rankings. I think we've turned a corner on jobs and the economy. I wouldn't say it was embarrassing but for awhile it was a real concern, what kind of jobs are we providing to folks and what is that going to look like in the future. To the extent we suffer loss to the tourism industry and the service industry where do we go from there? But I really think over the last three, four, five years we've turned a corner on, I know it's the buzzword, but diversifying our economy, bringing more jobs, more opportunities. I think we're going in the right direction.

What are your top priorities in the 2017 session?

That's a hard one to answer. I will say my number one goal for this session is running a good Judiciary Committee, and for me that's going to take precedence over really anything else, making sure we're doing the work. That's where the work is really done, in the committees. You know, I'll take my cue from the speaker in terms of where we want to go. I anticipate we'll see something on energy, I know that was a concern that was raised by a number of my constituents I talked to. I think criminal justice reform is an area that's ripe not just in this state but nationwide so I anticipate there will be a number of criminal justice reform bills that will come through Judiciary but we'll talk about those. We need to obviously make sure that we're protecting the public but I think we can probably do that in a more fiscally responsible manner than we have in the past. I would say those are a couple areas I think we're going to see and we'll sort of see how the session develops. I'm sure we'll see something come up that no one thought of.

I do know I'm on the Health and Human Services Committee. I know there will be a lot of legislation coming through there on health care, and of course we'll have to see what happens at the federal level but the reimbursement rates, mental health has been something that's been really important to me over the years because I see it in the criminal justice system. We just need a more robust mental health system. It's really heartbreaking I'll tell you to see folks who end up in the criminal justice system, and I don't mean serious, violent offenders, I mean petty offenders who have low-level drug problems who just cycle in and out of the system and it's clear to everybody in the system that they have a mental health issue and that's largely the reason why they're in the system and the options are so limited in Clark County in terms of what we can do with those folks. Holding them in jail indefinitely isn't the solution, but there just historically has not been, there have not been adequate services in the community to help those folks. So I would like to see us beef up community resources or get some treatment on the front end or some options for those folks other than jail. They come to Clark County Detention Center and we pay $150 a day for them to sit there with very minimal treatment.

Should we raise taxes, and under what circumstances?

There never seems to be enough revenue for how we would like to run the state but whether I'd support a tax increase, it really depends on the particulars. I'm open-minded about it and we'll see where things develop and how the budget works out. I'm sensitive obviously that there was a large tax increase last session, so we'll see what the appetite is for that. I don't know that raising taxes is the way to go this session.

Where might we need to expand or reduce the budget?

I think if I were to tell you something right now and you were to ask me at the end of session I would probably regret everything that I've said because I've got to learn some of it. I know certain parts of the state but there are just so many elements to the budgeting process and agencies that I just don't know what their budgets are so I'd have to say obviously we'll pay a lot of attention to what's coming out of Ways and Means and Senate Finance and take those recommendations but look, in an ideal world I'd like to provide additional resources to a lot of different agencies, but you have to work with what you have.

Probably education, mental health, social services, Medicaid reimbursement — these are all areas where I think people probably agree that we're not where we need to be. The issue is always how do you get there and if it does come at a cost to other programs is that a decision you want to make. I'm anxious to learn more about that. That is a part of the process over the last couple of years I haven't had the pleasure of spending much time in the money committees. Most of the things I lobbied on were policies. I will say that criminal justice things either adding crimes or lessening, there is a fiscal impact, but there hasn't been a good way to account for what the fiscal impact will be when you sort of budget over a biennium, if you're only talking about a handful of folks maybe it's not a large number but when you look long term there are certainly fiscal impacts to the way we approach criminal justice.

I did try last session to bring this up a little bit more, that every bill has a very small impact but when you try to aggregate them and look at the bigger picture of what our philosophy is there are fiscal considerations. I didn't get a lot of traction with that argument, at least not in the 2015 session, but I think nationwide folks are really realizing that. And the last thing we want here in Nevada is to have to build another prison because that's extraordinarily expensive. I know we had some discussion last session that if we keep the trajectory going of the rate of incarceration we're going to have to either build another prison or reopen closed parts of existing prisons, which is a huge fiscal impact and frankly one we don't have the money for.

