On the Record: The policy positions of Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt
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: Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who announced his gubernatorial bid in November. Issues are in alphabetical order.
Asked for his stance on abortion, Laxalt responded with a two-word statement: “I’m pro-life.”
Laxalt, who’s Catholic, sent a letter to Planned Parenthood organizations in Nevada in 2015, requesting information about how they perform abortions. The letter followed the release of a video allegedly showing a Planned Parenthood official discussing the sale of fetal tissue, which launched a controversy and investigations.
He closed the inquiry a few months later after Planned Parenthood clinics in Las Vegas confirmed their facilities don’t perform surgical abortions or participate in fetal tissue donation programs.
The conservative gubernatorial candidate did not respond to questions on whether abortion should be outlawed at all stages or just some, whether there should be requirements for parental notification, ultrasounds before abortion or a waiting period. His campaign website also does not address social issues.
One of Laxalt’s first moves as attorney general in 2015 was to sign Nevada onto a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s executive order expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and extending deportation relief to parents of DREAMers through a proposed program called DAPA.
“Our immigration system is broken and clearly needs to be fixed,” Laxalt said. “The solution must be a permanent, legal result that includes, not ignores, the other branches of government and their constitutional roles.”
The move, made without the blessing of more moderate fellow Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, earned him the ire of progressive activists who have stormed his office on numerous occasions to protest the move.
Legally, it was a success. The lawsuit went to a Texas court, where a judge issued an injunction against Obama’s program, and then the U.S. Supreme Court — short one judge after the death of Antonin Scalia — deadlocked 4-4, allowing the injunction to stand. DAPA and the DACA expansion never happened.
The entire DACA program was terminated by the Trump Administration in September, which allowed a six-month window for developing a fix, but Congress has yet to unveil a long-term solution for recipients. Laxalt’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request Friday on what he currently believes is the right course of action for DREAMers who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Laxalt told the Nevada Appeal this fall that he believes in the death penalty in spite of being a devout Catholic. The newspaper reported that he declined comment on the forthcoming execution of Scott Dozier, noting that he’s representing the state and handling legal action related to the execution.
Jordan Smith, one of Laxalt’s subordinates, has been arguing in court on behalf of the Nevada Department of Corrections. The agency wants to use a three-drug combination in the lethal injection, but a judge barred the third drug, saying it could mask signs that the other two drugs aren’t working and lead to the inmate suffering a “horrifying” suffocation death.
The state, which stands by the original three-drug cocktail plan, sought and received a stay of the execution so the Nevada Supreme Court can weigh in on the issue.
One of Sandoval’s most notable accomplishments was creating the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which has brokered tax abatement packages to lure companies that can help diversify Nevada’s economy. Most prominently, the agency struck a deal that landed electric carmaker Tesla’s enormous battery factory in Northern Nevada.
Asked whether he’ll continue the office’s work as-is, he made a statement that is most commonly heard from conservative opponents of incentive packages.
“In general I do not believe government should pick winners and losers in the economy, but rather, it should allow businesses to compete on their own terms and merits,” he said. “As Governor, I plan to review GOED and make sure that it supports a thriving business community across all sectors.”
On a 17-county announcement tour, he also said he wanted to support greater economic development in Nevada’s rural counties.
“Rural Nevada is ripe for many economic development reforms, especially workforce development and technical education,” he said when asked about how he would tackle business issues unique to the state’s less-populated areas. “I’ll be rolling out our economic development plan in the new year, but as Nevada’s next Governor, I want to make sure our state continues to thrive and that it is a place where all Nevadans have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”
As the school-choice movement rippled through Nevada in the last few years, Laxalt championed the cause, enlisting superstar lawyer Paul Clement to defend it in court. In September 2016, when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that Education Savings Accounts were constitutional but the funding mechanism was not, the attorney general hailed the decision as a “landmark win” for the fledgling program.
“The Court ruled against the State on a small funding issue that was not even debated or contentious when this bill was passed,” Laxalt said in a statement at the time. “Fortunately, the Supreme Court has made crystal clear that ESAs are constitutional and that the Legislature can fix this funding technicality and allow for the implementation of ESAs statewide.”
