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Ex-lawmaker Maggie Carlton on Lombardo’s budget and her new K-12 role

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
State Government

Maggie Carlton was working as a coffee shop waitress at Treasure Island in Las Vegas when she won a race for state Senate in 1998, kicking off a storied legislative career that spanned 24 years and saw four different governors. 

Carlton, a Democrat, was the first member of the Legislature to serve the maximum number of terms in both chambers — 12 years in the Senate and Assembly each. In November, she was termed out of the Assembly, but her career in state government continues after outgoing Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed her to the Nevada State Board of Education.

“We all care about making sure that every kid in the state gets a good education no matter what their ZIP code is … That’s where I've always come from and will continue to work towards,” Carlton said.

She spent several sessions as chair of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budgetary process and key bills with a financial effect. She’s also tied for having served in more special sessions than any other Nevada legislator, according to the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Research Division.

In a wide-ranging, sit-down interview with The Nevada Independent last month, Carlton reflected on her career in the Legislature, discussed how the body has changed over the years, provided her thoughts on Gov. Joe Lombardo’s policy priorities and proposed budget and addressed her new role on the Board of Education.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. Explanations of certain terms or ideas have been added in italics as needed.

You were a culinary worker, and you decided to run for the Legislature way back when. Tell the story.

I was very involved with the Culinary Union. They had a program with their shop stewards, and I was very proud to become a shop steward in 1993 for the Culinary. I was working at Treasure Island in the coffee shop. I was not a cocktail waitress. I want to make sure that everything's perfectly clear. Everybody thought I was a cocktail waitress. So those days were behind me in the rearview mirror. I was a coffee shop waitress, and I was working on a project at the Culinary Union. 

They had worked on other folks’ campaigns. And one of the conversations they were having with their shop stewards was, ‘Well, we want to run one of our own.’ You know, it's great to help somebody but putting somebody who really lives the life into office would be great. 

I was a Girl Scout leader, shop steward, taught Sunday school, had two kids in public school. My husband was a state employee, a parole and probation officer, and some conversations were had about it. And a few months later, folks decided, ‘Yes, we want to run a waitress for office, and yes, we want it to be Maggie Carlton,’ and off they went. 

Tell us about when you first got to Carson City and your first session. How did you feel when you first got there?

It was real eye-opening, my first trip to Carson City with my husband. It was kind of a sad day because I walked into the building, and the flag on the building was at half mast because the gentleman that I had just beat in the election, Sen. [John] Regan, had passed away. So it was kind of a surreal feeling going in and being the newly elected senator from that district. 

[I] went in, met with [the Legislative Counsel Bureau]. Lorne Malkiewich at the time was the director, and he was very, very helpful … I had to have an attaché. I needed to know where to live. I needed to figure out what was going on. Back then we really didn't have a program to help folks. Now, one of the great things that the Legislature does is they wrap their arms around all the newly elected folks, and they walk them through the process.

I was very lucky to have a great group of people willing to help me. There were three freshmen that year. It was Sen. [Mark] Amodei, who is now Congressman Amodei, and Sen. Terry Care. So the two guys in front of me — they do things alphabetically, and Carlton comes last, so I ended up being number 21. And I was number 21, senator 21, for two sessions in a row, and, God rest his soul, Sen. [Bill] Raggio used to call me number 21. And I used to call him number one. And that's just the way it was. I don't think he knew my name for a couple of years.

After you were term-limited in the Senate, you ran for the Assembly. Why did you do that? (Many lawmakers typically begin in the Assembly before running for the Senate later.)

Yeah, my dad always said I did things a little bass-ackwards, and that's a perfect example of it. Running for the Senate was great, and I loved it. And I really had planned on only doing it for the 12 years. I was working for a primary care nonprofit at the time and really wanted to dive into health care more. But when the economic crisis hit, the fiscal crisis, the foreclosure crisis, my assemblywoman was being termed out, there was a couple folks who were thinking about it, but nobody was really solid on it. 

