IndyTalks: Lombardo wants to expand Opportunity Scholarship eligibility, reform eviction law
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo promised a new bill on Friday that would expand access to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to families with higher incomes, while still defending his decision not to pursue funding for the state’s abandoned voucher-style school choice program, Education Savings Accounts.
The comments came as part of a sweeping 90-minute discussion with Nevada Independent CEO Jon Ralston in Las Vegas, in an interview that ranged from the governor’s new $11 billion budget to plans to inject $2 billion into the state’s public education system to critical comments Lombardo made over the state’s universal mail-in elections and his assertion that the state needs to reform its summary eviction process.
Lombardo also touted proposed investments into additional mental health services, and defended a lack of specific proposals on several major issues in his State of the State address this week — including gun violence and the state’s housing crisis.
The governor also suggested that he could find common ground with Democrats on some key issues. Lombardo said he had already met with Democratic legislative leaders “more than once,” and hoped to keep open channels of communication throughout the legislative process.
“The rise and fall of any organization is either robust communication or lack of communication,” Lombardo said. “And I come to terms with that, knowing I'm going to have to communicate.”
Below are highlights from the interview. Click on the links to jump to specific topics:
- Criminal justice
- Mental health
- Gun violence
- Executive orders and regulatory cuts
- Tax cut proposals and other fiscal matters
- Campaign finance
- Watch the full conversation
Lombardo doubled down on his criticism of a Democrat-backed criminal justice reform bill from 2019, AB236. A measure that he was “neutral” on during his time as Clark County sheriff, but which he later pilloried on the campaign trail as “soft on crime,” the bill sought to slow the growth of the state’s burgeoning prison population by reducing penalties on some crimes and increasing access to diversionary programs.
The governor lamented comments from Assembly Speaker-Elect Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) that any changes to AB236 were “dead on arrival” — “hopefully that’s just political theater.”
“When you look at AB236, and we're talking about crime data, the proof is in the pudding,” Lombardo said. “You have a single-digit increase in violent crime, you have a double-digit increase in property crimes. And that is exactly in close proximity to the passing of AB236.”
Still, Lombardo characterized his original position on the bill as one that came “in the spirit of bipartisanship,” and lauded portions of the bill that advanced several police reforms (the measure included the creation of a behavioral health field response grant program, for example).
Lombardo attributed many of the problems facing society to a lack of mental health resources.
Although many people look toward counseling or affordable housing, he argued the solution lies in a “medium-term” solution of “bed space.”
“It's the ability to put somebody in a safe space, an ability to have a complete medical evaluation, and more than a three-day supply of psychrotrophic SSR[I] drugs to get your mind right,” he said. “And we don't have it.”
He said that is expensive, but there are significant consequences if the bed space is not provided. He added that one way to pay for it could be a public-private partnership to share expenses and resources.
“You have that medium-term sequestration of an individual to hopefully get them the services they need,” he said.
He said that often when police are called in to address a mental health crisis, there is no bed space available at mental health facilities and individuals are then incarcerated, leading to additional costs and more mental distress.
He added that the lack of resources also applies to the justice system, where there is limited availability for a competency hearing or other assistance for those facing mental health crises.
Pressed on whether he believed there were “no laws” that could be passed to tighten gun safety, Lombardo argued there are “existing, robust laws on the books” already “that have an influence on gun violence and their ability to control the gun culture.”
“What we have to do is stand to the plate and call upon our prosecutors to prosecute individuals with those types of crimes,” he said.
Asked again if there was a policy he believed he might agree with Democratic lawmakers on, Lombardo argued that the gun “horse” was “out of the barn” in the U.S.
“We have more guns in the United States than anywhere in the world and people need to realize that, so how do you fix that?’ he asked. “Even if you put gun control measures in now, you're not going to have an effect.”
Rather than implementing new laws, Lombardo suggested putting a greater emphasis on enforcement.
“That would have a bigger influence than the rest of it,” he said.
Executive orders and regulatory cuts
Among Lombardo’s first moves after taking office was to seek to roll back state regulations, implementing a freeze on any new regulations and asking state agencies to each recommend 10 regulations for removal by May 1.
Responding to the implication that his decision to cut regulations was linked to big-business campaign donors, Lombardo defended his donors as “part of the process,” and said that “if I had my way we’d have some significant election reforms and you could have a cap on how much money you can raise.”
