A mental health initiative, jobs, and some wait and see: Q&A with Steve Sisolak

that was then
Steve Sisolak on the campaign trail in late October, talking about paid sick leave and the minimum wage with Make the Road Nevada. Nevada Current file photo.

Gov. Steve Sisolak delivers his first State of the State speech tomorrow night, and as he hints below, he will unveil an initiative to address shortfalls in Nevada’s mental health system. In a wide-ranging interview, Sisolak discussed several other issues — wages and jobs, the dynamic between sexual harassment policy and the Las Vegas brand, gun background checks, and more. The governor provided specifics in some areas, but on several issues he also deferred, citing a preference to wait and “see what the Legislature comes up with.”

The Current: Let’s talk about minimum wage. Is there a proposal that you support or do you want to kick it to the voters in 2020?

Governor Sisolak: Well, I haven’t seen what the Legislature’s got in mind, you know.  I’m open to whatever they want to bring forward but my focus is on diversifying our economy and attracting new jobs, but not minimum wage jobs. We want jobs that will support an individual and their family. So, I’m not focusing on creating minimum wage jobs.

The Current: But as far as raising the minimum wage?

Governor Sisolak: Well, I don’t know what the Legislature is going to come forward with. I’d be happy to look at it.  But I’ve not seen any specific proposals from anyone over there yet.

The Current: Would you say your priority is creating more jobs or raising wages for existing jobs?

Governor Sisolak: My priority is diversify the economy and provide good paying jobs.  Whatever the minimum wage is it’s not going to provide enough money — if it’s 10 dollars, 12 dollars, 15 dollars, whatever it is, it’s not going to provide enough money for individuals to support themselves and their families. So, I’m more focused on creating jobs that provide benefits, health care and someone can support their family.

The Current: Do you have any thoughts about sick leave?

Governor Sisolak: Well, I think that we need to be reasonable when it comes to sick leave.  I want to see what the Legislature comes with in terms of proposals. And I’ve heard different opinions and ideas on the amount of sick leave.  I think everybody agrees it’s a necessity, a certain amount of it. I think to quantify it is going to be the difficult part and I’m anxious to see what the Legislature comes up with.

The Current: Let’s move on to marijuana.  Do you have interest in pardoning low-level offenders on a massive scale as has been the case in Washington and California?

Governor Sisolak: I’m working with my legal counsel to look into that and it’s something we’re going to be addressing in the foreseeable future.

The Current: It looks like your executive order (on sexual harassment) imposes some of the same requirements the Gaming Control Board had suggested in its proposed regulation.  Do you support the provision that hotels submit to the state the number of sexual harassment reports and complaints that they receive each month?

Governor Sisolak: Well, that’s something that’s going to have to be worked out.  We proposed a harassment policy in each of the properties — that all of our gaming licensees, whether they’re restricted or unrestricted licenses, and the marijuana companies and the vendors of the state submit their policies.  And hopefully all the companies, it’s public it’s transparent, we’ll look at other policies and find the best policy.

And I hope they won’t have to submit because my hope is we can eliminate or greatly reduce the number of any complaints coming forward.

Some of these things become a matter of litigation and confidentiality and I want to make sure that we don’t step on anyone’s rights along the way.

The Current: Are you hearing concerns from people in the gaming industry about that provision?

Governor Sisolak: No, I’ve got nothing but support from the gaming industry as it relates to transparency and being upfront on sexual harassment issues.

The Current: Do you see any inherent challenge in fighting sexual harassment in a state that has legal prostitution? There’s that symbiotic relationship among the legal brothels, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s marketing campaign and the illegal trade that we have here in Clark County and in Washoe County.

Governor Sisolak: Well, unfortunately there’s illegal trade all over the country.  And I think it’s a big jump to go from sexual harassment to brothels. I’m confident that our industries, both the ones that we regulate on the privileged side, which is gaming and the cannabis industry, and we’ve expanded that to anyone that’s a vendor with the state, understand the severity of this and it’s my intent they will comply with the disclosure and we’ll move forward that way.

The Current: But you know a lot of sexual harassment initiates with the customer, not just co-workers.  You don’t think the “What happens here stays here” atmosphere contributes at all to sexual harassment in Las Vegas?

Governor Sisolak: Well, I think you’re singling out gaming and I think gaming has a vested interest to protect their employees who they have a great deal of investment in and to make sure they’re not victims of sexual harassment.  I’ve read accounts where people in fast food restaurants and waitresses in mom-and-pop restaurants are victims of sexual harassment. That’s no different than gaming. I think it’s incumbent on us as a society to address the problem and respect people for the individuals that they are.

The Current: George Togliatti (the governor’s appointment to run the Department of Public Safety) was the Vice President of Security at MGM Resorts in 2014 when a Mandalay Bay guest was arrested with weapons pointed out the window of his room. We know that nothing was done that would have thwarted future episodes, because of what happened on October First.  Have you talked with Togliatti about that?

Governor Sisolak: I’ve had extensive discussions with George as it relates to the position we’re putting him in.  I think he brings incredible wealth of experience and knowledge to that position.