More than a year later, the voucher-style program that allows parents to direct public school funding to private school tuition or other qualified education expenses has yet to make its debut in the Silver State. An endgame compromise in the waning days of the 2017 legislative session left the so-called ESAs without funding, indefinitely stalling the program.
Expect Laxalt to attempt to revive the program if elected governor. The Republican said he remains a supporter of ESAs and plans to make school choice a “large component” of his forthcoming education plan. The gubernatorial candidate, however, didn’t say whether he would refuse to sign any other bills before the Legislature sends a bill to his desk that solves the ESA funding dilemma. His primary opponent, Treasurer Dan Schwartz, has made such a promise.
Laxalt noted that school choice exists in multiple ways in Nevada, including through Opportunity Scholarships, charter schools and career and technical education, and he hopes to increase access to such options.
“I believe that education is the civil rights issue of this time,” he says on his campaign website. “Too many kids are never given a chance to succeed because they’re stuck in schools that are failing them. As your Governor, ensuring that every Nevada child has access to a quality education will be a top priority of mine. “
Laxalt said he’ll release an education plan this year, but his campaign site hints at what it will entail — a four-pronged approach that includes strengthening and properly funding public education, empowering parents through bolstered school-choice efforts, improving the in-state teaching pipeline and increasing accountability for money spent on the state’s education system.
He also commended Gov. Brian Sandoval for planting the seeds to improve the education students receive in Nevada. The Republican governor unveiled a number of education reforms in 2015 — backed by a $1.1 billion tax increase — that included extra funding for schools with large numbers of students living in poverty or learning English; an initiative designed to ensure students are reading proficiently by the end of third grade; and a program that has placed social workers in schools.
“Governor Sandoval has done a terrific job prioritizing education and fighting for reforms that will help our kids,” Laxalt wrote in response to questions from The Nevada Independent. “I look to expand on his progress, not scale it back.”
Laxalt is on the 25-member Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice that’s sussing out the details of a proposal to open Nevada’s monopoly-based electricity market to competition. He said he supports the underlying measure, Question 3, that is up for a second consecutive statewide vote in 2018.
The attorney general’s other forays into energy policy have included fights against renewable energy mandates.
In 2016, Laxalt endorsed a multi-state legal fight against President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. The brief, which argued that states have a right to decide emissions standards for themselves, was not requested by Sandoval.
"We are repeatedly seeing more federal regulation that is less tied to the actual text of the laws that federal agencies claim is the basis for their rules," Laxalt said in a statement.
Experts said Nevada, which relies on coal for just 3 percent of its energy and has far fewer coal-fired power plants than other states, was actually well-positioned to meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan. Nevertheless, the Trump Administration announced plans in October to repeal the regulation.
On his website, Laxalt said he supports a “sensible, balanced approach” to energy policy.
“I will also oppose efforts to impose or expand costly and burdensome mandates on energy providers, which only lead to higher prices that hurt Nevada’s families, and have a particularly damaging impact on those with lower incomes,” he said. “At the same time, I will remain firmly committed to keeping in place those regulations that are truly needed to ensure the health and safety of our environment.”
As a candidate in 2014, Laxalt said he wouldn’t have given up so soon in defending the Nevada Constitution’s provision that marriage is between a man and a woman. At that time, Democratic then-Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval announced that the state-level ban on same-sex marriage was no longer defensible.
“In consecutive elections, the voters defined marriage as they saw fit and it is now part of our Constitution,” he said in a statement to the the Las Vegas Sun. “I believe if the voters want to amend that marriage definition within our Constitution, they have the ability and the right to do so.”
The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states can no longer deny marriage licenses to gay couples.
Laxalt does not list social issues on his 2018 campaign website and his campaign didn’t answer a question Friday about his current stance on the matter. However, he recently waded into a battle that pits anti-discrimination principles against religious liberties.
