On the Record: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak
Editor's Note: This is one in a series of "On the Record" pieces highlighting the policy stances of candidates running for major offices in the 2022 Nevada election. Click here for additional election coverage. For more information on the policy positions of Sisolak’s opponent, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, click here.
In 2018, Gov. Steve Sisolak made history by becoming the first Democrat to win the governor’s mansion in more than two decades.
Four years later, the former Clark County Commission chair is again hoping to buck historical trends in his re-election campaign, facing headwinds of an unpopular president in Joe Biden and negative economic conditions, including rising inflation.
Sisolak’s campaign has leaned heavily into key Democratic legislative accomplishments over the four years of his administration, including creation of a state public health insurance option, implementation of several gun control measures and the adoption of an update to the state’s 50-year-old education funding formula. Much of his tenure was spent responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the decision to shutter most of the state’s businesses, including the Las Vegas Strip, for several months in early 2020.
Those pandemic-era decisions continue to dominate airwaves and conversations around the governor’s race. Sisolak has been eager to highlight his administration's plans to spend billions of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan on issues such as education and affordable housing, while Republicans have hammered him for keeping the state closed for longer than other (largely Republican) states and for his administration’s role in approving a COVID testing laboratory with faulty tests, detailed in a May ProPublica story.
A recent Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll found Lombardo leading Sisolak by 3 points (45 percent to 42 percent), within the poll’s 3.6 percent margin of error. That tracks with other public polling showing it’s a tight race.
Sisolak’s campaign did not agree to an interview for this story. His positions, detailed below, are instead collected from past interviews, debates and other public statements, social media posts and campaign messaging.
- Minimum Wage
- Economic Development
- Health Care
- Public Safety
- Labor Unions
Sisolak has made protecting abortion access one of the most prominent themes of his re-election campaign, especially after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and polls show a majority of Nevadans consider themselves pro-choice.
“As long as I’m governor, I will oppose any attempts - whether at the federal or state level - to attack a Nevada woman’s’ right to an abortion within 24 weeks of her pregnancy,” he told The Nevada Independent.
Sisolak also signed an executive order protecting people who come to Nevada from out of state to get an abortion, preventing state workers from helping out-of-state jurisdictions arrest or prosecute abortion seekers and abortion providers. He has vowed to try to codify those directives in state law.
During a gubernatorial town hall debate on Sunday, Sisolak didn’t stray from his previous position. The governor said he “unequivocally” supports a woman’s right to choose.
When pressed about a timeline he could support for late-term abortions, though, Sisolak said, “I do not think that she would have a right to make that decision at 35 weeks, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Twenty-four weeks of gestation is generally considered the point at which a fetus could survive outside of the womb.
On Sisolak’s watch, Nevada transitioned from a 50-year-old education funding formula to what is known as the “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan” — an attempt to make the school funding process more transparent and apply “weights” that allocate more money to students with higher needs.
In 2019, he made good on a campaign promise to raise teacher salaries by 3 percent through the state budget. However, the state has continued to grapple with worsening teacher shortages in tandem with ballooning costs of living, prompting the Clark County School District to use its own allotment of federal pandemic aid to support teacher bonuses and raise entry-level pay by about $5,000.
When asked during the town hall debate whether teachers deserve another raise, Sisolak said “absolutely.” He added that he couldn’t commit to a specific dollar figure but said the raise “needs to be more than the 2 or 3 percent to catch up with inflation.”
Sisolak also said the starting pay for teachers needs a boost to help shore up chronic staffing shortages.
While pay is a perennial education issue, Sisolak also dealt with the pandemic — and its effects on schools — during his first term in office. The initial school closures in the spring of 2020 were state mandated, but Sisolak eventually left the reopening decision up to local school districts. Most rural school districts and the Washoe County School District offered at least some form of in-person learning at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. But the state’s largest school system — the more than 300,000-student Clark County School District — did not start bringing children back to brick-and-mortar classrooms until the spring of 2021.
“I will do whatever it takes to get our children back in the classroom,” Sisolak said during his 2021 State of the State address. “That’s why we worked to supply PPE, ensure rapid testing was made available to all school districts, and now, prioritize our educators for vaccinations.”
Even though Sisolak wasn’t technically part of individual districts’ reopening decisions, he has fielded sharp criticism for mask mandates and other COVID-era policies that affected school environments. And during his pandemic-influenced term, the state saw a documented rise in mental health concerns and drop in graduation rates.
