By Ben Kieckhefer
I know how hard it can be.
When I became press secretary for Gov. Jim Gibbons, it felt like mere moments before my job changed. I had hoped to make a difference in public policy. Instead, I was fielding calls from People magazine and helping to curate an image of the governor’s private life.
Then, everything changed quickly once again when the economy and state budget collapsed. I wasn’t talking any longer about the workforce needed by all the new resorts opening on the Strip. Instead, I was working with the budget director on some ugly spending cuts.
Things can change quickly indeed in gubernatorial communications, as Gov. Sisolak and his staff have learned in a hard way during the past six weeks. I don’t envy them. But it’s fair to expect more: More communication directly with the public, and more engagement with the people with whom the governor will work in guiding the state for the next 12 to 18 months.
We cannot underestimate the importance of speaking directly to the people of Nevada. Our people have lost their jobs, their businesses, their livelihoods. Parents can’t send their kids to school. Students struggle to graduate from college online. Our people worry where their next meal is going to come from — not to mention their worries about their next unemployment check.
The governor directed that our people make these sacrifices to combat COVID-19. Our people stepped up in a spirit of community and with the knowledge that the sacrifices we continue to make will save the lives of our neighbors, friends, and family.
We stayed home. The sacrifices made by the people of Nevada bent the curve and saved lives. But in protecting lives, many Nevadans have lost much. It is important that the governor speak for all of us, expressing our heartfelt appreciation to those who have given much so that others might live.
But the governor’s work does not stop with public appreciation. If we continue to face a threat from COVID-19 — as the governor believes — he must convince those who already have made great sacrifices that even more sacrifices lie ahead. If not, the virus may regain its power over our lives. Everything Nevadans have sacrificed to this point will have been for naught.
Asked to make further sacrifices, the people of Nevada must have trust that the governor is making wise decisions. Without the people’s trust, virus-fighting strategies built on social-distancing will collapse. Trust cannot be won with silence. Unfortunately, the governor has provided an abundance of silence.
Before the governor’s press conference last Thursday, it had been nine days since he spoke to the people of Nevada. Nine days of lost pay, distance-education, closed businesses, fear and uncertainty. The people of Nevada need and deserve far better communication if we’re expected to make continued sacrifices.
The governor also needs to establish better lines of communication with the Legislature as state government faces an unparalleled economic crisis. I learned during my days in the executive branch that collaboration between the state’s chief executive and other branches and levels of government goes far to ensure the success of the state. I was happy, for example, to see the role the governor assigned to county commissions in economic reopening. Unilateral actions, or actions taken with little input, are more likely to fail. We simply cannot fail as we address the massive budget crisis that we face between now and the end of the biennium.
We have never seen revenue losses, both for the general fund and the Distributive School account, on the scale that we will see as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns. We will have a likely shortfall of $1 billion in the next budget year, and it’s possible the shortfall could be closer to $2 billion. We will burn through all our cash reserves in the next two months and still have to make serious cuts to balance the budget.
The governor cannot, and should not, deal with this crisis alone. The establishment of budget priorities is a shared responsibility of the executive and legislative branches of government. The elected leaders of the Legislature, including members from both parties and both chambers, have more experience dealing with budget shortfalls than the Governor.
This is the time to create a plan to address the crisis. We must take steps now that will allow us to spread the pain over the course of an entire fiscal year. If we wait until we fully understand the size of the problem, we will have waited too long. Instead, we must take action soon, with the understanding that we will need to make more changes as we gain more information.
Trust must be the cornerstone value for the group that honestly and openly debates the options and recommends the best possible answers for our state. It’s critical for the governor to start laying that foundation of trust with the Legislature if we hope to deal with this budget crisis quickly and smoothly.
Once again, trust can only be built only through communication. Trust will erode with continued silence.
We cannot overstate the significance of the next two months to the future of Nevada. As we find our way to the best path forward, we will rely on strong leadership from Gov. Sisolak — leadership that must start with open lines of communication.
Ben Kieckhefer is a Republican state senator from Reno representing Carson City and parts of Washoe County.