Lombardo conceded that the number — 10 — was “an arbitrary number,” but also argued that the cuts are aimed at “archaic” and “cumbersome” regulations that have become outdated since their original implementation, and are now “prohibiting businesses from moving forward sooner than later” or are “no longer a benefit to the public interest.”
“You're gonna be able to pick one or two, off the top, [to cut] without even trying,” Lombardo said. “But what I'm asking you to do is make an effort. And that's why we went to 10, to make an effort.”
Lombardo also touted his experience in law enforcement, arguing that he was not calling for regulatory cuts “from a position of ignorance.”
“If you look at the private sector versus government sector, we tend to get bogged down and forget what we're there for,” Lombardo said. “We're there for service, we're not there to make your life harder.”
The governor added that state workers were there “for the protection of the public,” and said he was not asking agencies to ax safety regulations.
“I’m asking you to get the ones that are antiquated and overburdensome, that don’t have any positive results,” he said.
Another significant executive order the governor addressed during the one-on-one interview was a requirement for state workers to return “to pre-pandemic, normal and customary office conditions” by July 1.
Lombardo said he understands that people can work from home, but he would like to see state workers return to the office in part because of communication issues during the pandemic.
“Part of even my campaign platform was my one-on-one interaction with state government and the failure for anybody to answer the phone,” he said.
Pressed about potentially losing talent over the policy, Lombardo responded, “It's called a job for a reason.”
“If people are going to quit as a result of it, right? I say, well, that's probably not my productive employee anyway,” he said.
He did, however, say that he is open to some people working from home, but there should be accountability measures in place.
Asked about the size of his proposed budget — the largest in state history at over $11 billion over two years — Lombardo said his proposal is “not all spending,” arguing that hundreds of millions in savings is going to the state’s Rainy Day Fund and executive orders are “trying to downsize government.”
“That's your money, and we’ve got to have some accountability associated with it,” Lombardo said. “Fortunately, the winds were in my favor. You're coming into my first year of my tenure, and we're not in a crisis budget, but let's do something appropriate with it, and one of the key lines in that was ‘no recurring projects.’”
Asked if the amount in planned rainy-day savings — more than $1.6 billion over two years — was too high when other programs could be funded with that money, Lombardo said: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
“You can easily throw all that money into the system, but you don't have the resources to manage it, you don't have the resources to deploy it, and you don't have the ability to have people consume it,” Lombardo said. “I think you’re better off being slow and methodical.”
Tax cut proposals and other fiscal matters
Asked about a proposal to suspend the state’s gas tax for one year and whether his administration knew what that cut “was really going to do,” Lombardo conceded that “you can’t predict anything into the future at 100 percent,” but that “it is a benefit to the consumer and the constituents that feel the pain the most.”
Later pressed on why he took credit for a 15 percent reduction in the state’s modified business tax that was set to go into effect before he was elected, Lombardo said that his position was to “move forward,” and that the promise in his speech was also a promise to let the tax sunset, rather than keeping it at the old level.
In 2015, former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law the Commerce Tax, which applies to businesses with gross revenues of more than $4 million a year. Lombardo said he is proposing to raise the threshold for the tax to $6 million in light of rising inflation costs.
The governor estimated that it would help roughly 1,100 or 1,200 businesses in the state.
“Businesses bolster the economy across the board and it's important that they're successful,” Lombardo said. “If we don't have to tax them as much as we have the ability to, there's no reason to.”
Though there was pushback against the tax bill when Sandoval introduced it, Lombardo said he believes that it was a good tax, especially because it helped fund education.
“Would I have done something different? More than likely,” Lombardo said. “A lot of my opponents said they would repeal it … But my question to that was, ‘What do you fill the hole with?’”
Part of Lombardo’s budget includes savings totaling to $315 million dollars for the Nevada Way Fund, a new sub-account that Lombardo said in his State of the State address would be used for transformational economic development projects and critical infrastructure needs.
Asked about the nature of the fund, Lombardo said it’s meant to provide an additional way to help diversify the economy and help pay for any potential projects that were not funded during the legislative session.
“I think it’s important for the governor to have some autonomy and some ability to help the state out,” he said.
Lombardo argued that the Nevada Way Fund was not a “slush fund,” adding that the account would be overseen by both chambers of the Legislature.
