On the Record: The policy positions of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak
It happens like clockwork.
Candidates announce their bids for office. Then the attack ads follow in short order, unabashedly targeting their voting records and more.
We’re here to help. The Nevada Independent already produces fact-checks for political advertisements and off-the-cuff remarks, but we also want to get ahead of the campaign game.
When politicians announce their candidacy for public office, we’ll roll out “On the Record” — our look at their voting history and stances on a broad array of subjects.
Now up: Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, a prominent Democrat in Southern Nevada who announced his gubernatorial bid months before his opponents.
Sisolak played a prominent role in luring the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. He was a member of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, which helped mold the public financing plan for the estimated $1.9 billion stadium project. State lawmakers ultimately approved increasing the hotel room tax to generate the public’s share of the cost — $750 million.
The financing plan has received a hefty dose of criticism, with opponents arguing the money could have been better spent on education or other state needs. Sisolak, who has played a more behind-the-scenes role shepherding the project to reality in recent months, has repeatedly defended his pro-stadium stance.
His rationale: The stadium will create jobs and bring more visitors to town, filling hotel rooms and increasing spending in the city.
“There are a lot of real positives,” Sisolak told The Nevada Independent in June. “I know everybody is not a sports fan, but, economically, it makes sense.”
After two failed bids for state Senate in the 1990s, Sisolak got his start in Nevada politics in the education realm. He was a member of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s system of higher education, for a decade.
During his time there in 2008, he scrutinized a plan to raise tuition by 5 percent in each of two consecutive school years, but ended up voting for the plan anyway. Current Republican Controller Ron Knecht was the only regent to oppose the hike.
Later that year, Sisolak voted against a plan to raise or increase more than 100 different fees tacked to courses offered throughout the system. That was a close, 7-6 vote.
Sisolak’s campaign website lists two primary goals when it comes to K-12 education — restoring school funding to pre-recession levels and reducing class sizes. But, unlike some in the education circle, he’s not automatically calling for an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula. He wants to trim fat from other areas first, including by cutting down the number of administrative-level positions.
“There’s too much at the top end and not enough at the teacher end,” he said.
He also supports creating more vocational programs that could equip high school students with the skills they need to enter internships or apprenticeships for jobs in industries such as construction, cosmetology and auto repair. Sisolak said he’s troubled by the student-debt problem and wants more pathways to decent-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree.
“Kids are going for regular undergraduate degrees — liberal arts, political science, teaching — and coming out with $100,000 of student debt for four years, and you can never pay it back,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
As for the perennial school choice-debate, Sisolak’s campaign website notes that he will “always fight against the diversion of funding from public schools to private schools.”
In prior years, Sisolak was strongly opposed to the More Cops tax increase, which would raise the county sales tax by 0.15 percentage points so the county could afford 150-200 more police officers. It never passed under the leadership of former Sheriff Doug Gillespie.
Sisolak said at the time that Gillespie may not have been providing accurate numbers while he tried to sell the tax. The commissioner told a KXNT radio show in 2014 that “it’s about the trust that people have in Metro and the transparency that they feel Metro either has or lacks.”
In 2016, as the tax increase became tied to funding for a Raiders football stadium that Sisolak supported, he dropped his resistance and said he didn’t expect any long fights. With high-profile terrorism acts around the globe, he said, “the situation has changed from a few years ago.”
He didn’t support a teachers union-backed “margins tax” that was on the statewide ballot in 2014 and lost badly. He told the Las Vegas-Review Journal that year that struggling small business owners can’t afford taxes, and a better solution would be a business tax based on profits and not overall revenue, as the margins tax proposed.
Sisolak said in June that he would have backed a gradual increase to the state’s minimum wage.
“I’m in favor of addressing the minimum wage, but I’m not interested in attracting minimum-wage jobs,” he told The Nevada Independent this week. “I’m interested in attracting more than minimum-wage jobs — jobs that you can support yourself and your family on. I don’t think a minimum-wage job should be a career job for anybody.”
In 2013, he was one of two county commissioners to vote against giving himself a 10 percent wage. His vote was driven by several factors, according to the Las Vegas Sun: ongoing labor negotiations, a request from the police department to increase their budget and few pay raises for staff.
Although Sisolak has commended much of what Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has done in office, he intends to break from some of his would-be predecessor’s economic policies.
For starters, Sisolak said he’s not interested in offering as many tax incentives or abatements to large companies looking to make Nevada home. (The tax-incentive package for the Tesla gigafactory, which Sandoval helped craft, is valued at $1.3 billion over 20 years.)
“The problem I see with that is you’re offering incentives and abatements to big companies that want to expand here, but you’re not doing anything for the little guy,” Sisolak said.
Sisolak said the state should find ways to make it less financially cumbersome for small businesses to expand in Nevada. He also wants to focus on industry expansion rather than specific companies. Land along Interstate 15 could be an ideal place for a trucking or distribution hub, he said, giving an example of industry expansion.
Sisolak sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in a post on the blogging site Medium.
“Today’s decision by the Trump Administration to end the Obama-era DACA program is a rare combination of stark cruelty and profoundly irresponsible policy,” he wrote in the post, dated Sept. 5. “And if the president’s risky bet that Congress can fix it falls flat, the victims will be 13,000 young immigrants who call Nevada home.”
He said in early September that he would call for hearings in Clark County to highlight the costs of such a policy, although that has not happened as of late October.
As a commissioner, he’s dealt heavily with the implementation of marijuana rules. That has included laying down rules on pot ads at the airport (he said “We know these people are creative ... I appreciate their creativity, but let’s set the rules down.”
