On the Record: Democratic treasurer candidate Zach Conine
This is an installment in a series of "On the Record" pieces highlighting the policy stances of candidates running for major offices in the 2022 Nevada election. Check back in the coming days and weeks for additional coverage.
Zach Conine doesn't hold back when asked about his accomplishments.
The first-term treasurer points to helping thousands of businesses stay afloat through grant programs and creating and managing the state's rental and mortgage assistance programs — all during a pandemic that uprooted daily life around the globe.
“In the last three and a half years we've been objectively one of the most qualified and successful treasurers ever,” he said.
Conine, who won by just 6,000 votes in 2018, is being challenged in his re-election by Republican nominee, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore.
Treasurers serve four-year terms with limits to two terms. The elected statewide officer is responsible for investing the state's money, financing community assets and facilities, processing payments for public agencies and managing numerous scholarship programs.
During his campaign, Conine has received support from people across the political aisle, including former Nevada GOP chair Amy Tarkanian.
“The reason that we get such cross party and bipartisan support is that most people know that the treasurer is a job that you want someone competent in,” Conine said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And most people want a treasurer who has a moral compass that is not questionable.”
Below is a summary of Conine’s interview with The Nevada Independent.
Dealing with the pandemic
Conine said the biggest challenge his office has faced was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the crisis, he had to ensure that Nevada's financial structure was “sound” at a time of uncertainty — balancing the state’s $9.28 billion budget and making sure “bills got paid” all while juggling new routines at home. His daughter was attending first grade online at the time.
“Those were strange times that we had to live in, but we got through it, and we made sure that Nevada never missed a single payment that we needed to make — never bounced a check,” Conine said. “One of my big takeaways from the pandemic … is that Nevada very often bounces back quickly. We get the jobs back, we get the tourism dollars back.”
Even so, he said the situation made him think that “Nevadans need to be a little less resilient and the government needs to be a little more effective.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) was launched by the treasurer’s office and governor’s office to help financially struggling Nevadans pay their rental, housing and utility bills. Breakdowns of rental assistance disbursement by demographics from January to December 2021 reveal that 47 percent of funds went to Black or African American households in Nevada, followed by 33 percent to white households and 16 percent to Latino households. Nevada’s population is about 10 percent Black or African American, 73 percent white and 30 percent Hispanic or Latino.
Between March and December 2020, the state also distributed more than $108 million from the Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) toward homeowner, rental and utility assistance. Since then, the state has received two more packages to continue funding rental assistance through 2025 — which brought the total to $500 million allocated to Nevada. As of March, $323 million had been disbursed.
“In Nevada, housing instability is economic instability,” Conine said. “The biggest wounds, the deepest cuts from the last recession came because Nevadans lost their homes, and their credit was destroyed. And then their credit was destroyed for seven years and it just got back to normal in 2019, and then they got hit again.”
Conine said one of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic was identifying the benefits of two broad categories of government programs — those set up as “mazes” (with barriers in place so that just the people who need the assistance receive it) and those set up as “funnels” (allowing nearly anyone to receive the benefits).
“We had a lot of mazes going into this pandemic. We need more funnels,” Conine said. “I think the Rental Assistance Program has moved from maze to funnel and that was a decision that we made internally that made it more efficient … And there's a middle ground there too. You don't want programs to be set up in such a way that it encourages fraud.”
As someone who has helped administer so much of the federal COVID relief money, Conine said it was a “mathematical certainty that injecting so much money into the economy” would lead to inflation.
But it was a decision that needed to be made, he said.
“Were we going to take an active role in fighting back against the economic devastation that was right in front of us, or were we going to do nothing?” Conine said. “We were trying to save small businesses and we saved a lot. We couldn't save all. We were trying to get people back to work and now they are back to work. Still, there are industries who need help. This work is not binary.”
The U.S. inflation rate is at a 40-year high, and as a response, the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates the past few months, creating fears that if it raises rates too aggressively, it could dampen economic growth and trigger a recession.
Asked about the possibility of a recession, Conine said that Nevada is in its “strongest financial position” since becoming a state.
“We have more cash in the bank, we have more opportunity in front of us and we have more commitment to investing in the things that will actually provide long term or protection from recessionary forces as opposed to just short term,” he said. “Less Band-Aids, more fixing the underlying problem.”
Conine said the “underlying problem” is that Nevada remains too dependent on the cyclical tourism industry. But he noted that economic diversification is “long work” and relies on other facts such as affordable housing and a workforce-producing education system.
“There's no one single silver bullet for economic diversification,” he said.
But not all companies and industries are worth investing in, he said, and that includes companies that manufacture assault weapons. Conine has led the charge on Nevada divesting from such companies, saying “we are constantly looking at putting our money where our morals are.”
“Yes, there is a moral decision there. I'm a father of three children who are in grade school, the same age as those kids who were butchered down in Texas, and we need to determine as a society that we don't want to live like this,” Conine said. “That aside, they’re risky investments, and my job as the state's chief investment officer is to avoid unnecessary risk.”
Some Democrats have criticized the Biden administration’s federal student loan forgiveness plan for not addressing underlying issues with college affordability. Conine agrees, but also said it’s a good start.
“I think those criticisms are well-founded. And I think that doesn't mean that the program was a good idea or a bad idea. I think it's a good idea,” he said. “But we're dealing with a symptom as opposed to the underlying root cause.”
The treasurer's office administers college savings plans, including what are referred to as 529 programs, made up of the Nevada Prepaid Tuition Program that allows parents to lock in the current in-state college tuition rates and make monthly installments into the fund, and five programs administered through college savings plan partners, in which account holders can deposit after-tax money for future college savings. The office also manages the Nevada College Kickstart initiative that awards every public school kindergartener a free $50 scholarship to encourage parents to start saving for the student’s future education, and the Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship that awards up to $10,000 in tuition to in-state students who attend a Nevada university or college.
The office also educates parents and students about loans for higher education and opportunities such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (which permits certain borrowers who work full time for a qualifying employer to have the remainder of their balance forgiven.)
Additionally, Conine said his office would continue to have conversations with the governor, members of the Legislature and officials with the Nevada System of Higher Education to make sure grants and scholarships are achieving their goal, reaching the people who need them and being used effectively.
“This is an opportunity for us to expand that work broadly to that group of people. It helps bring generations out of poverty in a way that is just absolutely fascinating,” Conine said. “I think there are certainly criticisms about the student loan relief program … In this case, there are thousands of Nevada families who will be better off post loan forgiveness than they are right now.”