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Nevada Gov. Sisolak on the economy, education, his record and more

Scott Lien/KNPR

Gov. Steve Sisolak at KNPR on Oct. 26, 2022.

Four years ago, Steve Sisolak became the first Democrat in decades to be elected governor of Nevada.

Since then, he’s faced unprecedented challenges, namely: the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic decline in its aftermath. 

But this fall, Sisolak may face his toughest challenge in his re-election bid against Republican challenger, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo. To talk about that, State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann sat down with Sisolak.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

SCHOENMANN: Talking about the economy, inflation's high, Nevada's gas prices are among the highest in the country. There's talk of a looming recession on the campaign trail. You've talked about how your office has little control over the economy, but people want to hear what you can do. So what have you done or what are you working on?

SISOLAK: Well, you're absolutely right. There's not much we can do on the inflation front, that's coming out of Washington, D.C. I can't control the price of chicken or ground beef or eggs or you know, your groceries. Gasoline prices are high, but there's a reason they're higher here. It's not the gas tax. What it is, is we get 90-some-odd percent of our fuel from California, through the pipeline coming up from California, that is refined to the highest standards of any state in the country because of their environmental rules in their environmental consciousness in California. So their prices are even higher than ours in California. But the fuel we do get, most of it is piped in from California. But it's done at that higher rate because of the refining standards. Sometimes it's trucked in from Utah, Arizona, Colorado, that sort of thing. And that's a lot cheaper. And you'll notice that at some stations, now, we can't do anything other than that. 

But there are certain things we can do to help families and we've done those things. I'll give you some examples, we put $75 million into free breakfast and lunch for all kids in the state of Nevada going to school, we put … half a billion dollars into affordable housing projects to get people to a safe, clean place where they can they can live in. We've invested $5 million in free community college for more individuals. We've got affordable childcare that we've invested in, mental health we've invested in, and we continue to do what we can on those fronts. We've got the Array RX card, that is now a card that people can get for free, they just sign up online. And you can get up to 80% off on generic drugs and 20% off name brand drugs. So we're trying to save people money where we can. And that's what we're focused on, because the inflation front is going to continue for a little while. But I don't think we're worrying about a recession quite yet.

And affordable housing, I wonder if you could go a little bit more into how that half a billion dollars has been spent. Is the state incentivizing developers to build more affordable housing?

Yeah, there's really two issues there. There's affordable housing and the affordability of housing are two separate things. Affordable housing is going to allow us to build about 1,900 units of affordable housing that will be rented, in most cases to our seniors, our veterans and our disabled, so that they'll have a chance to have a good place to live. We're putting $30 billion into retrofitting houses. For example, if you get a senior that's lived in their home for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly, they're not ambulatory anymore. You know, they're in a wheelchair, walker, that sort of thing. This allowed us to put in ramps as opposed to the steps, lower some of the countertops, so they can maintain their dignity and stay in their homes. And over $50 million of this is put towards buying land that we'll be able to develop in the future for affordable housing. 

Now, the affordability of housing, we're talking about for our residents. We've got to do something about the fact that the dream of homeownership for a lot of people is gone. You know, I met a young couple that are both teachers up in Reno. And we had a great conversation at a coffee shop up there. And they said to me, ‘Governor, we love our job. We love what we do, but … teachers salaries, we will never be able to afford to buy a home.’ And that was really concerning to me. So what we've done, we've got to increase the density and some of these homes, little smaller sizes, more attached homes, whether they're townhomes, condominiums, you know, mid-rises, that sort of thing. So people can at least get it in the market in some way.

Now, your campaign and political action committees that support your reelection have made abortion rights central to this election. In Nevada, though abortion is protected under a voter-approved initiative process, it would require a similar voter approved initiative to change that law. In other words, at the state level, abortion for now is protected. But if you aren't elected, you see the possibility for that to change. Talk about that.

Well, it's not really protected. It's protected so much as it's codified in statute. But there's so many things that a governor can do. For example, they can institute a mandatory waiting period, … they can institute a situation where there has to be counseling, where there has to be notifications, eliminating birth control pills, they can mandate ultrasounds and sonograms for people. Those all make it more difficult for a woman, and I'm firmly of the belief –and my opponent and I are on opposite sides of this even though his position is changed half a dozen times depending who he's talking to– that the decision a woman makes on when and if they start a family is between the woman and her doctor. No politician should be getting involved in that decision.

Governor, you've signed off on a number of criminal justice and police reform measures. Your opponents are making a lot of hay out of that, most notably AB 236, which sought to decrease the state's prison population by lowering penalties for some low-level crimes and also expanded access to diversionary programs. How does that all work so far?