He hasn’t been the main driver in a push for the commission to regulate marijuana consumption lounges, but did acknowledge the conundrum of tourists who can buy, but not publicly use, the substance: “I’m very sympathetic to these people because they have no place to go to.”
Even so, Sisolak doesn’t feel a sense of urgency to wade into the consumption-lounge debate quite yet. “I think it’s too early,” he said. “I’m open to looking at it as time goes by, and we get a better handle on this industry.”
Sisolak said the top marijuana-related issue he wants to tackle as governor is the banking dilemma. Marijuana is a cash industry in Nevada. Because marijuana consumption remains illegal under federal law, banks don’t allow dispensaries to open accounts, meaning no debit or credit card transactions.
“People are walking around with briefcases and knapsacks full of $20 bills,” he said. “We’ve got to get a handle on that and see what, if anything can be done at the state level.”
Sisolak would like to see some sort of banking structure developed to mitigate the public-safety threats associated with the industry. He said there have been documented incidents of thefts and robberies involving marijuana-related cash.
Sisolak has long defended Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage in Nevada. He opposes any legislation that would disrupt coverage for those enrolled under the expansion effort.
“I would hate to see 200,000 people lose coverage,” he said in June. “That’s not an option as far as I’m concerned. If you’re sick or your child has a disease, you don’t want to worry about … how you’re going to pay for doctors’ care. You definitely can’t take people’s health care away from them.”
But he’s less clear on what, if anything, the state could do to ensure more affordable health care for all people, young and old.
“That’s a frustration,” he said. “It seems like nothing happens at the federal level, where it really should be happening.”
As Metro Police nears a coveted ratio of 2 police officers per every 1,000 residents, Sisolak said it’s time to think about other ways to bolster public safety beyond just hiring more officers.
Clark County has been fortifying Las Vegas Strip sidewalks with steel posts to protect pedestrians against accidental or malicious vehicle intrusions. Sisolak said he wants the concept duplicated at bus stops as well.
He’d also like to explore whether law enforcement can use more drones to give them more eyes on the city. Police cameras serve as a natural “deterrent” on crime, he said.
The mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, which left 58 people dead and more than 500 others injured, has reignited the gun debate. The gunman had amassed an arsenal of weapons and used “bump stocks,” which accelerate the rate of gunfire to mimic an automatic weapon.
Sisolak said he supports the constitutional right to bear arms, but the recent tragedy has deepened his belief that bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and silencers aren’t necessary.
“There’s no legitimate purpose,” he said. "Those are military weapons.”
After the Las Vegas shooting, lawmakers introduced legislation at the federal and state level that would ban bump stocks.
Sisolak also supports Question 1, which requires the vast majority of private-party gun sales or transfers to be done through a licensed firearms dealer after the buyer undergoes a background check. The ballot measure narrowly passed in 2016, but it hasn’t been implemented. The group behind the measure — Nevadans for Background Checks — recently filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt over the stalled implementation of the law.
Sisolak said Gov. Brian Sandoval took a “very brave step” in moving forward with the Commerce Tax in 2015. The controversial tax, which is levied on businesses that gross more than $4 million annually, was part of the governor’s signature education reform package.
Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who announced his bid for governor this week, plans to repeal the commerce tax if elected.
Sisolak took aim at that proposal, saying it would be short-sighted to repeal it without another source of revenue to offset the loss. The state’s Economic Forum has predicted the commerce tax will bring in an estimated $381 million over Nevada’s two-year budget cycle.
“It’s easy to say, ‘let’s repeal it,’ okay, but you’ve got to fill a major hole if you repeal it,” he said. “Nobody that’s come up with an idea to repeal it has come up with a plan to fill that hole.”
Sisolak clashed with Clark County firefighters during the economic downturn, when the union was seen as being too resistant to pay and benefit cuts in spite of reductions for other county employees. Contract negotiations eventually reached an impasse and went to arbitration, which landed in favor of the county and led to a 2 percent wage reduction.
Sisolak accused the firefighters in 2010 of gaming the system by calling in sick when they weren’t ill so their colleagues could cover for them and collect overtime pay for doing so. Then-chief Steve Smith said it was hard to root out any malfeasance because the union contract required at least three days of absence before an investigation could be launched.
Sisolak promised an audit on the sick leave policy after union negotiations for a new contract wrapped up.
Also during the recession, Sisolak took fiscally conservative positions, voting contrary to some of his fellow commissioners to hasten layoffs rather than dip further into reserves.
"There is nothing else to cut. There is no other place to look. The cupboard's bare. Here's where we have to go," he said when the county was considering more than 500 layoffs. "It's extremely difficult and concerning ... I know we are dealing with people's lives, careers and families."
In spite of those moves, he’s a favorite among other labor unions. His campaign has been trickling out a series of endorsements from labor groups, including the Nevada Law Enforcement Coalition, the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, Ironworkers Local 433 and Operating Engineers Local 12.
He also has backing from the Laborers Local 872, a major proponent of the Raiders stadium.
Sisolak has been vocal about what he sees as favoritism to Northern Nevada, especially within the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and in relation to the state’s medical school, which was largely based in Reno before UNLV opened its own school this year.
“The medical school is funded as a statewide program and Southern Nevada just hasn’t gotten enough attention,” Sisolak, who had been a regent for 10 years, said in 2011.
Sisolak failed in an attempt to move the school from the north to the south during his time as a regent. In 2011, he took particular umbrage that UNR hired a medical school dean who planned to have his primary residence in Reno, even though the teaching hospital was University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
“This is about commitment. And you simply cannot understand Southern Nevada by being here for 24 hours a week, then heading back up to Reno,” Sisolak said. “It just doesn’t work.”