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Six presidential candidates, all of them Democrats, will be in Las Vegas this weekend to talk about labor in a state whose unions still wield a lot of power.

They’re speaking at a forum aimed at creating an economy that works for all. The forum is being presented by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The president and CEO of the center Neera Tanden told KNPR's State of Nevada they picked Nevada because it's an early primary and swing state.

She also said the state is diversified with a large Latino and Asian population. 

Tanden said the center wants the candidates to focus on economic issues and give specific arguments of what they would do to help working families.

"The real fact here is... the broad economic numbers are masking real facts for families," she said, "So, essentially, we have low unemployment numbers but wages have been fundamentally stagnant for the last decade or so. "

She said wages have been creeping up in the last year but they are not where they should be with the level of unemployment.

Tanden and the center say strengthening unions is one way to improve wages, which is why they partnered with Service Employees International Union to present the forum.

SEIU Nevada President Brenda Marzan said that some of the union members, which covers health care and hospital workers along with public sector workers, make a good wage, but others are barely making enough to make ends meet.

Support comes from

Marzan said the union is backing Assembly Bill 456 in the Legislature, which would increase the minimum wage over the next four years to $12 an hour.

"Which would give thousands of Nevadans a raise, which would then obviously help them be able to provide for their children, their families, themselves," she said.

Tanden said there is evidence that higher wages for the middle class produce more growth for everyone else and a stronger economy overall.

While wage stagnation is still a concern, Nevada's economy is doing well, according to Robert Lang, executive director of Brookings Mountain West. 

"At this point, things are going smoothly and the economy in general in the U.S. is in a growth phase but going forward, it is anyone's guess as to how much resilience we've built into this through diversification in the last decade," Lang said.

Lang explained that as Southern Nevada's population has grown it has "backfilled" jobs that would have normally expand as a city expanded. For instance, jobs in health care and business services have grown to fit the needs of the population.

While those jobs have expanded, Lang doesn't see a reason to abandon the region's core industry of hospitality. 

"Las Vegas had become the headquarters of a large resort industry that was so competent in the execution of its product that it was capable of exporting that knowledge and service," he said.

Lang compared Las Vegas to Texas and the oil industry. When oil extraction slowed down in Texas, Houston remained the headquarters of the industry because so many people there had the knowledge of the industry.

That doesn't mean Nevada should abandon its efforts to diversify. One of the organizations tasked with that diversification is the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Kris Sanchez is the interim director of GOED. He agreed that exporting gaming knowledge is important to Nevada but he also said supporting small businesses is vital.

"At GOED, the things that we're looking at as we go forward is how we support small businesses. How we ensure they capture market share. How do we help them export their products?" Sanchez said. 

Guests

Kris Sanchez, Interim Director, Governor's Office of Economic Development; Brenda Marzan, President, SEIU Nevada; Robert Lang, Exec. Dir., Brookings Mountain West, UNLV; Neera Tanden, President/CEO, Center for American Progress 

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