There's no proof that it's been a problem. And I think it worked very, very well. Now I understand when that bill was signed, I spoke to the Chair of the Committee, Chairman Steve Yeager, and said, ‘Look, I cannot support this unless the Sheriff of Metro Police Department supports it or stays neutral on the bill.’ He testified either in support of that bill or neutral on that bill. But now suddenly, he wants it the other way. And you can't rewrite history. He's entitled to his opinion, but the facts are the facts. He did not oppose that bill. Metro did not oppose that bill in the legislature. And ultimately the bill got to my desk.

Your opponent has also done everything he can to connect you to President Joe Biden for good or bad. Their campaign has even gone as far as to put up campaign signs to make it look like you're running on the President's agenda. Do you approve of the job that President Joe Biden has done so far?

I think the President's done a good job under the circumstances, he inherited some problems coming from President Trump. Clearly, what happened in this country on January 6 is something I would never have believed would have happened. I remember watching TV and thinking to myself, ‘This can't be Washington, D.C. I'm looking at.’ I'm thinking it's a third-world country. I think the President has had to deal with some of these issues that other presidents have been a little more fortunate that they didn't have to deal with, but considering what he was the hand that he was dealt, I think he's done a pretty good job.

Now, it has been shown as well that the party of the sitting president is often the one that suffers defeat in midterm elections. So Joe Biden's approval rating has fallen as of late, it's been low pretty much all year. Are you worried about that? 

Well, I wish his approval rating was higher, clearly. But here again, you have to understand that he's had to make some difficult decisions. The economy isn't as robust as we'd like it to be right now. And that's a concern of people. When they have to go to the grocery store and see the price of the groceries – I can tell when my wife goes to the grocery store and comes home and tells me the grocery prices are going up, or my mother tells me how much they've gone up, it's pretty severe. And you drive down the street and get 10 gas station flashing signs in front of you. How much is the price of gas? That's a concern. Clearly, it's a concern. But I think that you've got to weigh that in the overall picture with the good things that we've done, and accomplished and I'm proud of our record of what we've done. And I think we have a lot more we can do.

I want to go back to the pandemic. It resulted in so much turmoil, schools were closed, businesses were closed, the vitriol out there was evident, even the calls we'd get on this program. So let's go back in March of 2020, you and governors across the country closed all nonessential services. Nevada's unemployment rate skyrocketed, reports say students who were sent home for remote learning are still struggling to catch up. Looking back, talk about your thinking. At the time, I remember your press conference. It was emotional, but talk about your thinking.

That was probably the most difficult time in my life to go through that. And to live it. I remember being on my balcony at the Grant Sawyer building. And I just had a meeting with my medical advisory team and my business advisors and resort association and community leaders and chambers and whatnot, a multitude of meetings and had to make a decision about what we were going to do. Now, at the time, the CDC had estimated in Nevada, we would lose upwards of 40,000 people to COVID, that would die as a result of COVID. Because of our tourism economy and people coming in and out of here. I had to make a hard decision. And I decided that it was in everybody's best interest to close down basically our industries, and sign that executive order. Doing that, we have still lost over 11,000 people to COVID. And every one of those is hurtful to the family and to to friends and so forth and a lot of empty seats around dinner tables now. 

But when you're in my position, and as a result of that, and you've got coroners calling you up and telling you, ‘Governor, I'm out of body bags, can you help us get some more body bags?’ I've got mortuaries calling me up saying, ‘Can you help us get refrigerated trucks in our parking lot? Because we have so many corpses, we don't have any place to put them anymore? Can you help us do that?’ It puts things in a little bit different perspective. My main goal at the time was to save peoples’ lives. 

I knew this economy was resilient, and it would come back, and it has come soaring back. We've led the nation in economic recovery for the last two quarters, last six months, or unemployment continues to go down. It's under 5%, now it's in the low fours. And we're proud of that. And we've regained every single job that we lost during the pandemic. 

But you've got to understand way back at the beginning, if you think back, we're telling people that they should wipe off their groceries when they brought them home. Wipe off the mail when you brought it in the house. You couldn't buy toilet paper at the grocery store or wipes. I mean, that's the situation that we're in. I didn't know what PPE was, you know for the masks and the gloves and gowns. I called up the hotel executives on the Strip and asked them to help me, and they did, they flew their jets at their cost to Macau and brought us PPE. So we're the envy of probably every state in the country because we got our hands on it faster than anybody else did. So we pulled together as a community to get us through the situation that we're in, and I'm really really proud of the way Nevada reacted and stepped up.