In September, he signed Nevada onto an amicus brief backing a florist who declined to provide an arrangement for a same-sex wedding.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled last year that 72-year-old florist Barronelle Stutzman must provide a custom arrangement for the wedding, even though she has a deeply held religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. Stutzman has argued that she didn’t object to the purchase of a pre-made arrangement but had a problem creating a custom design.
The case is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief is signed by representatives of 14 states, including Laxalt, and is led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Laxalt spoke at a National Rifle Association convention last year that was also attended by President Donald Trump. He told the group that when it comes to gun rights, you have to fight for every inch and infringements on those rights are a dangerous slippery slope.
On his campaign website, he describes himself as a “proud and firm supporter” of the Second Amendment.
“Alarmingly, we have seen many attempts in recent years — both by far-left legislators here in Nevada and by out-of-state, anti-gun zealots — to infringe upon our Second Amendment rights,” he writes on his “Issues” page. “Nevadans should know that as Governor, I will oppose any such attempts in the future, and will continue to treat the right of free citizens to bear arms as sacred and non-negotiable.”
Laxalt publicly opposed Question 1, a 2016 ballot measure that would have required background checks on more gun sales and transfers and was backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown for Gun Safety. It passed by a margin of less than 1 percentage point after an expensive campaign, but still has not been implemented after Laxalt’s office opined in December 2016 that the measure is flawed and unenforceable.
In a follow-up opinion in October, his office suggested there could be a way to implement the measure but the solution suggested by proponents would be “unique and unprecedented.” The state has been sued and Laxalt (as well as Sandoval) have come under major fire over the background check implementation issue, including on Twitter and in a New York Times editorial a few days after the mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.
In response to the furor over the ballot measure, Sandoval said he directed the Department of Public Safety to conduct voluntary background checks between private party sellers for free, rather than for $25 apiece. Laxalt penned an opinion piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late October, noting that he was receiving death threats against his wife and young daughters over the matter. He argued that his job is not to actually implement the measure and that the ballot language was fundamentally flawed.
“The attorney general’s role is to provide a legal opinion, when asked, based on an analysis of the law. That is exactly what I did,” he wrote. “Nor is it the attorney general’s job to correct the mistakes of a group of out-of-state activists who designed a poorly written, unenforceable initiative because they couldn’t be bothered to familiarize themselves with either Nevada law or FBI practice before sending it to the ballot.”
Asked whether he supports a ban on bump stocks, the device that was found with Vegas Strip shooter Stephen Paddock and converts semi-automatic weapons into guns that can fire with the frequency of automatic weapons, he indicated he was open to additional regulations.
“I co-sponsored a letter with other states’ Attorneys General asking Congress to undergo a careful, deliberative process to evaluate whether bump stocks should be regulated in the same fashion as fully automatic weapons,” he wrote. “I agree with many law enforcement officials who have said that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
During the 2014 campaign, Laxalt made it clear that he opposed the Affordable Care Act.
“As attorney general I will join the fight against Obamacare and defend our state from other examples of federal overreach,” he wrote on his campaign website’s issues page.
During his current campaign, he hasn’t directly answered questions about where he stands on the law now — especially on Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to expand Medicaid. Since the law’s passage and Sandoval’s move, some 300,000 more Nevadans are covered by Medicaid — almost doubling that population. The uninsured rate has fallen from 19 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2015.
Sandoval’s defense of the Medicaid expansion influenced Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s pivotal votes on Obamacare repeal votes. Sandoval has also been an influential voice in the national health-care debate as one of a bipartisan group of governors calling for preservation of some of these health-care programs.
On multiple occasions, Laxalt has deflected questions about how he would approach the matter.
“I want to see what federal changes will be made to the health care system in the next few months,” he wrote. “That will have a large impact on the next Governor’s decisions.”
Laxalt publicly opposed marijuana legalization during the 2016 campaign. But when U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions announced last week that he was rescinding legal guidance that gave dispensaries some confidence that they wouldn’t be shut down by federal officials, Laxalt was quick to point out that he’s been defending the state’s new recreational marijuana laws and regulations.
