So now what?

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Governor-elect Steve Sisolak on election night. Photo: Michael Lyle

Things might be more cut and dried if Sheldon Adelson and Adam Laxalt had won.

Democrats, with hefty majorities in the state Legislature, would have been able to thwart all the truly egregious Adelson/Laxalt policy proposals. Next year’s legislative session would have been full of sound and fury, likely signifying, in the end, nothing much more than a fight over a percentage point or two of a typical inadequate Nevada budget.

But Adelson and Laxalt lost (yay!). Now Nevada has an unprecedented opportunity to remove barriers that make life harder for Nevadans than it needs to be. And mostly without costing the state a dime.

On election night, Governor-elect Steve Sisolak reiterated the themes of his campaign — “supporting our teachers,” affordable and accessible health care, and jobs. The first two are big ticket items in the state budget that Sisolak and lawmakers will necessarily have to wrestle with. All three are pressing, and popular, priorities.

But there are other priorities perhaps even more pressing, if not to elected officials, then to Nevadans who already have jobs.

In 2017, Democrats passed legislation to raise the minimum wage. It was vetoed. The same happened with mandated sick pay for workers, a benefit that many of us take for granted but by some estimates is deprived of as many as half of Nevada’s private sector employees. No two pieces of legislation would have a more positive, immediate impact on the lives of more Nevadans than higher wages and paid sick leave. If Sisolak and Democrats in the Legislature fail to establish higher wages and paid sick leave in 2019, they should resign.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Nevada workers are also subjected to wildly irregular work schedules — a practice particularly prevalent in the service sector, i.e., the backbone of Nevada’s economy. Some jurisdictions have taken steps to curb scheduling abuses. Nevada is not one of them. Given the structure of our economy and the composition of our workforce, our neglect is conspicuous.

There have been multiple attempts to rein in Nevada’s predatory payday lending industry, which charges a staggering average annualized loan cost of 652 percent, the fifth highest in the nation. Reforms have always been stymied by the powerful predatory lending lobby. This is a bipartisan issue — there are Republican lawmakers who would also like to stop predatory payday lenders. It is past time that a governor and legislators stand up to the industry, cap its rates, and effectively run the worst predators out of the state, as 15 other states and the District of Columbia have done.

The housing crisis is vexing the entire nation, not just Nevada. Unfortunately, in Nevada, proposed solutions fail to extend much past the idea of subsidizing developers. Subsidizing renters should be at least as high a priority as subsidizing developers.

Also, Nevada is a “Dillon’s Rule” state, meaning counties and cities can’t do much of anything unless authorized by the state. Lawmakers should authorize and incentivize local governments to lift zoning restrictions and mandate inclusionary zoning, by which new pricy housing subdivisions can’t be approved unless a portion of the development includes affordable housing.

And Nevada has some of the speediest, most anti-tenant, landlord-friendly eviction laws in the country. Nevada reformers have asked lawmakers to change those policies and provide tenants more protection in the past, but lawmakers have refused. Evictions are an epidemic in the nation and Nevada. Reforming the eviction process would help keep thousands of Nevadans in their homes. It wouldn’t cost the state any money. On the contrary, eviction inflicts countless, often long-term material hardships on tenants, disrupting school, work, and driving people to social services. Reforming Nevada’s eviction laws would save the state money.

During the campaign, Sisolak emphasized a commitment to “public” schools, and promised to fight “the diversion of funding from public schools into private schools.” Nevada’s charter schools are technically public schools. But most of them are run by private operators — to which the state diverts hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The charter industry has been allowed to proliferate in Nevada with virtually no public debate. But data shows that charters segregate students by race and income. And the schools are all but unmonitored; indeed, the industry actively resists monitoring. At the very least, given their universally declared commitment to “public” education, Sisolak and Democratic legislators should keep their focus, and their funding, firmly directed at public schools, by capping the growth of the charter school industry. Then, Nevada can initiate the debate it never had on whether we even want privately operated charter schools in the first place.

Legislative studies have found that more than half of Nevadans who are incarcerated are first-time offenders, usually for non-violent offenses. At any given time, hundreds of Nevadans are in jail because they can’t afford to make bail. The current criminal justice system wreaks havoc on the lives of low- and middle-income Nevadans. And it’s a drain on public resources — jailing people is expensive. The system needs to be reformed. Most Democratic elected officials know it. So they should do it.

The heat of an election cycle is often the last place a serious policy discussion will break out. On this year’s campaign trail there was scant — if any — mention of the issues described above. Affordable, quality child and senior care services, public transportation, student loan debt, and other problems and conditions that make life harder for Nevadans than it needs to be, were also mostly if not completely ignored. Campaigns zero in on a couple things they think will work, and they stick to them. Campaigns aren’t in business to make policy. They’re in business to win elections. Fair enough.

Now the election’s over.

Democratic control of the U.S. House thankfully — so very, very thankfully — restores some measure of checks and balances to the U.S. government. But a divided government in Washington — especially this Washington — isn’t going to raise wages, mandate sick pay, crack down on payday lenders, or make housing more affordable. If states want to make things better, they’re going to have to do it themselves.

Thanks to Tuesday’s election, Nevada has never had a better opportunity to do just that.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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