You know, the easiest thing to do is second guess. Your opponent is doing that. And the political action committees are doing that. So I wonder, with hindsight, it's always easier with hindsight, might you have done anything differently?

Well, I can't answer that question, because I don't know what I'd have done. I mean, we didn't know the information. Now I know the information. And if I did know all the information … at the time … maybe would have done things differently. We didn't know how the disease was transmitted. We didn't know how infectious it was. We were begging to get ventilators. I remember being on governors calls, and governors are arguing amongst ourselves about getting another half a dozen ventilators. And there's my medical team pulling me aside and said, ‘Governor, I don't have to tell you this. But if you get put on a ventilator, and you're not pretty young and healthy, you're not usually coming off that ventilator.’ So I don't know, if we didn't know, there was no playbook on pandemics when I got elected into office, and we got our way through the best we possibly could. These are decisions I made with an enormous amount of consultation and prayer in terms of getting me there and I did what I could.

There was a lot of anger during the pandemic, as well, about unemployment checks from the state. The claims are much fewer now, but in August, the Las Vegas Review-Journal did report that the state agency that handles unemployment still has a backlog of some 20,000 claims; they had 40 positions that needed to be filled. What's been done in that area? 

Well, one of the reasons, and I can explain it the best, or I'll explain the best I possibly can. First off, most state positions are underpaid, they don't get a lot of money. We train people and they often leave for other jobs in the private sector where they can make considerably more money. We were handling more claims with unemployment data, as it's called, in a week than we would normally do on an annual basis. Now, no governor invested tens of millions of dollars into a new computer system for unemployment, because one, it's not a popular thing to do. And there was no need. You know, we weren't getting that many claims. Most of the claims have been resolved. The ones that are not resolved are ones that have not been adjudicated, or being opposed or being you know, that an employer has the right to do that. I mean, if somebody doesn't feel they're entitled to unemployment, they can object to that claim. And those have to be handled on a one at a time basis. Now, oftentimes, that'll take 2, 3, 4 hours to do one claim. So you can imagine, the claims adjuster might be able to do maybe eight or 10 in a week. So it takes a long time to work through that backlog of claims. 

And we did not have, we had hundreds of millions of dollars of fraud in the unemployment system, hundreds of millions, we did not have the benefit that other states did. In California, it was easier for them, they could match up the claimants against the income tax file, and know that Joe Shoenmann is a real person, because he filed income tax, so he’s real, we don't have a system like that, because we don't have income tax. So we didn't have a state database that we could look at all these claimants and see if they were really entitled, so it took us a lot longer than it took other states. 

At the same time, if we'd have paid out these claims, everybody just paid them regardless of whether they're qualified or eligible or whatnot. Ultimately, the employers in the state of Nevada would have to pay for all that with more funds into the unemployment fund to take care of that for people who weren't rightfully entitled.

I want to clear out one more facet of the pandemic, your opponent has spent millions of dollars trying to connect you to a COVID testing company out of Chicago that really didn't do its job, according to a ProPublica report. The company is called North Shore lab. The story said that the lab missed 96% of positive cases. You and your campaign has called that company's actions despicable. Did you have any kind of relationship with that company or campaign funding? 

No, absolutely not. I'd never spoken to the company, we licensed that company to do collections. That's what they were licensed to do. Now understand that the time, if you can think back again and people's memory is short, they forget rather quickly. At the time, people were feeling sick, they'd go get a test, and would oftentimes take a week, 10 days to get the results of that test. 

So we were facing an unbelievable amount of pressure to get these tests turned around quicker. So we had a company come to us and at the time, this company had signed a contract already with the City of Henderson, and with several other governmental entities. This company came to us and said that they could solve the backlog of problems that we have with tests. Now, where companies are doing, for example, some of the resort operators were doing their own swabbing, collecting samples and sending them to a lab that they had in California to get their results quicker. This company had licenses and contracts with over two dozen states that they were doing this for already. We signed to give them approval, a license to do collection. 

What had happened is you had one batch of tests, I believe was 51 tests, that they had people that were sick, they thought they were sick, they thought they were positive. But the test showed negative. They asked to retest all of those. I think of the 51, 48 or 49 of that ended up testing positive in another test. And that's a mistake. It's a huge mistake. But it's not 96% of all the samples that they took, this was 96% of one very small sample. It's a lot, it's way, way too many. And we immediately pulled their license and are cooperating on the investigation.

