Activists watch as ‘impractical’ public policies become essential overnight

screenshot from Make The Road video
A screenshot of a FacebookLive video broadcast by Make The Road Nevada.

Governments at all levels are working at a breakneck pace to provide relief and resources to people during this onslaught of physical and economic devastation caused by the novel coronavirus. They have stopped disconnections on public utilities like power and water, expanded unemployment benefits and promised that seeking medical attention will not break the bank.

The efforts are being largely applauded — and rightly so.

But for the community organizers who have been advocating for progressive policies for years, watching the coronavirus recovery efforts unfold has been a tad more complicated. They cannot help but wonder why it took a global pandemic for lawmakers to embrace certain policies that would benefit people who are always one emergency away from financial and personal ruin.

“It’s infuriating to see the same people who watered down our paid sick bill now say everyone needs it,” says Laura Martin, executive director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Like, no shit. That’s why we were fighting for it.”

What Martin is referring to is the 2019 Nevada Legislature and Senate Bill 312, which requires all private sector businesses with 50 or more employees to allow workers to earn a total of 40 hours (five days) of paid leave annually. Groups like PLAN pushed for broader coverage. They wanted more than five days of paid leave. They wanted to exempt only businesses with fewer than 25 employees.

They repeated ad nauseum in prepared remarks during committees that some 40 percent of Nevadans had zero days of paid leave. They pointed out that service workers were going to work while ill and spreading diseases.

One year later, lawmakers would hold press conferences begging anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home. Implicit was the understanding that people typically don’t. Often, they can’t.

“What were once impractical and not friendly to business and too expensive now seem to be universally recognized as life-sustaining policies,” says Martin.

Paid time off isn’t the only issue suddenly receiving attention or action. During last year’s legislative session, PLAN, Make the Road and other groups fought — and failed — to end a cash bail system that keeps people behind bars simply for being poor. 

“We were told we couldn’t possibly (end that),” says Martin.

A bail reform bill circulated the 2019 legislature but died in the waning days of the session. An interim committee to study the issue was created instead. Now, they’ve watched as jails across the country release inmates in an effort to reduce their overall numbers and keep their facilities safer.

And the list goes on and on, say community organizers. Livable wages, childcare, educational equity, healthcare, food deserts, affordable housing — the everyday issues faced by working families have been thrust almost overnight into the spotlight. The shortcomings of existing policies have been exposed and are unavoidable.

“What this pandemic is (doing) is exposing the flaws in our current system,” says LaLo Montoya, political director at Make the Road Nevada. “We need a safety net. We see how far away we’ve gotten from that, how needed it is.”

Martin puts it another way.

“Why not just always take care of people? Why continue to make excuses, to make policies that aren’t working? In this moment, in a pandemic, it can change.”

Organizers are hopeful the coronavirus pandemic can be used to push forward large structural changes that improve the lives of working people. But they are also aware of the looming budgetary issues that will soon catch up with the state.

“I’m worried about what that means for our future,” says Martin. “Where will they cut from?”

When the Nevada Legislature next meets — either during a special session or during the scheduled 2021 session — Martin hopes lawmakers have not lost sight of the lessons learned from the pandemic.

“We cannot have a trickle-down recovery in Nevada,” she says. “We can’t keep leaving people behind.”

Martin also has a suggestion for generating more revenue: Tax mining. She points out Nevada has deemed mining an essential business that is still allowed to operate.

Montoya doesn’t have any specific suggestion balancing the state budget, but he believes its incumbent upon the lawmakers to figure it out.

“(The federal government) found 2 trillion dollars out of nowhere. You can’t tell me that we don’t have (money) here. It’s about moral decisions.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.