Sparks flew in the first debate between Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak, a high-stakes affair with both angling to become the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades.
The hour-long debate, which was hosted by KLAS-TV Channel 8 on Monday night, is one of only two debates scheduled between Giunchigliani and Sisolak ahead of the primary election on June 12.
The two Clark County commissioners took on a broad range of questions during the debate — everything from firearm policy, positions on taxation, education funding, support for victims of sexual harassment and raising the minimum wage.
And just like their campaigns, the two candidates traded barbs and attacked each other’s record over the course of the hour — a preview of what will likely be a bitter primary battle to be fought in mailboxes, radios and television ads over the next three weeks.
Sisolak, the chairman of the County Commission, promised to tackle progressive goals including higher K-12 funding and limits on firearms, but repeatedly stated he would take an all-of-the-above approach to many of the issues he would face as governor.
Giunchigliani strongly emphasized her desire to address K-12 education funding, often citing her resume and the many bills and committee assignments she worked on during her three decades in Nevada politics.
A poll by The Nevada Independent conducted in April found Sisolak leading Giunchigliani by 44 to 16 percent of Democratic primary voters, though 40 percent said they were still unsure.
Below, a recap of what the candidates said during the debate:
Both candidates pledged to advocate strongly for public education if elected governor, and said they would revisit the state’s long-criticized funding formula for K-12 education and find ways to avoid budget cuts that have plagued schools in Southern Nevada.
And both acknowledged that they would need to take steps to fix funding disparities between Northern and Southern Nevada, but said they would “hold-harmless” current funding to northern and rural schools while sending any new revenue to schools in Clark County.
Sisolak said he would take an all-of-the-above approach to education issues.
“Everything’s on the table in my administration,” Sisolak said. “The only thing not on the table is doing nothing. And that’s what happened right now, nothing has happened for education. I didn’t spend 16 years in the Legislature where nothing happened. Our education system didn’t improve.”
Giunchigliani, a former state lawmaker who sought to portray herself as the “education governor,” said public school funding would be her top priority.
“Let’s not forget, this is about kids,” she said. “This is about kids making sure that they’re in their classroom, that teachers have time to guide them, to read with them, to know their names. I had a counselor yesterday in Reno; she has 750 kids on her elementary list. That is unconscionable.”
Sisolak, a former member of the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents, said he would support a “hybrid” system where some regents are appointed and others elected, saying the unpaid position didn’t attract enough attention from people with the right expertise.
He also said he would support a hybrid system for the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, which Giunchigliani said she opposed.
“There’s been some infighting going on, but that happens at boards all across the state whether they’re appointed, hybrid or elected,” she said.
Citing numbers from Applied Analysis economist Jeremy Aguero, KLAS host Steve Sebelius asked candidates how they would pay for potential raises for teacher salary given the cost — $61.5 million for a 5 percent raise or $122.9 million for a 10 percent bump — to do so.
Sisolak said he did not have a specific tax or revenue source in mind to pay for salary increases, but wanted to look at all the options and suggested convening a group of former governors of both parties to take a deeper look at the issue.
“We have to raise revenue in order to pay our educators,” he said. “And it’s not just teachers — it’s librarians, it’s counselors, it’s school bus drivers, it’s everybody that’s part of the educational system that has a first touch with our children, with our students.”
Outside of siloing higher hotel room tax funds approved in 2009 designed to supplement per-pupil funding but instead taken to plug gaps in the state budget, Giunchigliani did not identify any specific taxes or fees she would increase to pay for teacher salaries but said the need for enhanced education funding was dire.
“We have kids sitting on the floor,” she said. “We have kids without books, without desks. Shame on us.”
Sisolak reiterated his desire to pass a ban on “bump stock” devices, high-capacity magazines and assault rifles, and to support federal attempts to remove federal prohibitions on funding gun violence research.
In a talk with reporters after the debate, Sisolak attempted to distance himself from Giunchigliani, saying he wouldn’t back firearm confiscation or requiring all guns to be registered. One of her proposed gun safety policies would ban “assault weapons,” and require their owners to file for a certificate of possession and for owners moving in from out-of-state to either render the firearm inoperable or to sell it.
He declined to say whether he would reinstate the “blue card” gun registration system previously required in Clark County but repealed in 2015. He did reiterate a desire to repeal a “supremacy” clause giving Nevada state lawmakers complete jurisdiction over the state’s gun laws, which he said tied the hands of counties or localities who wished to pass restrictions on firearms.
He also defended himself from attacks faced over his answers on a candidate questionnaire from the 1990s indicating he wouldn’t support any restrictions on gun ownerships, saying many things had changed over the last two decades.
“The fact that my positions might have improved, might have developed along the way, I think is a positive thing,” he said. “If we stop learning, you go nowhere. I’ve learned, I’ve seen things, and what I’ve seen has made me to where I stand today.”
Giunchigliani brushed off suggestions that she would back gun confiscation, saying she owned at least five firearms. She reiterated her previously released position paper on firearms, saying she would support bans on bump stocks, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
She also pointed out Sisolak’s “A-” rating in 2012 from the National Rifle Association, and promised that her positions had not changed after she announced her run for governor.