During your first campaign, you said you wanted to become the education governor. K-12 education was your top priority. You have also sat on the Nevada System of Higher Education as Board of Regents for many years. When the pandemic hit, schools were closed. I wonder if in these four years, because that happened right after you got into office, if you've been able to accomplish what you want to do with K-12.

I absolutely have not been able to accomplish that. Understand, we gave the authority, and I worked with the superintendents, people down here familiar with what's going on with the Clark County School District. There's 17 school districts in the state. And I met with all of the superintendents in the school boards in terms of determining, and it's not a one size fits all, as it relates to the some communities, some school districts wanted open faster, some wanted open slower, some had more in person, some continued to have distance education, we left that decision up to the school boards and superintendents in his various areas. Now Clark was one of the last to bring kids back into school. There clearly was a loss of educational, I guess, attainment, as a result of the pandemic, there's no doubt about that. We provided money for kids to go to free summer school, to try to catch them up, if that's possible. We had our teachers working overtime, we got a laptop, an iPad, a Chromebook, whatever it might be in the hands of every single student, so that they'd be able to participate in remote distance education. And that helped but it's not the same as having the in class interaction with other students and your teachers. So it definitely set kids back. Hopefully, they're going to be able to recover in a short timeframe. 

But it also robbed them of certain things. They didn't get to participate in the football games and the homecoming dance and the graduations. And those sorts of things. That's part of the high school experience. And it's unfortunate that that had to happen. But here again, the main priority we had the entire time was saving people's lives now and it turned out that kids were more resilient than adults were. And even as adults, people with underlying conditions were impacted more than people without underlying conditions. But school boards had a big input and decided when we're gonna open up those buildings.

The Clark County Education Association endorsed you four years ago. They wouldn't endorse you or your opponent this time around. And we had the head of that union on just recently, John Vellardita, who said he wanted promises from you that the state would take some of its COVID money and put it toward filling teacher vacancies here and put it toward catch-up for students.

His idea, or the teachers union idea, is to add 49 minutes to the school day to help kids catch up. He said he just wasn't hearing that from you, or from Joe Lombardo as solutions. Are there solutions to those two, which are two pretty major problems here in Nevada?

There are major problems in Nevada. And here again, I was disappointed with the CCEA. I work closely with the CCEA during the legislative session. And I've got support from thousands of school teachers across the state. We got them the first raise that they had gotten in over 10 years ago. We got them school supplies paid for. I would not, in my interview, commit to a quid pro quo with John Vellardita when he wanted me to raise taxes to put into a certain program. I refuse to do that. I told him I would make education my number one priority.

As to whether or not the school day should be lengthened. I am not an expert in education. We've got school board members that have that job. That's their assignment to deal with education. I don't know if that should be lengthened for an hour. I don't know how that would impact parents and their dropping off and their day with their kids, but it's definitely something we're talking about. But I can tell you, I won't break the law. I won't give them a quid pro quo to get an endorsement. I've never done business that way. And I won't start with John Vellardita.

Lastly, you sat on the Clark County Commission for 12 years. Joe Lombardo was sheriff for a lot of those years. I think a lot of people thought you two were friends. Now you're competing. And I wonder how that feels?

It was a little surprising at the time when I first heard the rumor. I called Joe and asked him if he was going to run and didn't hear back and called him again and didn't hear back and it’s kind of like you don't hear back when you want to get him on the air. That just kind of came to fruition that he did that, that he decided he was going to run. I think he's using this as an opportunity in a difficult time we're facing in the state and I get it. I understand that he's got political aspirations. And this is climbing the political ladder, so to speak. 

We have run a campaign that I'm really, really proud of. We've raised a lot of money. I've got, you know, over 20,000 individual donors who donate to my campaign. He's got one billionaire who gave him $25 million to fund his campaign. One person donated $25 million. And I don't think the governor's office should be for sale in the state of Nevada. I mean, this is by a guy that doesn't even know me. But that's what we're up against this time. I'm a little disappointed in that. But we're gonna work as hard as we possibly can and hopefully be successful on November 8.

Sisolak is facing challenger Republican Joe Lombardo. The election is November 8, and of course, people are voting right now. Governor, thank you so much.

I really encourage everybody to get out and vote. I mean, this is your opportunity to have a say on what happens in our state and in our communities. And people should take advantage of that opportunity and get out there and cast their vote whether you vote by mail or you vote early or on Election Day. Let your voice be heard. 

Nevada Public Radio did send several requests to Joe Lombardo's campaign to join us. They would not commit to an interview, instead emailing this week that they would be happy to talk about scheduling an interview after the election.

Steve Sisolak, governor, Nevada

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.