A Democratic state senator and former political operative for the powerful Culinary Union is defending her decision to propose an amendment to a sales tax bill in the waning hours of the legislative session with a narrowly tailored provision that could benefit her former employer.
The amendment, proposed by Democratic state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, allows county commissions to raise the sales tax by one quarter of one percent to fund “joint labor-management programs of workforce training in the hospitality industry,” including those run by the Culinary Union. AB309, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, originally proposed authorizing the sales tax increase to fund early and adult education programs, programs to reduce truancy and homelessness, affordable housing and incentives to recruit and retain high school teachers.
It is up to the County Commission to decide whether to raise the sales tax and, if so, where to direct the proceeds, meaning the revenue can go toward any or all of the seven potential recipients listed in the bill.
Cancela, who was the political director for the Culinary Union before she was appointed to the state Senate in 2016, said she added the provision to support workforce training efforts in the hospitality industry. The Culinary Academy, which provides vocational skills to youth, adults and displaced workers, would be eligible to receive the proceeds of the sales tax should the Clark County Commission decide to direct the revenue there.
Other programs that could receive funding include non-profit training centers managed by labor-management trusts, such as construction unions Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525 and IATSE 720.
“It’s the largest economic sector. It is one of our sectors that have the highest paying jobs,” Cancela said of the hospitality industry. “I think if we’re talking about education, we should also be talking about workforce development and that’s what this language is intended to accomplish.”
Cancela said she believes such programs help train people for jobs and live a middle-class life and that the added provision complements the other items in the bill by targeting job creation alongside education and homelessness. She also said the increased sales tax is a proper source of revenue for these programs because they are open to the public.
“They just need to be set up by a management-labor agreement,” said Cancela, who added that such educational programs “are designed to give individuals the precise skills they would need to enter those jobs.”
The term “management-labor agreement” generally refers to a contract involving a union.
But Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard has raised concerns about the legislation, saying it was dropped on senators’ desks without any debate or discussion. He tweeted his frustration on the final night of the legislative session.
We were handed Cancela’s amendment after it was discussed to the floor, nobody had seen it, and it had a handout for Cancela’s union. This is why Nevadans have so little trust in us. Shame on her. #lvleg #nointegrity https://t.co/xdfss6WCOv— Keith Pickard (@Pickard4Nevada) June 4, 2019
Cancela said the bill was amended last minute because the language wasn’t yet ready when the bill was in committee. The bill passed out of the Assembly on May 28 and then was voted out of the Senate six days later on the final day of the legislative session, June 3.
“When the language was ready, it was on the floor, so that’s when it had to be done,” she said.
Pickard added that if Cancela has a financial conflict with the Culinary Union, she “certainly should have made that disclosure.”
Cancela doesn’t work for an entity that has an eligible training program, but she and her employer have ties to a union that does. Cancela is a Culinary Union member who works at the non-profit Immigrant Workers Citizenship Project, which rents space at Nevada Partners. The Citizenship Project was first launched in 2001 as a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada and the Culinary Union. According to Cancela, the non-profit is funded by grant funds and license plate revenues.
“Nevada Partners houses the Culinary Academy but the two are totally separate institutions, so I don’t have an affiliation to the Culinary Academy other than I am on the same campus as them,” said Cancela.
Geoconda Arguello Kline, the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union (which could benefit from the tax revenue) is listed as the voluntary, non-compensated president of the board of the Citizenship Project, which pays Cancela, according to a 2017 tax return.
According to the Nevada Commission on Ethics, the ethics law establishes public policy necessary to “ensure the integrity and impartiality of government, free from conflicts of interest between public duties and private interests of state and local public officers and employees.”
The commission’s manual for public officials says state law presumes an official does not have a conflict of interest if the benefit of a decision does not accrue to them more than “to any other member of any general business, profession, occupation or group affected by the matter.”