While campaigning for his first term, Sisolak defined his two primary goals as restoring school funding to pre-recession levels and reducing class sizes. It’s difficult to quantify changes in class size year to year, but a 2021 report presented to the State Board of Education showed that student-to-teacher ratios remain above the recommended levels.
In 2018, the State Board of Education passed non-binding recommendations about class sizes — specifically, 15 students per class in first through third grade and 25 students per class for students in fourth through 12th grade. However, during the 2019-2020 school year, average class sizes in Nevada exceeded those targets. For instance, the average second-grade class had 20 students that year, while the average history class in middle or high school had 30 students.
Sisolak got his start in Nevada politics in the education realm as a member of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s system of higher education, for a decade. While running for governor the first time, Sisolak vowed to donate his salary to Nevada’s K-12 public schools. He has made good on that promise since taking office, donating more than $320,000 as of June.
In his first campaign, he noted that he will “always fight against the diversion of funding from public schools to private schools.”
Efforts to expand school choice programs such as Education Savings Accounts have not succeeded on his watch. However, Opportunity Scholarships — a tax credit-funded program that supports low-income students attending private schools — were part of a mining tax compromise during the 2021 legislative session. As a result, the program, disliked by many Democrats, received funding to match 2019 levels and loosened restrictions, allowing new children to apply.
In an interview immediately after the legislative session ended, Sisolak framed the Opportunity Scholarships situation as the byproduct of both parties working together.
“There were a lot of discussions leading up to that. It wasn't easy,” he said. “Good governance is all about compromise. I mean, it's not just getting your way all the time.”
During a recent round table discussion with teachers in Clark County, Sisolak said he wants to move Nevada to the middle of national education rankings, an improvement from its often bottom-dweller status. But he acknowledged that it will take an investment and time to get there.
“We're gonna have to take steps, but that's what our intention is to do,” he told the group of teachers.
Discussion about whether the massive Clark County School District should be broken up has ebbed and flowed over the years. Now, a statutory ballot initiative dubbed the Community Schools Initiative would allow cities and municipalities to opt out of their county school districts and form their own. It’s currently in the signature-gathering phase, though backers recently announced endorsements from regional chambers of commerce.
Sisolak hasn’t dismissed it as a viable possibility.
“I think that that's still something that we have to look at,” he told The Nevada Independent after the round table event.
During his first term, Sisolak navigated one of the most turbulent economic periods in state history.
In April 2020, just after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the state’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to a record-high 28.2 percent. In the span of two months, Nevada lost more than 300,000 jobs. Losses were concentrated primarily in the leisure and hospitality industry, a sector that Nevada relies upon heavily with its tourism-driven economy.
The sweeping declines in employment came as Sisolak shut down non-essential businesses at the start of the pandemic in an effort to contain spread of the virus and limit deaths. He has often defended that decision, arguing that it helped save lives.
“I had regular consultations with our medical community, our medical advisory team and the business community,” Sisolak said during a debate against Lombardo. “At the time, it was predicted we could lose upwards of 40,000 Nevadans. We still lost, at the last count, 11,501. I'm sorry about every one of those lives lost. Yes, our businesses suffered, but we have come back stronger than anybody anticipated.”
Since then, Sisolak has often touted the quick progress of Nevada’s recovery, highlighting a Federal Funds Information for States report ranking Nevada first in “economic momentum,” which accounted for gains in personal income, employment and population. Though Nevada continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, the rate sits at a level similar to those recorded early in 2019, and employment totals are at an all-time high.
But Sisolak now contends with a 40 year-high inflation rate that is driving up prices for food and energy in Nevada. The state has consistently had some of the highest gas prices in the country, which comes from a combination of limited supply to oil and high demand. Sisolak’s campaign has generally framed inflation as a federal issue, and his campaign website makes no mention of the term.
Still, Sisolak has promoted his own efforts to lower costs, in part by investing millions of dollars in federal relief funds into expanding affordable housing and child care. His campaign has also highlighted his efforts to diversify the state’s economy, create jobs and “build an economy that works for every Nevadan,” according to his website.
As part of his push to diversify the economy, Sisolak signed a pair of bills in 2021 aimed at making major investments in the state’s infrastructure, including one measure expanding transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, and another meant to leverage a $75 million investment in the State Infrastructure Bank. Those funds will be used for development of affordable housing, charter schools and other infrastructure projects.
Ahead of the 2021 legislative session, Sisolak also debuted the concept of “Innovation Zones,” a controversial idea that involved creating autonomous zones with powers on par with counties. The idea revolved around interest from Blockchains LLC in creating a “smart city” in Northern Nevada that would run on blockchain technology, but the legislation was spiked mid-session by Sisolak.
