A public servant is anyone who serves the people, from Nevada’s elected officials to those serving in our public agencies. What isn’t often evident is that many of them do a sometimes thankless job for little pay because they have a passion for service. From door-to-door campaigning to working to raise ever-increasing amounts of necessary funding, many Nevada public servants have a heart for the Silver State and for serving in office. Recently, a group of Nevada’s public servants met at the offices of Gordon Silver to discuss their hopes for Nevada’s future and the ways in which the state can improve.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables are designed to bring together leaders to discuss issues relevant to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What is the biggest challenge facing public servants?
Michael Roberson: The challenge we face is the same challenge the entire state of Nevada faces: how do we transform Nevada and our economy to compete regionally, nationally and globally for good paying and highly skilled jobs, and create a dynamic, diverse economy? A big part of that is dramatically improving our education system while making sure we maintain a tax and regulatory environment that is job and business friendly.
Kim Wallin: The biggest challenges is figuring out how we’re going to meet the needs of our citizens and provide funding when we have inadequate resources.
Cresent Hardy: We’re all here with good intentions and trying to do the right thing. Sometimes we need to just step back and let the economy go the direction that it needs to go. Let the entrepreneurs create that business which creates the taxes that we all need. Taxes and unfunded mandates restrict growth in the business field.
Tina Quigley: Sometimes we’re caught up in a “this is the way we do things” attitude. The elected officials want to see us make progress and a lot of us want to make progress and move forward, but overcoming cultural inertia within agencies is hard and exhausting work.
Ross Miller: The biggest challenge facing public officials is trying to set aside our political differences to find solutions, find common ground and reach compromise to advance the best interest of the state.
Mark Manendo: The biggest thing is meeting the needs and efforts of our constituents. Specifically with Southern Nevada, we need to grow our legislative council bureau in the Las Vegas office to better represent and help people that need assistance.
Dina Titus: Congress has a pretty bad reputation these days because nothing much is happening. Part of the challenge is doing as much as we can on the individual level for constituents as well as trying to move some legislation. All things come back to infrastructure. We have to get people and products here or else our economy won’t grow, we won’t create jobs and we won’t pull out of the recession.
John Hambrick: In 2009, Speaker Buckley gave a challenge to assembly members to “do no harm”. With the budgets coming down and the lack of funding in many areas, there is going to be a drop off and there’s going to be a wall. I hope we can keep going with “do no harm” but I have a feeling we’re going to have a problem this session. The economic forum is saying we’re 2 percent below last session. That’s going to hurt and we are going to have to decide where it’s going to hurt less or where it’s going to hurt more.
Kelvin Atkinson: I represent the most diverse senate district and it also has the most challenged schools in the state. We don’t have money for education and the schools in the state that suffer the most are from my district. Until we have something better that does address the need for funding in education, I have to be on the side of doing something rather than nothing.
Andrew Eisen: It’s a matter of balance on so many levels: the personal and work balance, and the full time job and “part time” job of being a legislator in Nevada. We feel very lucky to have the opportunity to do this. We don’t feel burdened by the challenge and we all took it on voluntarily, but being able to maintain that balance is really key.
Irene Bustamante Adams: Small business is a concern. The challenge is that the focus has been on recruiting big companies to our state where we should be looking at expanding and retaining what we already have here.
Patricia Spearman: The issues and the challenges that we face are going to require some very different approaches than what we’ve always done. It is going to call upon each of us to dig deep inside and find that moral fortitude to face those challenges and make those tough decisions because the people of Nevada are suffering. We’re at a point right now that we can no longer argue the fact that we need to do something. We need to figure out what we need to do, bite the bullet and get it done.
Brian Krolicki: It’s never been more difficult to perform these jobs. The pressures have all come at the same time, but the environment in which we try to perform this public service has never been more rancid. The partisanship, not just across the aisle but within traditional families of parties, the scrutiny and intolerance, makes it very difficult to do these jobs when the problems are so profound.
What is the public’s perception of public servants?
Eisen: There’s a perception that people are in this line of work to enrich themselves personally. We all know this is not the sort of thing that you do for the fortune and fame. You do this because you really want to make a difference. Even when we disagree on things, it’s because we disagree on how we can help people, not whether or not we should be helping. We genuinely want to make a contribution and want to help in whatever way we can.
Titus: Television contributes to public perception. Whenever they discuss an issue they put the two extreme talking heads on, just because that makes better television. When you’re hearing from the extremes, the middle, which is where most people fit on any ideological scale, are left out of debates. You have immediately polarized whatever the topic might be and energized the extremes on both ends. The middle is where the compromise and policy could be made, but the well has been poisoned.