“I have not had to evolve into something,” she said. “Like I said tonight, I don’t want another child harmed. I don’t want our schools to become prisons, I want parents and kids and teachers and security guards working on how we can protect our kids more closely.”
Both Sisolak and Giunchigliani lauded the victims of sexual harassment who publicly came forward to tell their stories and said they would work to expand protections for victims.
Giunchigliani pointed to her work earlier this year in adopting an updated sexual harassment policy for Clark County that included bullying and said she would work to expand similar protections for members of the Legislature and with employee representatives for other workers.
She also noted her own connection to harassment.
“As the daughter of a waitress, I still remember when I was five years old when my mom came home in tears because her boss threatened to fire her if she didn’t have sex with him,” she said. “Any discrimination, any threat like that is absolutely intolerable.”
Sisolak said as a father of two adult-age daughters, he had a “vested interest” in ensuring harassment stayed out of the workplace, and he said he would support a zero-tolerance policy as governor.
“Those women that have come forward, have shown such immense courage, such immense backbone, to take on the establishment, to take on the rich and the powerful, whoever those folks might be,” he said.
Even though Nevadans approved recreational sale and use of marijuana on the 2016 ballot, tourists visiting the state still have a problem — no legal place to consume the drug. Although state legislative staff have said businesses are free to open marijuana consumption lounges, nearly all jurisdictions in the state — including Clark County — have shied away because of federal oversight of the drug.
Sisolak raised a host of questions over marijuana consumption lounges, including how to prevent people with black-market marijuana from using the drug inside a lounge to if licenses should be available only to dispensary owners or to the public.
“We’ve continued to have discussion, but we’re not in a rush to do that,” he said. “Nevada has the gold standard when it comes to marijuana regulations. We need to continue that.”
Giunchigliani said she would want to expand Clark County’s “green ribbon” commission studying the marijuana lounge issue to a statewide level and mentioned potential “pilot” programs to see what models might work.
“What might work in Lincoln County might not work here, especially with our proximity to the Strip,” she said.
Neither candidate committed to never raise taxes if elected, but provided different answers on how they would address the state’s system of taxation.
Giunchigliani suggested recalculated property tax values when a home is sold and said she would back a “compromise” bill supported by the Nevada Association of Counties that was shelved during the 2017 legislative session. She also pledged to move hotel tax revenue approved by voters in 2009 toward education and out of the state’s general budget fund.
Sisolak also said he would seek to remove caps slowing maximum increases in property taxes, suggesting a similar depreciation on values allowed on commercial properties or implementing rolling averages for a more standard property tax evaluation.
“You cannot run a local government when the increases are that de minimis,” he said.
Both candidates said they support an increase to Nevada’s minimum wage, which is currently set at $7.25 an hour for employers who offer health insurance and $8.25 for those that don’t.
Sisolak said he would support raising the wage to at least $10, but was cautious about raising it any higher because of potential downward pressures on business revenue.
“We cannot immediately move from $7.25 to $15,” he said. “It will put small businesses out of business. That’s the difference between staying in business and going out of business.”
He also called for implementation of a “tip credit” tied to any increase in the minimum wage, which would allow companies with workers that regularly receive tips to earn an hourly salary below the minimum wage floor, with the difference made up in tip revenue. Nevada’s constitution prohibits tip credits, but a legislatively increased minimum wage could potentially be subject to a credit.
“If you’ve got a waitress or a bartender, or a maitre’d, that’s getting paid minimum wage and they get $10 an hour, and they make $300 a night in tips, I think that extra money, the difference between $7.25 and $10 an hour, should be going to somebody that’s not getting tip compensated because they’re the ones that are really struggling,” he said after the debate.
Giunchigliani said she would also want to phase it in and see more details, but believed a $15 minimum wage was a necessary starting point to assist the state’s neediest families.
“I do support a $15 an hour minimum wage, and that’s not enough for families,” she said. “We have to really begin to look at what encompasses a whole family. It’s about pay equity. It’s about making sure we don’t have split shifts for moms and dads that are out there having to run back and forth.”
Sisolak said he would want to expand Sandoval’s work on creating tax incentive programs for Nevada businesses, citing his work with the governor and former economic development czar Steve Hill in crafting the tax package funding the new Raiders stadium and an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center. He said he would want to emphasize cost-benefit ratios for all future projects, but said the state needed to continue to look for ways to support projects that would increase tourism.
“We have 160,000 rooms on Las Vegas Boulevard that need to be filled every single night,” he said.
Giunchigliani, who said she would have opposed the tax incentive package offered to electric car manufacturer Faraday Future in 2015 and the $750 million in room tax revenue going to the stadium project, said that current abatements were too high and not helping Nevada residents as much as they could have. She emphasized that the best way to grow the state’s business climate is to improve education.
“In the long run, it comes down to this: the number one reason a business chooses to locate here is its educational system,” she said. “And I want to fix the educational funding. That’s what it’s really all about.”