Lombardo also explained his recent statement that he opposed raising the federal debt limit. He said the federal government is spending money wastefully and federal officials should begin identifying ways to cut back and pay bills before they begin to accrue.
He couched his words by noting that it was his opinion as someone on the “outside looking in” and the government will raise the debt limit regardless of what he says.
A policy brief from the U.S. Treasury explains that “the debt limit does not authorize new spending and allows the government to finance existing obligations … Failing to increase the debt limit would have catastrophic economic consequences.”
Asked about criticism from the right that Lombardo’s proposed budget would pour $2 billion into a public education system rife with problems rather than opening opportunities for private or other non-public schools, the governor said that certain problems — aging infrastructure, overcrowding and high student-teacher ratios — required state investment.
“It is throwing money into the system, but it's building a system,” Lombardo said. “And the key component on this outside of that … is accountability all along the way, and that's where I think we have failed.”
But the money he proposes for K-12 schools comes with strings attached. In his State of the State, Lombardo said he expected results in exchange for those funds, and would be working with the state superintendent of public instruction to “ensure our systems of accountability and transparency are robust and enforced.”
When pressed on what Lombardo defined as accountability, he didn’t offer a specific metric and said if performance doesn’t improve, people will need to be replaced.
As a candidate, Lombardo said he was committed to expanding school choices, including investing in the sweeping, voucher-style Education Savings Account program, but ESAs have taken a back seat since he took office.
Getting statewide support for ESAs hasn’t been easy. Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2015 signed into law an ESA program, which faced a legal challenge and then never received funding. Last year, the Education Freedom PAC tried to revive the ESA program through an initiative petition and a similar constitutional initiative, but they also faced legal challenges and were ultimately defeated.
Instead of focusing on ESAs, Lombardo turned his attention to a tax credit-funded scholarship program called Opportunity Scholarships that was designed to allow students to attend private K-12 institutions, and pledged to invest $50 million into the program. Lombardo also proposed creating an Office of School Choice that would be located within the Nevada Department of Education and would provide advocacy and information for families who want another choice for their children's education.
While Lombardo hasn’t totally given up on ESAs, he said expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program is the answer that makes the most sense.
“I need to do something now. We had to fix something now, we need to start moving forward now,” he said.
He added that the government also needs a way to sustainably fund Education Savings Accounts before they can become a reality. Later, asked again why he did not fund the program, he conceded that the Democrat-controlled Legislature precludes any move to fund ESAs in 2023.
“I gotta be pragmatic about it,” Lombardo said. “I’ve got to have more discussion, I have to have more support going forward.”
In order for a student to qualify for an Opportunity Scholarship, they must come from families whose household incomes are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line. Lombardo said his office is proposing a bill that would drastically raise that threshold to at or below 500 percent of the federal poverty line.
The federal poverty line sits at $30,000 in 2023 for a family of four, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with 500 percent of that line including households up to $150,000.
“So imagine how many more people are going to be included into that system,” he said.
Asked about whether he was worried if using public dollars to fund private schools would gut the state’s public education system, Lombardo said he didn’t agree with that premise.
Asked why his State of the State address did not raise the issue of the housing crisis in Nevada, Lombardo said that his speech did mention housing — by way of an oblique reference to federal lands, and the necessity of securing those lands for development around the state’s two major metropolitan areas.
Lombardo said that it was “very expensive” to purchase land and then subsequently develop affordable housing. He said there needs to be a way to ensure developers can purchase land at a reasonable price.
“They're never going to utilize it. And why not put that into the affordable housing space at the cost of $1 an acre, whatever it may be,” Lombardo said.
He also said there are a number of different solutions the state should keep in mind, including offering developers low interest loans via the state’s infrastructure bank, which was created in 2017 under Sandoval’s administration, but was not funded until the 2021 legislative session.
For housing and infrastructure projects it funds, the infrastructure bank requires project-labor agreements (PLAs), which are collective bargaining agreements signed prior to construction that establish employment terms for a project.
While on the campaign trail, Lombardo criticized the use of PLAs, saying they would limit progress on construction projects and reduce the labor supply.
“I don’t think the governor or the government should inject itself into business matters. I think … less regulation is beneficial toward business,” he said at a September event hosted by the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.
One area of housing legislation that Lombardo said he believed should be reformed is Nevada’s rapid summary eviction process, which stipulates that a tenant must make the first court filing in an eviction case rather than the landlord.
