From addressing part of the nagging issue of banking in the marijuana industry, to finding a way to make the popular Millennium Scholarship financially solvent, State Treasurer Zach Conine has earnest but ambitious plans for his office.
The Office of the State Treasurer doesn’t usually garner much public attention, though being its elected head comes with some gravitas that can help with jumps to more prominent positions. Two of the last three state treasurers — Kate Marshall and Brian Krolicki — went on to become lieutenant governor. The third, Conine’s immediate predecessor Dan Schwartz self-funded a run for governor last year but lost to Adam Laxalt in the Republican primary.
Conine thinks the treasurer’s office deserves more attention than it currently gets, not only for the “massively important” programs it currently runs but also for the potential it has to solve statewide problems. Ever since defeating Republican Bob Beers for the seat last November, Conine has been working diligently to make the treasurer’s office more prominent.
Marijuana is no doubt a good place to start.
Because it’s still illegal at the national level, federally insured banks across the country have been reluctant to service marijuana businesses, forcing most of them to deal exclusively in cash. The 2019 Nevada Legislature passed AB 466 that establishes a three-year voluntary pilot program for the marijuana industry. The program will be setup by the state treasurer’s office but primarily funded by participants who have an incentive to find a cashless solution. The pilot program won’t be a bank per se but instead be a digital payment system. (Think: Venmo but for weed.)
Conine is the first to admit the pilot program won’t solve all of the banking issues faced by marijuana businesses but it could address issues of safety and accountability that are related to cash-based industries. It also puts Nevada at the forefront of a national conversation about the fledgling weed industry — a position the state has been reluctant to be at in other regards (see: legislation also passed to stop individual cities from establishing “pot lounges”).
Conine says the goal is to have something in place by July 2020.
Tackling marijuana banking is just one of the ambitious efforts undertaken by Conine this past session. Although it was unsuccessful, the biggest of his legislative ideas was to use money from the state’s unclaimed property program to fund an endowment for the Millennium Scholarship. That state-run scholarship program isn’t self-sustaining and has only stayed afloat because legislators have allocated additional funds to it — to the tune of $20 million last biennium and $33 million for the upcoming biennium.
“It was a big lift,” says Conine. “We pulled out. We’ll continue having the conversation.”
Conine added that he isn’t sure if the office will continue to press for an endowment tied to unclaimed property, or whether they will switch gears and focus on a separate long-term funding source. But he says he is still committed to continuing to work on the issue so that high school students and their families don’t have to worry about scholarships dropping out from underneath them if a future legislative session prioritizes something else over the Millennium Scholarship.
“We’re not religious about mechanics,” he says. “We’re religious about outcomes. I don’t want the junior in high school to worry whether the scholarship dollars will be there. They should be learning about life and taking in English class.”
Beyond the five bill draft requests his office was entitled to sponsor during the 2019 legislative session, Conine also took on supportive roles in more than a dozen bills sponsored by lawmakers, and testified on still more bills that he felt intersected with the work of the state treasurer. Conine says he and his staff met individually with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to explain what their office does and to ask them point blank: How can we help you?
“We wanted to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the process,” he says. “The Legislature is horrifyingly under resourced — not enough people to just think about a thing. We wanted to be sure to help in whatever way we could.”
That included signing on (through Assemblywoman Jill Tolles’s AB 216) to establish a database of information on funding sources for higher education that could be used by victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. The Treasurer’s Office already manages merit-based scholarships like the Millennium Scholarship but hasn’t — until now — talked about other people’s resources.
“We’re investors,” says Conine of his vision for the office. “Sometimes that means taking a little bit of money and putting it in a bond. Sometimes it means an internal effort to better put resources out there. Anything we can do to do a better job of connecting people. We’ll do that.”
Through AB 383 (sponsored by Assemblyman Jason Frierson), the Treasurer’s Office will establish a student loan ombudsman to look into predatory lending and other related issues. The position may provide data and insight into whether stronger regulations are needed on lenders. (The bill originally called for such regulations but those were amended out before passage.)
Through SB 199 (sponsored by state Sen. Melanie Scheible), the Treasurer’s Office signed on to receive monthly reports from each county assessor’s office within the state regarding residential real property ownership changes, with the goal being to institutionalize how people are notified about property tax bills and make sure nobody gets stuck with an unexpected bill.
Through AB 130 (sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Health and Human Services), the Treasurer’s Office signed on to begin actively marketing a tax-advantaged savings program for people with intellectual disabilities.