[Then Assembly Speaker] John Oceguera and I had a long conversation. And I thought maybe I don't want to leave this. I'm not leaving it better than I found it, I need to finish some of the work that needs to get done. So I decided to go ahead and run for the Assembly. 

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

You chaired the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means. How did you approach that role?

Basically, I looked at it like a family budget. It's like, what is the best thing I can do for the people of the state of Nevada? What can I do to make people's lives better? And I always had the philosophy in the Legislature that how is this going to hit people at the kitchen table? You know, will they understand what we're trying to do? And who does this help? And what is the real public purpose behind this? Are we fixing something that's broken? Or are we just trying to do something because we think we can? So you just kind of take the same attitude with it.

How has the Legislature changed over the years?

It's not that the legislators change that much. It's just a generational change. The people have changed. It's a cultural change. The Legislature is much more diverse than it ever was before. You have people with very different perspectives, all bringing that to the table and learning things about the different communities that I would have never known before. 

The Legislature definitely had a different makeup back in 1999 than it does now, and I was very proud that I was part of the first female majority Legislature in the country. We hadn't really been working towards that, but when you look for really good candidates, we ended up with really good women who wanted to serve. And I think part of that was generational.

Even with those generational changes increasing diversity, are there drawbacks to any of those changes? Is there a loss of knowledge?

Term limits suck. 

There are lobbyists out there now that are trying to figure out how to undo some of the bills that I worked to get passed for 10 years. There are agency heads that would like to undo some things — folks that are not elected making significant changes and proposals. The only person you have to hold accountable is your elected person, but yet we term limit them, but we let these other guys put their fingerprints all over stuff. 

I understand why people feel strongly about term limits. But honestly, you get a legislator hitting their stride at about four to six years and can really do good work. But yet you arbitrarily decide, ‘Oh, you've been around 12 years, you're gone.’ 

What do you think about the structure of the part-time Legislature and the process of having biennial sessions?

We have a citizen Legislature, and I think it's a really great idea. When I'm sitting on the Assembly floor as a coffee shop waitress, and I'm working with a teacher, an electrician, a construction worker, someone who served at [the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department], people who were in other nonprofits, folks from the rural community, just people from all different walks of life, that's what the Legislature should be. 

I don't think you need a Legislature full of lawyers. You need folks who think in other ways. We all come from different perspectives. I was the first labor activist to be elected to the Nevada State Senate, and I always was the labor person. I was never ashamed of that, but I was also a gaming person because I worked in gaming. So I understood where they were coming from. We all bring certain perspectives. And that's the way it should be, so that we can hear how something will actually affect another district in the state or another constituency in the state.

What did you think about Gov. Joe Lombardo’s State of the State address and about some of the budget ideas that the governor put forward?

It was a tough speech. It was very high level, not a lot of detail, not a lot of specifics. There were things in there for all audiences. There was the stuff that could be bipartisan, but there was some real partisan stuff also.

I was disappointed that housing didn't come up. Rent is a big issue, and the job I have in nonprofit, I get a dozen calls a day minimum — and that's just on my line, not all the other lines here. People can't afford to pay their rent. 

Food insecurity is still a big issue. Folks are going to be losing their benefits in March. We are going to have a lot of families, especially with the price of some things now, really struggling. The food banks in this state really need some help, and they're going to need some resources, so that they can help the smaller food pantries and make sure that families have food on the table. 

And health care. The only health care part he brought up was a bill that he didn't like. Let's talk about real health care. Let's talk about what we need to do.

I have some concerns about the gas tax [holiday]. It's nice to give people a break on something. Gas prices are going down. Will it really work or will Californians take advantage? I mean, Nevadans will take advantage of it, but would we get a better bang for our buck if we took those dollars and put it and did a little bit more in mental health or more in some of the other areas that really need to be addressed?

