Nevada lawmakers expressed everything from elation to skepticism after Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak unveiled his policy priorities Wednesday in the State of the State address, highlighting key issues — including state worker collective bargaining and minimum wage increases — that are likely to spur the most tension during the legislative session.
Progressives framed Sisolak’s speech, which included promises to treat teachers like professionals, raise their salary 3 percent, and always support and defend the Affordable Care Act, as a sea change after 20 years of having a Republican governor helming the state.
“If you would have asked me five years ago ... standing here the same night, if I would have heard that out of a governor’s mouth, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Annette Magnus of progressive advocacy group Battle Born Progress. “To see a governor take these things seriously — things like saying, ‘I don’t even question climate change’ — those things are refreshing.”
Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores said he was “incredibly excited” to move the conversation about collective bargaining for state workers forward. The concept is among Sisolak’s most audacious because of the untold millions of dollars it could cost the state.
“It’s a conversation that I think a lot of people in this building had, but they could never really go past the coffee table,” Flores said. “And now it’s a conversation that’s going to happen in the caucus room, it’s a conversation that’s going to happen in our committees, and at that global scale with our leadership. Whether or not it’s easy is a different question, but at a minimum, we know it’s a real conversation.
On the education front, Sisolak expressed willingness — if not specifics — to overhaul the state’s 50-year-old education funding formula. Much of the details of that expensive project will fall to lawmakers such as Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.
“I know that Sen. [Mo] Denis is leading the charge, and he and I work very well together. He’s working with a lot of consultants, and we’re going to be rolling up our sleeves,” Thompson said.
Another thorny issue promises to be the Read by Grade 3 initiative, which pours resources into literacy programs but also will hold children back if they cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade. Sisolak took Sandoval’s recommendation to boost funding for the initiative, but lawmakers last session sought to remove the retention element, and Thompson suggested he wanted significant changes to it.
“I don’t even want to say tweaks. We are really revisiting it, and we see some areas to improve it,” Thompson said. “But that’s the pivotal age, because you know that if kids don’t learn to read and write, that’s when the school to prison pipeline starts. Kids drop out of school. It’s traumatic.”
For the most part, Democrats left the Assembly chambers Wednesday pleased with Sisolak’s address and the prospect of working with the first Democratic governor in 20 years. The party holds a super-majority in the Assembly and are a seat short of a two-thirds majority in the state Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson also said his relationship with Sisolak was “refreshing,” compared to past sessions with Republicans in control of the governorship, noting that he and Sisolak had worked together in Clark County government and grew closer during the state’s process to woo the Raiders to relocate to Nevada in 2017. He said he was one of the first legislators to endorse Sisolak’s gubernatorial aspirations.
“We’re going to have some differences during session, absolutely, but I think that our relationship will prevail and we’ll get some good things done,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson, who unsuccessfully sought a minimum wage increase last session, declined, as Sisolak did, to put a dollar figure on the goal of raising the minimum wage. He said he wanted to analyze what neighboring states have done and work with businesses — and stressed that any proposal would need to include a tiered wage system where businesses that are small enough would not be required to pay the higher wage.
“There’s going to be a lot of things that folks are going to look at, massage. We’ve just got to look at what a livable wage is and whatever that number is,” he said.
John Vellardita, a Sisolak ally and executive director of the Clark County Education Association, offered a more measured assessment of the governor’s education agenda. The union boss said he wasn’t surprised by the budget numbers — including doubling the amount of money for weighted funding to $70 million, which Sandoval recommended in December — but expects communities to demand more money.
“This is the start,” he said. “It’s not the end game.”
The new governor’s address mentioned reforming portions of the state’s criminal justice system, but did not mention a recent package of 25 recommendations from the Crime and Justice Institute approved by a panel of lawmakers and criminal justice leaders.
Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who chaired the advisory panel and will head the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he hadn’t talked to Sisolak directly about the proposals, which the institute estimated could save the state up to $640 million in prison costs over the next decade. Yeager said he was pleased Sisolak broached the topic during his speech and promises to add new staff to the state’s Parole and Probation division and expanding a pilot program on inmate education.
“I think it really shows a joint focus on making sure we get this right,” he said. “I think it’s the first time criminal justice reform has probably been mentioned, maybe ever, in the history of Nevada, so that’s certainly encouraging and tells me we’re on the right path.”