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

We have Tesla here, we have Faraday and we'll have to see what happens with that. I'm really concerned about making sure that we have Nevadans to take those jobs. It doesn't really help us to create jobs and then just have folks come here during the week from other states to do those jobs and leave and go spend the money elsewhere so I'd anticipate that we're probably going to be looking at some of the educational opportunities with higher education but some high school as well. How do we position ourselves and our workforce to be able to take those jobs? I understand why we are where we are because this is a bit of a change in philosophy for the state but to make sure that we are catching up with that backend resources so employers don't have to look elsewhere. It really, really is hard to see folks come and take jobs here when we have Nevadans who would like to take those jobs but for some reason can't. So I anticipate we'll go in that direction and try to attract new businesses here and hopefully offer expanded opportunities.

What should we do next on solar?

We have to get the policy right here. I heard this loud and clear from constituents. With the amount of sun we have we really should be leading on solar energy. It's easy to say that but we also have to look at the backend policy of what that means and how we achieve that, what do we do with folks who can't afford solar and how does it impact them. I mean I think the best thing we can do is really grapple with the issue from every different angle and see what makes the most sense. I'm not on Commerce, Labor and Energy so that'll be something I'll have to follow from afar but I anticipate there will probably be a Subcommittee on Energy to take that issue and I will certainly take those recommendations into account. I would like to have a situation where everyone has solar panels. I don't know if that's possible or realistic but I think we took a good first step by grandfathering in folks who were under the existing — and that's just a fairness issue. I think it's important that we get it right.

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

The Supreme Court here decided the funding wasn't appropriate and I agree with that position. I don't think money should be taken from the public schools for private schools. I don't know if there are going to be any bills dealing with the existing school choice program. If there are we'll look at those. I certainly would like, if we do have school choice moving forward, to see school choice that is true school choice and not limited to more wealthy folks. I'm open to having the discussion. I don't know where we're going to end up on that. Obviously what we had before obviously had a wrench thrown in it and now we're left to look at it. But I'm open to looking at it.

It's a really hard issue because I would hate to do anything that takes monies away from public schools. At the same time I understand folks want choice but in an ideal world if we ended up with choice we'd have some kind of choice where it truly didn't matter what your economic scenario is with the amount of money that was being given under the other program, a lot of folks would be priced out of the market altogether. I'm hesitant to really call it school choice when it's a choice that may only be available to a segment of the population. But the desire for that program comes with frustration from the public school system and that's something we have to continue to work on. People are rightfully frustrated with the public school system.

What should Nevada’s minimum wage be?

Those are the competing interests, right? We want to pay folks a living wage so people who work 40 hours a week can do a little more than make ends meet and on the other side you've got this sort of, well what impact does it have on job creation and the business community? And these are where the tough questions come in legislating, right? Those two policies can, at times, not necessarily, but at times be really contradictory. It's definitely a concern so if we look at if we're going to raise the minimum wage, what do we know about business and what's that going to do? But I'm not comfortable with the idea that folks can have two or three people in the household working and they're still having trouble making ends meet and they don't have that kind of financial security that we want. I just don't think that's a tenable situation, so, I do think we need to give more to our workers. What that number is, how we get there, all of those are sort of up for consideration.

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

I really hope criminal justice is one because criminal justice we have a policy and a public safety component and those are also critical but we also have a fiscal impact and I think anybody who's interested in how can we do things better at less cost that's not a partisan issue. So I would definitely hope to be able to work on those issues. I know something for instance there's going to be a lot of bills on guardianship reform that will come through judiciary. That's a process that I think everyone can agree we need to get right when we're having folks come in and basically take over life decisions for people who are unable to make their own. That is not a partisan issue. These are just issues we need to make sure we get right. Those are two that jump out at me right away.

Solar energy is another one. Now I'm going to start going through all of them. I don't think Nevadans want D.C.-style partisan politics here. I think they expect more from us. I think they're right in expecting that. The key to that, I think, is communication. We're all here trying to make Nevada better. We may have disagreements about how we get there but we should be definitely talking to each other and trying to come up with collaborative ideas and solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.