“Although I opposed the Question 2 ballot initiative proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana in Nevada, I also pledged to defend the measure were it approved by the voters,” he said in a statement. “Since Questions 2’s enactment, my office has vigorously defended it against two related lawsuits that threatened to slow or even halt the implementation of the law, and has further assisted with the formulation and adoption of regulations to allow dispensaries to commence sales of recreational marijuana within just six months of the law’s enactment.
At the same time, he didn’t take a clear position on Sessions’ move, and made no commitments to fight the new policy.
“My office has expeditiously facilitated the implementation of the law in the face of considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity,” he continued. “The Office of the Nevada Attorney General is reviewing the DOJ’s letter on the withdrawal of the Cole Memorandum, and evaluating the ramifications for our State.”
Laxalt said he opposes raising Nevada’s minimum wage, which stands at $7.25 an hour for employers who offer a qualified health insurance plan and $8.25 if the employer doesn’t.
“Increases to the minimum wage will reduce employment opportunities for Nevadans and hurt workers by reducing hours, reducing benefits, and reducing on-the-job training,” he told The Nevada Independent. “Instead, I want to focus on policies that will focus on workforce development, technical career training and higher education that will help Nevadans.”
Laxalt successfully fought the Obama Administration’s effort to remove the “white collar exemption” that allows businesses not to pay overtime to employees in certain administrative roles. The Obama Administration wanted to expand overtime rules to white collar workers who earn up to $47,476 annually, which is about double the current threshold.
The rule would have made about 4 million more workers eligible for overtime pay in the first year of implementation, but Laxalt argued it would be a crushing blow for government employers and businesses that would have to cut other spending to afford the overtime payments.
“This unlawful rule was another attempt at a presidential end-run around the political process at great cost to the Constitution, the states and our economy,” he wrote in an editorial.
A judge issued a nationwide hold on the overtime rule in November 2016, just days before it was supposed to take effect but after some businesses had already adjusted their salary schedules in anticipation of it.
“Not every effort to protect our great State of Nevada against federal overreach or other unlawful influence is appropriately rewarded,” he wrote. “But it is nice when it is.”
On his website, Laxalt says he wants more federal lands within Nevada borders turned over to state control. More than 80 percent of land in Nevada is managed by the federal government.
“This chokes off opportunities for economic growth and development, especially in our state’s rural communities,” he said. “More local control will lead to greater economic opportunity and prosperity, more responsible use of our resources — including our water — and an environment in which our ranching, mining, agricultural and recreational communities can thrive.”
He said his plan is to create a commission focused on giving local communities more access to land.
“My approach as Governor will include creating a new commission that will focus on identifying ways to empower our local communities with better access to our lands and natural resources,” he wrote. “I’ll also work with the federal government to ease restrictions on land use and access, and to push for the transfer of ownership of more of the lands within our borders — particularly in cases where our local governments can demonstrate clear benefits that the transfers would produce.”
After the Trump Administration proposed withholding federal money from “sanctuary cities,” California sued. Laxalt joined a 10-state coalition of attorneys general in June in filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Trump proposal.
“Sanctuary cities in California endanger Nevadans, especially given their close proximity to us,” he said in a press release. “In some cases these cities refuse federal requests to temporarily detain illegal aliens with violent criminal histories and instead release these felons into communities that — under federal law — they have no right to be in. … Nevadans should not be the victims of such policies in other states.”
Just before Christmas, he joined 11 attorneys general in a similar amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He’s actively promoted the move, tweeting nine times in the past week about his opposition to sanctuary cities.
“Retweet if you agree with me that it is common sense that dangerous felons should not be released into neighborhoods,” he tweeted on Jan. 2, linking to a story about his latest intervention in the sanctuary cities.
His campaign didn’t immediately respond to a question Friday about whether he supports a proposed constitutional amendment banning sanctuary jurisdictions in Nevada. The measure is associated with his unofficial running mate, state Senate Republican Leader Michael Roberson, but suffered a setback on Friday when a district court judge in Carson City ruled it was not fit for a statewide vote.