Lynn Stewart: One thing that people are shocked at is when they call and you answer the phone. It takes them about 15 seconds to realize it’s really you and not your staff.
Spearman: Part of changing the perception is holding people accountable and reminding folks that you can’t just make stuff up.
Manendo: It’s in our interest to go out and make sure that we educate the public that, in Nevada, we do things a little bit differently. Yes, it’s okay to call up a lobbyist to get some information to help your constituent. Yes, it’s okay to call up your mayor or someone in your federal government to talk. You have personal relationships not only with them but also their staff. That’s one of the things that’s very exciting about living and being a public servant in Nevada. We do have their best interests at heart. Finding the results to get there is a challenge, but we need to do a better job to make sure that people understand we are working together.
What is the cost of running for office?
Bustamante Adams: The first time I ran my husband was in Afghanistan. I won and was headed to Carson City when he had come home injured. He was gone for about five years and was now the head of the household. It was chaos. The amount of emotional and mental strain that it put on our family and marriage was intense.
Atkinson: My first campaign cost $72,000, my last one was close to $400,000.
Wallin: When I ran for controller I spent about $190,000 in the last race. For treasurer, they’re saying I need about $600,000 to $800,000. The financial costs have gotten to be pretty crazy.
What are your thoughts on term limits?
Krolicki: The loss, particularly in the legislative body, is extraordinary. That institutional memory, the collective wisdom, the “been there done that” and the calming effect of whiter hair is terribly important. Seniority in Washington D.C. drives just about every decision back there so having some artificial term limit is absolutely wrong. The people make a decision whether it’s served them well. Not to use a trite phrase, but term limits exists and they’re called elections. There are many folks who are not term limited who attempt to stay in office who are no longer in office. If you’re going to have term limits it should be in the executive branch.
Miller: We’ve seen some fresh blood come in through the legislature. New individuals bring in new ideas to leadership positions that may have not been there were it not for term limits. I also think it’s a positive thing for term limits to exist in the executive branch. There’s a lot more I’d like to do as Secretary of State but I think it’s time for someone else to step in with some fresh ideas.
What role do lobbyists play?
Cresent Hardy: Lobbyists are one of the greatest tools you can have. They know about issues and most are there to help you get through the issues. Their job is to let us know and educate us on those issues, not wait and see if we’re going to take the heat for it because that leads us to think nobody is against this thing so let’s go for it.
What are some potential outcomes of the upcoming election?
Joseph Hardy: People in the state of Nevada have tried to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. But so much of what we do is not what’s right or wrong; it’s what can get done and what are the needs, wants and funding. If we look at all the bills that have passed in Nevada, about 95 percent of them are with unanimous votes. There’s still compromise that happens, and that compromise and consensus works better if you have some balance. You have to have opposition in order to make it right.
Stewart: In this election, the ballot questions will be some of the most important things that we’ll vote on - the Margins Tax Initiative and the appeals court issue. We always center on people, but the questions are going to be very, very important this time.
Eisen: I hope when people go to the ballot and make decisions, those decisions are made based on who they feel will work hard for them. Not based on an ideology and not based on a party affiliation.
How has partisanship affected progress?
Titus: The challenge in Washington is the gridlock. Good policy has been replaced by bad politics and you can’t get anything done. We’re coming up on the highway trust fund running out of money by the end of summer and the renewal of the transportation bill. This has always been bipartisan in the past; there’s nothing really partisan about building a bridge, highway or airport, yet we can’t make any progress even on an issue like that which is so critical to the economy.
James Oscarson: Communication is the key. We get into problems when there are surprises on the floor and surprises in the voting process. The honesty and integrity of the body needs to stay intact. Communicating with your peers and colleagues as to how and why you’re going to do things goes a long way.
Quigley: Since January 1st, we have over $65 million worth of projects out on the street. We’ve created about 800 jobs related to those projects just six months into it. That never would’ve happened without the bipartisanship that occurred in this last session.
How will Nevada look after this next legislative session?
Wallin: I’m hopeful that it will be better but we’re still way off on the pre-recession numbers. We’re about 7.8 percent down in sales tax and 17.5 percent down in gaming revenues from pre-recession. That’s a huge chunk of money, yet our population is increasing. The legislature is going to have to sit down and come up with alternative funding sources for the state.
Oscarson: Breaking down the perception of the north, south and rural thing is critical to the success of this next session. Nevada is home to all of us whether you live in the north, the south or the rurals. While the challenges may be different, we all face the same ones in some similar way.