Accolades poured in from other Democrat-friendly organizations as well. Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada and NARAL Nevada applauded Sisolak for allotting $6 million in his budget over the next biennium for family-planning services.
“On the campaign trail, Sisolak was a tireless fighter for abortion access and care for women and families, and tonight, in his first State of the State, he made it clear that creating a vision of reproductive freedom for Nevadans will be a key issue as governor,” said Caroline Mello Roberson, NARAL’s state director.
Clean energy and environmental advocates jumped on the bandwagon, too, offering a cheery assessment of Sisolak’s goals in that realm. The governor said he will, at a minimum, sign legislation increasing the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030. The RPS dictates how much electricity energy providers must procure from renewable sources.
Atkinson said he was pleased with the new governor’s priorities, and said he was able to include suggestions into the address itself, including more funding for apprenticeships and including the word “minimum” in reference to a 50 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard.
“I’ve said it’s a negotiated process, and it is. That’s why he put the line in there, a ‘minimum,’” Atkinson said. “He’s very open to the fact it could higher. Will we get to 100 this session? I don’t know. But I think that’s a goal that our state should be trying to achieve.”
Nevada System of Higher Education Regent Trevor Hayes was enthusiastic about Sisolak’s plan to fund two new academic buildings at Southern Nevada colleges.
“The teacher shortage we have every year in Clark County — including the education building at Nevada State is a great way to solve that,” he said. “And we put a lot of money and effort in the last couple of years into the med school, but what people forget is when we hire doctors, every doctor we hire in the state needs four, five or six employees to support them, from nurses to nursing assistants to technicians, and this is going to help them build that.”
With some exceptions, Sisolak’s outline for the state’s budget largely kept intact the two-year budget proposal offered in November by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. Several Republican lawmakers said they were pleased by that decision from Sisolak, who has described himself as a moderate and frequently praised Sandoval on the campaign trail.
“Governor Sandoval had handed him essentially a fully baked budget,” Senator Keith Pickard said. “I’m a little unnerved by how much more money they are looking to add, given he said he was not going to be raising taxes.”
Other Republicans expressed cautious optimism toward Sisolak. Republican State Sen. Scott Hammond said he “loved the education stuff,” but “the devil is in the details.”
Pickard and other Republicans expressed concern over some of Sisolak’s proposals on labor policy, specifically the governor’s push to allow collective bargaining for state employees and reverse 2015 changes to the prevailing wage in public contracts for construction projects. State law requires that a prevailing wage — an hourly wage determined by state officials to be the average paid in a certain geographical area by a certain profession — be paid on government construction projects, but a 2015 change lowered the wage to 90 percent for K-12 and higher education projects and raised the project threshold from $100,000 to $250,000.
That 2015 change riled unions, who have been staunch supporters of Sisolak.
“Ultimately I think that [prevailing wage] will add a lot of costs to school construction,” Pickard said. “I’m not fundamentally opposed to the concept of prevailing wage. But I think in action, it’s going to be hard to implement. If we do implement it in the way it sounds like they want to, we’re going to be busting budgets.”
Hammond said he was concerned that the collective bargaining of state employees would likely be a “costly endeavor.”
“I’m kind of concerned with that zeal to do (it) without really talking it through,” he said. “Of course I look forward to a hearty debate on that, but that probably gave me a little bit of a pause.”
James Settelmeyer, the Republican state Senate Minority Leader, said he supported Sisolak’s proposed three percent wage increase for state employees but opposed collective bargaining.
“I bet you he puts that out two to four years so he doesn’t have to deal with the budgetary hits in this budget,” Settelmeyer said. “We’re giving them a three percent raise. We gave them three percent last time. I understand some of the concerns and issues. But the added costs and the burdensome paperwork, I don’t necessarily agree with.”
Settelmeyer said he also opposed Sisolak’s same-day voter registration proposal. He said he was concerned Californians would potentially register in Nevada and tip close elections.
“It’s not registration; it’s fraud,” he said. “Call it what it is.”
Even after an election that put Democrats in control of both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, Republicans including freshman Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy said Sisolak’s call for bipartisanship was welcome.
“As far as working with Assembly colleagues and the Senate, I’m hopeful,” she said. “I feel positive now that we can work together and iron out those details and disagreements.”