While Laxalt says he opposes new taxes, he didn’t take a position for or against lawmakers’ 2016 move to raise the hotel tax in Southern Nevada and provide public funding for the Raiders stadium in Las Vegas. One of Laxalt’s primary campaign donors, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, was closely involved in the project when lawmakers approved the spending but later withdrew.
“This is an irrelevant question as the issue has already been debated and the Raiders stadium is now moving forward,” he said. “Like all Nevadans, I hope and believe that having an NFL franchise in Las Vegas will be a big benefit for our state and that the funds are used wisely.”
Laxalt said he’d be willing to sign a no-new-taxes pledge like the one maintained by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
“We can’t make our state one that stifles business and job creation with more taxes,” Laxalt said.
He also said he supports efforts to repeal the Commerce Tax, a levy passed in 2015 and applied to businesses that make at least $4 million in Nevada revenue each year. It’s projected to bring in a net of $195 million over two years. State taxation officials estimate that roughly 5,500 businesses paid the tax.
Gov. Brian Sandoval has firmly opposed efforts to repeal the tax, which counts among his signature achievements and formed part of a revenue-raising package that backed up a slate of new education initiatives. He’s challenged opponents to say what they would cut if they get rid of the money stream.
Laxalt said nothing will need to be cut.
“If we’re being fiscally responsible, we shouldn’t need the Commerce Tax. The Commerce Tax accounts for less than 1 percent of total state revenues, so we’re talking about a very small part of our budget,” he said. “I do not plan to reduce any programs as a result of its repeal, especially not critical sectors like education. As our economy continues to grow, we’ll see additional revenue coming in from other sources.”
Laxalt is correct to say that Commerce Tax revenues account for less than 1 percent of the approximately $26 billion the state brings in over two years in its total budget, which includes a large chunk of “pass-through” money to support the federal Medicaid program and other federal funds.
However, the Commerce Tax is more significant when viewed as a revenue source for the general fund — the Legislature-divided pot of money that provides funding for schools, prisons and other state services. The Commerce Tax accounts for about 2.4 percent of revenue into the $8 billion general fund.
As proof of his fiscal conservatism, Laxalt touted savings his office achieved as part of a restructuring.
“I’ve demonstrated a commitment to fiscal responsibility as Attorney General. I've managed a department of 400 employees and reined in spending when we identified wasteful areas and made cuts in 2015 and 2017 to save taxpayers millions of dollars. I’ll do the same as Governor, just as Governor Sandoval did when he asked for a proposed 5% cut to each department.”
Laxalt is referring to the governor’s budgeting process last cycle, in which Sandoval asked agencies to propose their wish list budget and then say what they would cut if it had to be reduced by 5 percent.
“Being a leader means managing our taxpayers’ money in a responsible way and prioritizing spending,” he said. “Nevadans deserve a Governor who will make sure every single taxpayer dollar is spent efficiently and that’s exactly the kind of Governor I’ll be.”
The attorney general, who served in Iraq as a Navy Judge Advocate General, has sought to carve a niche as a champion for veterans. He launched an Office for Military and Legal Assistance, a clearinghouse for lawyers working pro bono to help veterans and military families with their legal problems.
The effort — dubbed @ease — earned a “Champion of Justice” award by the Las Vegas office of Nevada Legal Services after it helped 900 individuals in its first year of operation obtain legal help.
He also applied $300,000 toward a new veterans memorial set for construction next to the state Capitol in Carson City. The money came from a settlement money the state received in a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson over over-the-counter drugs. Lawmakers approved the memorial concept in the 2013 legislative session.
Although Laxalt supported President Donald Trump in the campaign, he issued a strong statement against the administration’s decision to budget money to explore developing Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.
“In the coming years, I will continue to battle the poster-child for federal overreach – a battle over an unwanted nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in our beloved Nevada,” he said in a statement in March.
His office works with the governor’s office and the state’s Office of Nuclear Projects in staving off the development.
“Nevada will continue to litigate this matter aggressively and fully. We have many strong claims against the proposed nuclear repository,” he wrote. “If the Trump administration continues along this path, we expect many years of protracted litigation in which we are confident we will ultimately prevail.”