Sisolak’s economic priorities for a second term include no new taxes, cutting “bureaucratic red tape” for businesses and investing in workforce training and small businesses.
During an off-cycle State of the State address in February, Sisolak detailed how Nevada would spend pandemic relief money and announced a variety of new initiatives and task forces. But the governor also declared his administration would “hold the line” on taxes, noting that all of his proposals could be accomplished without raising taxes.
The promise hasn’t kept his opponents from attacking him on taxes, though. Just weeks after the primary election, for instance, a group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association launched a $2 million ad campaign that accused him of supporting “job-killing taxes.”
In 2021, Sisolak signed a bill that put an additional tax on gold and silver mines and is expected to bring [between $150 million and $170 million] to public education over the biennium. It also directed $215 million more in one-time federal pandemic aid dollars toward education to address learning loss from the pandemic.
It was part of a legislative compromise that led to the Clark County Education Association ending its campaign to significantly raise the state’s gaming and sales tax rates through a statewide ballot measure.
The additional money from the new mining tax is far less than what education advocates believe is needed to bring Nevada to “adequate” revenue levels identified by the Commission on School Funding. That committee wants the state to look at sales and property tax to fill the large shortfall.
During a gubernatorial debate earlier this month, Sisolak bristled at the notion that taxes have increased under his watch. The governor said some tax proposals never made it to his desk for a veto because he talked to legislators ahead of time and told them what he could or could not support.
Sisolak also defended the mining tax increase, saying no one was laid off as a result.
As he seeks a second term in office, Sisolak has put out an ad pledging “no new taxes.” He reiterated that point during the debate.
“I’m not raising taxes on everyday citizens,” he said.
In June 2019 — less than six months into his first term as governor — Sisolak signed into law AB456, which gradually raises the minimum wage over five years. The law went into effect on July 1, 2020, and by mid-2024, it will bring base pay rate up to $12 per hour if an employer doesn’t offer health insurance and $11 per hour if they do.
Voters will notice a minimum wage-related question on the November ballot. Question 2 would enshrine a $12-per-hour minimum wage in the state Constitution and eliminate the provision that allows employers to pay a $1 less per hour if they offer health insurance. Instead, the hourly minimum wage would be $12 across the board.
On the 2018 campaign trail, Sisolak sought to thread a needle in praising some of his predecessor Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s economic development policies, while also pledging to move the state away from what he described as an overreliance on tax incentives and abatements to attract large companies to Nevada.
After his election, Sisolak instituted a monthslong pause in the granting of tax abatements or incentives from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), expressing a desire to focus on quality, higher-wage jobs over quantity.
Though the timeline was thrown off by the COVID-19 pandemic, GOED released a long-awaited update to the state’s economic development blueprint in December 2020 that inspired much of Sisolak’s 2021 legislative session agenda, which heavily focused on economic growth and development.
The plan (and a later Sisolak-proposed bill) included funding the state infrastructure bank with an allocation of $75 million in state general obligation funds. Infrastructure banks operate as state-operated revolving funds (meaning any loans and interest are reinvested to fund additional projects) with the capacity to offer direct loans or credit enhancement products to help with infrastructure projects, typically focused on transportation.
Since funding the bank, state officials have planned to use the money to support charter schools, matching requirements for federal infrastructure funding and the development of affordable housing.
Not all of Sisolak’s economic development plans have come to fruition. In 2021, his proposed “Innovation Zone” proposal — designed to allow the politically connected Blockchains LLC create a semi-autonomous government overseeing the proposed blockchain-powered “smart city” east of Reno — fell flat before skeptical state lawmakers. (The company ultimately withdrew the concept last year).
On his campaign website, Sisolak’s specific economic goals for a second term include:
- Not raising a “penny in new taxes on everyday Nevadans.”
- “Investing in education and making community college and other workforce training programs free for more Nevadans by 2025.”
- Cutting “bureaucratic red tape.”
Early in his tenure as governor, Sisolak called for the creation of the Office for New Americans, later codified through the Legislature as SB538 in 2019. It’s a state agency tasked with assisting immigrants in Nevada and acting as a liaison between state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations handling issues such as refugee resettlement.
Sisolak was also among vulnerable Democratic politicians nationwide who pushed the Biden administration to abandon an effort to end Title 42 earlier this year, a decades-old and little-used public health law that, under the Trump administration, was used to curb the number of asylum-seekers allowed into the U.S. while asylum claims were processed.