As recently as 2021, tenants’ rights advocates and lawmakers have attempted to amend summary evictions to shift more of the onus to landlords, but to no avail. Though Lombardo said he wouldn’t completely agree that the pandemic exposed the vulnerability of tenants to summary eviction, he said that the process needs to “be objectively reformed with full disclosure on both sides.”
Lombardo described the Democrat-backed policy of universal mail-in ballots as a “product on the back end of COVID,” passed in large part because of “a fear that people didn’t have the ability to go out and vote.”
“But we know and I guarantee you'll agree, the voter rolls are not clean,” Lombardo said. “You can ask the person next to you that they're aware of somebody [that] moved out of the house two years ago and they're still getting their ballots and that ballot’s still available for anybody to grab and take the chance of filling it out.”
Calling voter fraud a “law of percentages,” Lombardo argued that, despite the existence of voter integrity measures such as signature verification, “there’s still that perception of failure, and there is, still, some failure.”
“It could be 1, 2 or 3 percent,” Lombardo said. “But 3 percent’s a big number.”
Lombardo’s comments come as former President Donald Trump has continued to claim, without evidence, that widespread voter fraud influenced the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 midterms, in which Republicans broadly underperformed expectations.
An investigation into GOP fraud claims in 2020 from former Republican Secretary of State found no “evidentiary support” of such claims, and the state’s new Democratic secretary of state, Cisco Aguilar, has defended the state’s mail-vote process as “some of the most secure and accessible elections in the country.”
When pressed on whether he believed ballot harvesting or ballot collection — the process by which non-family members are allowed to submit absentee ballots — led to voter fraud, Lombardo echoed his State of the State call for ballot harvesting to be “controlled.”
“I think that those people [ballot collectors] need to be registered, they need to be a controlled process,” he said.
The governor acknowledged that legislative Democrats have called some of his election plans a “non-starter,” but still expressed hope for compromise or, failing that, a potential referendum by Nevada voters.
“If we can do one or two, or a couple of items on this, I'm all for it,” Lombardo said. “But I don't want a loggerhead on this, because … if you look at the polls associated with voter integrity, the majority of people say there needs to be change. And so if we can't get some process in this, yes, I'll ask for it to go to a vote of the people.”
In the wake of his electoral victory in November, Lombardo went on to raise more than $2 million in post-election contributions, according to filings with the secretary of state’s office earlier this month. When asked if the amount of post-election money — a record for a new Nevada governor — was “unseemly,” Lombardo said that “money in politics is unfortunate.”
“They always say candidates matter, and hopefully it’s not obscured by the ability to raise money,” Lombardo said.
Asked again what he needed the campaign dollars for after the election was already over, Lombardo said “nothing, at this point.”
“To answer your question: How did this happen, did I go out and strong arm people, and I'm the governor? No,” Lombardo said. “I know that that's not the case, and I wouldn't ever do that. But what it is, is people want to ensure that they support the right person, and hopefully, that will help them be successful.”
Asked about his single largest donor throughout 2022 — businessman Robert Bigelow, who gave both Lombardo’s campaign and several political action committees supporting him more than $30 million to boost his gubernatorial bid — Lombardo said Bigelow wanted “nothing” in return.
“He wanted the conservative side of the house to be successful in Nevada politics,” Lombardo said.
During a debate against Sisolak last fall, Lombardo was asked if Trump was a “great president.” Lombardo replied that Trump was a “sound” president.
Reporting from The New York Times last October showed the Trump campaign threatened to pull support from Lombardo in a brief window following the debate, during which the Republican’s campaign issued a statement that Trump was a “great” president.
Lombardo later took the stage during a Trump rally in Minden and announced that the real estate magnate was the “greatest president.”
Asked by moderator Jon Ralston on Friday if he “needed to take a shower after that,” Lombardo said “absolutely not.”
“I’m a man of my word,” Lombardo said. “And I believe in what I say. And if I told you I misspoke, I would tell you that.”
He added that he believed that “a lot of [Trump’s] policies he brought forward were successful,” adding that there were some “ancillary things” — social media and “comments he made” — that “we’re not in agreement with.”
Asked if he would support Trump for president in 2024, Lombardo said only: “I’m worried about Joe Lombardo being governor of the State of Nevada.”