I’m confident he’s going to be able to take that experience and his ability to handle situations as it relates to public safety and import that to the entire state department.

The Current: Have you ever talked with him about that incident? About why nothing was done?

Governor Sisolak: I think that’s an internal matter with MGM and it wouldn’t be reasonable for me.  I don’t know any of the internal discussions that happened at the time with George and his superiors at MGM, whoever that might have been, whatever his reporting line was and how it was handled the way that it was.  I’ve got to leave that up to MGM.

(Sisolak did not respond to a follow up e-mail, asking why he would be entitled to gaming licensees’ sexual harassment policies but not security protocol.) 

The Current: Metro was involved, too.  Did it ever come up with the sheriff?

Governor Sisolak: I don’t know.  You’d have to ask Sheriff Lombardo.

The Current: No, did you and the sheriff ever discuss that?  Did you ever say “Hey, Joe, this happened at Mandalay Bay three years ago.  How come nothing was done to stop someone else from bringing weapons up there?”

Governor Sisolak: No, I have a long-term relationship with the sheriff.  Other than asking for some recommendations, we never discussed why he chose or chose not to pursue any investigations or ask to file any charges.  That was never my position.

The Current: Do you have any concern George Togliatti’s affiliation with the resort industry would make him more likely to take actions that would protect its image?

Governor Sisolak: Absolutely not.  George Togliatti is coming on and he’s going to represent my office and the State of Nevada and protect the citizens of Nevada the best way possible.

The Current:  You said you favor a ban on assault weapons but not a buyback program. Have you given any thought to how you’ll go about doing that?

Governor Sisolak: No, my immediate focus in working with Attorney General Ford is we want to implement the background checks as quickly as we possibly can.  That’s going to be our number one focus from day one to get that done and then I’m going to see what they come out of the Legislature with. I know there’s a lot of discussion on gun bills and we’ll see what they bring forward and how they intend to do it.

The Current: Have you made any progress figuring out how to get private sale background checks done?

Governor Sisolak: We’re working through that both internally with our state agencies and with some of the federal agencies, to come up with a plan to get that done, but I don’t have specifics I want to release at this time.

The Current: What’s your position on charter schools?  You’ve talked about keeping money in public schools, which charter schools technically are, but they don’t have the same oversight as public schools.

Governor Sisolak: Charter schools are, I guess, a type of hybrid, if you want to call them a public school.  Some of them have been successful and some of them have not been as successful. You want to take the good out of them but there’s clearly a problem in the charter schools that they are not admitting enough kids that are English Language Learner students, and students with special needs, and students on the autism spectrum, and students that need more attention than the regular group of students that they would be admitting, and they’re leaving those students all to go the public schools, as you would call them.

So, I think that’s something we have to get under control so that all students, regardless of any physical disability, learning disability, language, inherent second language, are treated equally, and that’s a question right now.

The Current: Any progress on your criminal justice reform agenda?

Governor Sisolak: We’re making progress on that.  I’m working with the Attorney General specifically because that’s an issue he’s going to be leading. I’ve got several legislators who are very invested in this subject and I don’t want to steal their thunder.  I’m anxious to see what they bring forward. We’re working with the Legislature. I’ve had several conversations with the judicial system, and I think you’re going to see a lot of progress this year.

The Current: Do you think you’re going to put new money into the system or take money from the Department of Corrections and use it for more mental health purposes?

Governor Sisolak: Mental health has always been a big issue, as it relates to all levels — whether it’s criminal justice, whether it’s education, whatever it might be.  I suggest that your readers pay some attention on the State of the State, they they follow it and they might see some of the insight and the direction we want to go with.

The Current: You put out a news release offering some shutdown relief to furloughed employees. Is there anything you can do to encourage business owners in Nevada to provide relief to federal employees who are furloughed?

Governor Sisolak: I will do whatever I can.  I flew up again yesterday and spent time with TSA employees at both airports, in Reno and Las Vegas.  My heart goes out to them. These are people, I mean, the thought that they can just go to their bank accounts and cover their bills is not realistic.

These are hard-working folks who often live paycheck to paycheck and they’re not getting paid.  It’s not just that they’re not getting paid. It’s the complete uncertainty of how long they’re not going to get paid and what’s going to happen next.

I really appreciate Chair (Kevin) Page and Chancellor (Thom) Reilly, when we sent them the letter, coming on board and saying we might be able to provide some relief on the tuition side.  We’re going to explore other options that might be available on the state side. We also have to look at what’s happened with our tribal communities, how they’ve been cut off basically, from the support they need.  These are not just numbers, these are real families that are going to feel the effect of this now.

While we don’t have immediate control over certain landlords and car financing companies and banks and what not, I would certainly hope they would take into account — I’m not asking them to waive any of these payments — I’m just asking asking them to look at maybe deferring the payments and waiving late fees because of what’s happened with the federal shutdown. This is a big chess game they’re playing with folks in Washington and these folks are just the pawns in the game.

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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