Economic diversification vs. mininum wage hike: How about both?

legislators at battle born
Democratic legislators outlining priorities at the Battle Born Progress Progressive Summit Jan. 13. From left: Sen. Chris Brooks, Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. Photo: Audrey Dempsey for Battle Born Progress

“My priority is diversify the economy and provide good paying jobs,” Gov. Steve Sisolak told the Current in an interview earlier this week, when asked about raising the minimum wage.

“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.”

Sisolak of course is right to hope for a more diversified Nevada economy that has not only more jobs, but more jobs with better pay and benefits. Everyone wants that.

But his disinterest in raising the minimum wage, bordering on disdain for the subject, suggests he is under the delusion, shared by his predecessor, that economic diversification is an adequate substitute for better wages, benefits and working conditions in the jobs Nevada already has.

In his interview with the Current, Sisolak also said he was unfamiliar with specific proposals to raise Nevada’s minimum wage.

Presumably before he delivers his first State of the State address Wednesday evening, legislative leaders will inform him about this one: In 2017, the Legislature passed a joint resolution to raise the wage in the state constitution. If legislators pass it again this year, it will go to voters for approval in 2020. If voters pass it, on January 1, 2021, Nevada’s minimum wage would rise from its current $7.25 an hour to $9.40 an hour. After that the wage would rise by $1.15 each year, until it tops out at $14 an hour in 2025.

The constitutional amendment would also create a single wage, instead of the current — and much-abused by employers — tiered wage of $7.25 for employees who are covered by a health plan and $8.25 for workers who aren’t.

The amendment was an insurance policy. The Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2017 also passed separate legislation to more quickly raise the wage. That bill would have raised the currently tiered wage in annual 75 cent increments over five years, starting Jan. 1, 2018. But as expected, Brian Sandoval vetoed it. The legislation was deliberately paltry, on the outside hope that Sandoval might sign at least a very modest bill.

Sweeping races up and down the ballot, African American leadership in both the Assembly and the Senate, the first-in-the-nation majority female Legislature and other milestones of victory and diversity … well, Nevada Democrats are pretty pleased with themselves right now.

And those victories will translate into policy progress, particularly mental and behavioral health services, Nevada’s outdated education funding formula, clean energy, and criminal justice reforms — all priorities that were named by veteran legislators during a forum at the Battle Born Progress Progressive Summit over the weekend.

But if any Nevadans took Adam Laxalt’s campaign rhetoric seriously, and are concerned that Sisolak is a leftist with an aggressive social and economic justice agenda, take it from someone who is, well, a leftist with an aggressive social and economic justice agenda: You can relax.

Sisolak, along with many if not most Democrats in the Legislature, are eager to reassure Nevada business and industry that they’re grown-ups, safe for business and eager to upset the status quo only in ways already amenable to conventional wisdom as accepted in polite professional society. There will be progress on some issues during the upcoming Legislative session. There will also be a lot of half-measures — toothless resolutions, miniscule acts paraded as meaningful reforms, interim study committees — to forestall dramatic or immediate actions that might unnerve more conservative portions of the electorate and “stakeholders” from the campaign donor class.

And that might mean taking no action to raise the minimum wage immediately, but instead passing that 2017 constitutional amendment a second time, on the grounds that it’s best to let the voters decide. That would leave the wage hike vulnerable to a potential multi-million dollar opposition campaign financed by industry. And even if voters approve it, low-income workers wouldn’t get a raise until 2021.

Agreeing to leave the minimum wage to voters — and uncertainty — would mark a stark departure from Democratic calls for the minimum wage two years ago, when the Democratic Party and it’s chairman, Assemblyman William McCurdy, called Sandoval’s veto of the minimum wage bill “a crushing disappointment for Nevada workers.”

About one-third of U.S. States (and several other cities and counties) have passed legislation to raise wages in recent years. If the state with the first female majority Legislature in the country punts on the issue, well, that would be a hell of a thing.

Sisolak argues he is “more focused” on diversification than wages because even raising the minimum wage won’t be enough for someone to support a family.

Yes. Working- and middle-class incomes have been stagnant for decades, especially in Nevada.

But an often-overlooked impact of raising the minimum wage is a “ripple effect” that raises wages for other workers, especially those who make a little more than the minimum wage.

More importantly, at least one-fourth of Nevada’s workforce is paid less, often far less, than $14 an hour. Jobs in retail, food service and home health and personal care may not be what politicians envision as part of an exciting diversified economy of the “New Nevada.” But those are among the most common jobs in Nevada’s economy, and projected to be the jobs with numerically the most growth. Nevada’s economy could diverse dramatically, beyond Sisolak’s wildest dreams, and there would still be several tens of thousands of Nevadans working in those jobs.

Those are the jobs we have. We need people in those jobs. They should be respected and rewarded accordingly, not only with higher pay, but also the better benefits that Sisolak envisions for Nevada workers. On the benefits front, there is no more urgent place to start than mandating that employers provide workers with earned sick leave.

Hopefully Sisolak’s optimism is warranted, and Nevada will attract lots and lots of new and better jobs. But while we wait to be blessed with all that economically diversified prosperity, working Nevadans, performing jobs that need to be done whether we like it or not, are struggling to get by today.

Sisolak is right. Economic diversification and creating better jobs must be a priority.

Better pay and working conditions in the jobs we’ve got now is a more urgent one.

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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