“What’s going on in Northern Nevada right now is as big an economic event that’s happened to Northern Nevada since the Comstock Lode,” says Tom Burns, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. (Photo: Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)
When Las Vegas insurance executive Tom Burns got a call from an advisor to then-Gov. Elect Joe Lombardo last year asking if he was interested in working in Lombardo’s administration, Burns said he was. But he didn’t want to be insurance commissioner, the role Lombardo initially chose for Burns, who spent three decades at Craigin and Pike, one of Southern Nevada’s oldest insurance agencies.
“I kind of politely declined,” Burns said in a recent phone interview. “It’s just not my skill set. I think the person who has taken that job is a good pick and it fits him and his skill set and his temperament. I’m not sure that all those things fit mine.”
In January, Lombardo named Nick Stosic, formerly the Insurance Division’s deputy commissioner, as interim commissioner. Burns was named director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
“I thought that being in economic development, I could actually make a meaningful difference to the citizens in Nevada and that I’d be interested in that,” Burns says, citing a “sense of business” in the state, and “connections at both ends of the state and a passion for both ends of the state” among his qualifications.
Burns is a graduate of the University of Nevada Reno and “married a Carson City girl.” He was the chair of the Las Vegas Chamber in 2020 and served on its Government Affairs Committee for 16 years. The Chamber endorsed Lombardo’s opponent, Gov. Steve Sisolak, in the 2022 race.
“I took the job to bring good-paying jobs to the citizens in Nevada,” he says, adding while the economic value is significant, “it’s the emotional value or the self-esteem that goes with that. When you can do that a couple of times over again with two and three and four families and five families you begin to raise the self esteem of the community and when you do that we have a better place to live in.”
In his state of the state speech, Lombardo lamented the web of state agencies that administer funding and programs for Nevadans in need of job training.
“They are not aligned, much less coordinated,” Lombardo said in that address. “We don’t make it easy to access programs to help would-be workers with transportation or childcare because that’s in a different department.”
Burns says GOED “oversees a really minor part” of the state’s workforce development efforts. “Our training and workforce development is really centered around industries that we’re trying to attract in the state of Nevada, in an opportunity to develop our workers to step up and be qualified for new and better paying jobs.”
GOED’s five-year plan cites Nevada’s lack of affordable childcare and dearth of workforce housing as deficiencies in the state’s infrastructure.
Burns says while they are priorities to him, as well, it’s a “collaborative effort.”
“We need to work on housing. We need to work on childcare. Those are issues that we need to be involved in as an agency and have a conversation,” he says. “I don’t think it’s solely our responsibility. I’m not trying to slough it off, but I think it’s a broader conversation than the narrow view of economic development in Nevada.”
That narrow view of economic development in Nevada is focused on attracting companies from out of state or rewarding those that desire to expand, such as Elon’s Musk’s Tesla, with incentives such as tax abatements, sometimes valued in the billions of dollars.
Workforce necessities – housing, child care, mass transit, and training for jobs reflecting the states’ current demands opposed to those it hopes to acquire – have traditionally been outside economic development’s field of vision.
“We can keep aspiring to diversify the economy and all the other stuff that we have talked about for many years. But until we get the basics, the foundational aspects – child care, health care, education – remedied, we’re not doing any of that,” says Hugh Anderson, chairman of the Governor’s Workforce Development Board. “If we’re going to entice a company with tax abatements or whatever the package is, there should be a discussion about not just the dollars and cents, but where are those dollars and cents going?”
Nevada has a record low labor force participation rate according to the Department of Labor, a factor that could make employee perks such as housing and childcare more palatable and even necessary to employers such as Tesla, which may be challenged in a time of low unemployment to find 3,000 workers to staff two new plants.
Comstock Lode 2.0
The average cost of infant care in Nevada is $951 a month, 8.7% less than the average rent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Care for a 4-year-old is $754 a month.
The state provides an average of $4.9 million a month in child care subsidies to eligible families. In December of last year, 16,087 children were eligible. 6,625 children received benefits averaging $743 per child, while 9,642 were unserved, according to state data.
“Affordable, accessible childcare is one of the major obstacles that keeps many people from the workforce. When it doesn’t pencil out to pay for childcare, you’re going to stay home to take care of your children,” says Ann Silver, president of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, and chair of Lombardo’s Transition Workforce Development Working Committee, which recommended to the governor that large companies seeking incentives agree to provide on-site child care, workforce housing, or both for their employees.
Burns says he’s not seen the committee’s recommendations. He says employers “need to be part of that solution or part of that conversation. I don’t know that those are the only solutions, I would say, to be candid.”
GOED officials say the state is limited by statute to what it can negotiate with companies. “It’s not part of the requirements under the statute,” says Burns.
Burns declined to say whether he’d recommend his boss, the governor, seek a change in statute that would allow the state to extract more from businesses seeking incentives.
“There are a lot of areas that we’re not remarkably competitive in,” says Burns. “So you don’t want to put too many constraints on folks coming in as it is.”
A bill before lawmakers seeks to expand Burns’ authority to approve a partial tax abatement valued up to $500,000 without the approval of GOED’s board. The current threshold is $250,000.
At a recent hearing, Sen. Dina Neal, a longtime critic of GOED’s oversight of companies that receive incentives, indicated the committee had little interest in approving the measure. “Read the room,” she said to a GOED official.
“I don’t know what, if any, Senator Neal’s issues or problems are with GOED,” says Burns, adding the statutes that govern GOED were enacted by the Legislature.
Another bill before lawmakers seeks to make Nevada “more attractive to the film industry” by increasing the amount of transferable tax credits issued to qualified production companies. Burns says the measure has the support of the governor.
Efforts to diversify Nevada’s economy have been hit and miss. Burns takes exception to the suggestion that mining, one of the state’s oldest industries, does not constitute diversification.
“What’s going on in Northern Nevada right now is as big an economic event that’s happened to Northern Nevada since the Comstock Lode,” he says. “I would say having a lithium loop and having us be part of the new green technology is a big part.”
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