In a letter Sisolak sent the White House in April, he wrote that — while asylum seekers “should be afforded every proper opportunity” to migrate to the U.S. — “lifting Title 42 without a measured, comprehensive plan would create chaos at our border and make it more onerous for families attempting to immigrate legally.”
Sisolak, in that same letter, also called for Biden to “prioritize a pathway to citizenship” as part of comprehensive federal immigration reform.
Nevada’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2017 predates Sisolak’s tenure as governor, but he dealt with the issue as the Clark County Commission’s chairman.
Since his time in the gubernatorial office, though, he has helped shepherd the marijuana industry through its first few years of legal recreational use and sales.
During the 2019 legislative session, Sisolak requested a bill to create a regulatory structure for the cannabis industry. Assembly Bill 533, passed by state lawmakers and signed by Sisolak, created the Cannabis Advisory Commission and the Cannabis Compliance Board.
The Cannabis Advisory Commission studies marijauna-related issues and makes recommendations to the Cannabis Compliance Board, which consists of five board members appointed by the governor.
In 2021, Sisolak signed legislation approving cannabis consumption lounges, which would give people a legal place to use marijuana outside of private residences. In June, the Cannabis Compliance Board approved regulations governing the existence of such lounges. In mid-September, the board issued a notice of intent to start accepting applications for cannabis consumption lounges. (The application period opens Friday and runs through Oct. 27.)
Under Sisolak’s watch, the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners formally forgave more than 15,000 misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions that occurred during the three decades before the state legalized recreational marijuana. Sisolak, who chairs the pardons board, proposed the idea in March 2020, and by June of that same year, the board unanimously approved a resolution pardoning the decriminalized offense.
On the campaign trail, one of Sisolak’s most-touted health care achievements is the passage of a bill establishing a public health insurance option set to debut in 2026. The governor signed the bill into law after the 2021 session and has lauded it as a way to expand health care opportunities in the Silver State.
“By leveraging the state's existing health care infrastructure and reducing costs, it is my hope that Nevadans will have improved access to comprehensive insurance,” Sisolak said during a bill-signing ceremony.
Recent findings from a study of Nevada’s public health insurance option suggest it could generate $300 million to $400 million in health care savings for consumers and the state during its first five years.
Though Lombardo criticized the option and noted that the state has failed to address the Medicaid reimbursement model in a recent debate, Sisolak defended the legislation, saying that Nevada is leading the nation and the option will benefit thousands of Nevadans.
Sisolak also made good on a campaign promise when, in 2019, his administration established the Patient Protection Commission, which consists of health care professionals and was created to address health care disparities and serve as a patient advocacy forum.
The philosophy central to Sisolak’s health care plan is “reliable access to affordable health care.” On his campaign website, the governor notes that his administration has taken on medical debt collectors, made protections for pre-existing conditions permanent and ended surprise billing.
“Steve’s worked to expand access to lifesaving health care services while lowering costs for families,” his campaign website said. “In a second term, he will build on our progress, support our families, and continue taking steps to build a healthier Nevada and a stronger workforce and economy.”
As Democrats took control of the Legislature at the start of Sisolak’s term, they quickly moved to enact a slate of criminal justice reforms through AB236, which sought to decrease the state’s prison population in part by lowering penalties for some low-level crimes, in addition to expanding access to diversionary programs.
The changes came, in part, after an advisory commission created by outgoing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic legislative leaders found that the state’s prison system cost $347 million in the 2019 fiscal year, with two-thirds of all incoming inmates in 2017 entering the system as non-violent offenders.
In 2021, Sisolak signed additional criminal justice legislation, including a bill that decriminalized traffic tickets and several measures aimed at reforming police departments in the wake of protests and riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
That includes a bill authorizing the attorney general to pursue “pattern and practice” investigations into police use-of-force trends, a measure that narrowed when use of force by police was justified, and another that required officers to use de-escalation techniques when possible.
More broadly, these criminal justice measures have been targeted by Republicans as having spurred crime increases in the years since — though the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department did support or testify in neutral on some of those measures, including 2019’s AB236 (on which Metro was also neutral).
On the campaign trail and in a debate with Lombardo, Sisolak has dismissed those criticisms, and instead attributed those increases to Lombardo’s tenure as sheriff, arguing during the debate that “people are not safer today than they were eight years ago.”
In contrast to the more progressive criminal justice reform measures passed under his administration, Sisolak worked to kill a legislative effort to end the death penalty in Nevada last year.
Sisolak along with other Democratic leaders scrapped the bill after it pased through the Assembly with Republicans in opposition, without giving it a hearing in the Senate. In a statement announcing the bill’s demise, Sisolak said there was “no path forward” for efforts by Democratic lawmakers to abolish capital punishment.