Lombardo’s budget proposal would put $1.6 billion in the Rainy Day Fund by the end of the biennium, plus $730 million in the Education Stabilization Account. What do you think about that proposal?

Honestly, $1.6 billion in the Rainy Day account, I think, is a bit much with the needs in this state. There's still a lot of structural issues that need to be dealt with in the state. Mental health being at the very top of the list, and state employees too. And our Department of Corrections really needs some help. 

We're having a great couple years right now [in terms of tax revenue collections]. We exceeded our expectations. We’re way over forecast. That's not going to happen every single time. So yes, you do want to save some money for that. But you also want to do this in such a way that you grow it gradually.  

Is an $11 billion state budget the new normal? Or do you think that is more a fluke with how tax revenues have performed recently?

I would love to be sitting in Carson City right now with an $11 billion budget. I have so many ideas, but you need to be prepared. So yes, save some money, but grow these programs. If you're gonna grow programs, grow them slowly, so that they're sustainable in the future, so that if you have to make adjustments and roll a little bit back, you don't end up losing the whole program. 

When we had the first fiscal crisis that I had to deal with at the end of my Senate tenure, the theme that one of my friends kept saying was ‘save the seeds, don't eat the seeds.’ You've got to save the core of every program, so you don't have to recreate it. 

One of the one of the hardest memories that I have is during the COVID special session, we're sitting up in [room] 4100 and my whole caucus is there. Everybody’s spread out all over the room, big huge room, and I remember seeing some of the freshmen and sophomores sitting out in the audience. We were talking about ‘I have a list of cuts,’ and … we started listing the cuts. There were tears. And a couple of the guys, I saw tears. They had to make tough decisions about making cuts. 

It was one of the hardest days of my life. Special sessions suck, but that particular night was probably the worst of my legislative career. But we all came out of that room, and they all understood we had to do these things to be able to save certain programs. We had to prioritize. 

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lombardo’s budget proposes increasing education funding by $2 billion over the next two years. Considering we have spent so much money on education, why are we still ranked so low for education? Why has the needle not moved more?

Part of it, I believe, is how we're actually reported and ranked because they take a portion of it, but they don't include all the dollars that are the full pie. But that's not to make excuses.

It's the phenomenal growth that has happened. I remember when my oldest daughter and youngest started kindergarten and first grade. That year, we opened 19 elementary schools, four junior highs and a couple of high schools. For so many years, we have done crisis management in growth. The 90s were just phenomenal. We couldn't build schools fast enough. We couldn't hire teachers fast enough. Shoot, the naming committee was darn near a full-time job and just naming schools.

When you base things on sales tax and gaming, those fluctuate a lot. Property tax is much more stable. I think that has to be part of the conversation.

What do you think about school choice?

I understand where parents are coming from. I can hear the frustration. But the thing is, we do have school choice. You can go to public school. You can go to a charter school. We have some of the best magnet schools in the country. We need to expand the magnet schools. We do have some really good options. 

And when the charter schools are now like the third largest school district in the state, parents do have a choice. They just don't have a choice to take state money and pay for private education. That's the one choice they don't have. And that's where we Democrats draw the line in taking state money to pay for parochial or private education. 

If we're talking about being at the bottom of the list, and having the lowest amount of per-pupil funding in the country, darn near, and we take more away, we're going backwards, not forwards.

You’ve started a new role on the State Board of Education. What are your thoughts on this new role? What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

To be on the Board of Education and bring the same voice that I brought to the Legislature to the board, I mean, they do overarching policy for the whole state, all 17 counties. And I think it's really important.

I have some history and a little bit of institutional knowledge on some of these things, and … I look forward to being able to participate and still give back a little when it comes to the discussion about education in this state. Superintendent [Jhone] Ebert and I, I think are going to do really well together. There have been times we've locked horns, of course, but that's just the nature of the executive branch and the Legislature. But I've always respected her, she's always done a great job. And I look forward to working with her. 


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