“I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it,” the governor said. “I understand there are those who will be disappointed by this outcome, however the process of determining which crimes are severe enough to warrant this punishment deserves thoughtful consideration.”
As governor, Sisolak has had to balance his 2018 campaign promise to “ban assault rifles, bump stocks, silencers” with support for firearm access from the state’s rural population.
During his early days in office, the governor often demurred when asked about specific gun control measures he would push, saying that lawmakers have to carefully construct policies to ban a particular type or feature of a firearm to avoid loopholes and other workarounds.
However, the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, which left 58 people dead and more than 500 others injured, inspired lawmakers to introduce legislation at the federal and state level that would ban bump stocks.
Within the first two weeks of the 2019 legislative session, Democrats had passed (along party lines) a bill to finally implement a narrowly passed 2016 initiative requiring background checks on private party gun sales. By the end of the 120-day session, they had also passed a “1 October Bill” (AB291) banning bump stocks and raising blood alcohol limits for firearm possession.
Sisolak was not always a strong proponent of gun safety regulations. The National Rifle Association, which grades politicians on their friendliness to pro-gun policies, gave Sisolak an “A-” in 2012. But the shooting on Oct. 1 changed Sisolak’s stance on guns to favor “common sense gun laws,” and in 2022, he received an “F” from the association — a grade that Sisolak tweeted he was “damn proud of.”
At a rally held by Moms Demand Action in June, the governor touted the passage of gun safety laws under his administration, including a red flag law that allows police and family members to petition a court to take away an individual’s firearms temporarily in cases where the person is deemed a threat to themselves or others. As of July 2022, records from the state’s Department of Public Safety show that only 13 high-risk protection orders have been issued since the state’s red flag law was enacted in January 2020.
Though Sisolak has not laid out a plan for future gun control legislation, he told people gathered at the Moms Demand Action rally that he supports banning assault-style “weapons of war.”
“There’s no reason to own an AR-15.” he said. “I don’t want to hear it from a congressman that they need it to fight feral pigs or racoons or what they’re coming up with as excuses. That’s ridiculous.”
Under Sisolak, a longstanding goal of the state’s organized labor movement to allow state employees to collectively bargain became a reality when the governor signed SB135 into law in 2019.
But implementation of the law — which also allows the governor to effectively ignore negotiated salary demands or anything else with a budgetary impact — has been bumpy.
Three of the four state employee unions were able to reach agreements for pay bumps before the end of the 2021 Legislature, but the Nevada Police Union — which represents highway patrol troopers and hundreds of others of state police officers — spent months locked in arbitration and lawsuits with the state over its collective bargaining contract before getting final approval in March 2022.
In his off-year State of the State address, Sisolak pledged to seek a pay raise for state police officers in the 2023 legislative session.
Speaking at a construction industry event in September, Sisolak said he does not anticipate that Nevada’s status as a “right-to-work” state would change. Right-to-work laws prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers making membership in a union or payment of union dues a condition of employment.
Though Nevada’s housing prices have stopped hitting record highs in recent months, the state remains in the middle of a housing crisis — one that’s leaving tenants grappling with punishing rental hikes and thousands of low-income Nevadans being priced out of homebuying.
Sisolak has said that increasing housing affordability is a top priority for his administration. On his campaign website, he’s called attention to the creation of an affordable apartment complex under his watch and a partnership between the state infrastructure bank and AFL-CIO that is investing $20 million to build more affordable housing.
The governor also allocated nearly $2 billion in pandemic relief aid to address the affordable housing shortage, incomplete broadband connectivity and lack of access to child care. During his off-cycle State of the State address earlier this year, he called attention to a $500 million investment in a new “Home Means Nevada” initiative that he said would increase housing construction, provide more homeownership opportunities and help seniors make repairs and accessibility retrofits to their homes.
On the campaign trail, Sisolak showed up at a rally for rent control, hosted by the Culinary Union, where he spoke out against out-of-town corporate landlords whom he said are partly responsible for the rising cost of rent in Nevada. The union recently listed Sisolak on their slate of elected representatives and political candidates who support “neighborhood stability” and will take on Wall Street landlords.
In interviews and on his website, Sisolak has also echoed a growing sentiment among Nevada politicians that “housing is a human right.”
When asked at a housing event what that phrase meant to him, Sisolak responded: "It means to me that everyone should have an opportunity and the ability to live in a place that's safe and secure that provides a quality of life."