Public servants at state and local government are committed to improving Nevada for both individuals and the businesses they run. From listening to constituents to working through complex issues, seasoned public servants are at the core of change in the Silver State. Recently, public leaders met at the Reno offices of City National Bank to discuss the state of the state and the future of Nevada.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly round-tables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
How do Federal, State and Local Governments Work Together?
Lee Gibson: One of the biggest challenges we face is the role and function of the federal government in infrastructure. It’s been a long evolutionary process where we’ve been seeing a dissolution of the role of federal government down to state and local governments. It’s put more pressure on NDOT (Nevada Department of Transporation) and RTCs (Regional Transporation Commissions) to deal with street and highway issues, public transportation issues and coordination with other local governments. [Government has] an undefined role. For example, the federal gas tax has not been increased since ‘92 or ‘93. Two RTCs, Washoe County and Clark County, indexed their fuel taxes to make up for that loss. Fuel tax is a fixed amount so it’s not inflation protected. Infrastructure, like all sectors of the construction economy are subject to inflation. We’ve had to deal with making up for those losses at the local level. Leadership is going to have to make up for this indecision of the federal government. I think we can all agree there’s just a lot of indecision at the federal government across network policy hearings. Broadly speaking, our nation’s highways, the funding base for transportation at the federal level, is not something that I see a resolution to anytime soon. Since we’re the deliverers of that program, we’re gonna have to deal with these funding gaps versus needs.
Heidi Gansert: What I’ve seen is a rise of requirements in the criteria to receive federal funding, but a reduction in federal participation. The threshold of what you have to do is significant but you don’t actually get as many dollars for your programs. That’s what I see, a high threshold of work but fewer dollars.
Gibson: Well and just to pile on to that, our infrastructure, our system of society is centered around the protection of property rights and individual liberty. That makes infrastructure a challenge. You go to China, they don’t do that.
Is There an Accessibility to Government Issue in Nevada?
Gansert: Accessibility usually isn’t an issue. The perception is, we are small, so we all know each other pretty well, on a personal level. We know how to find each other and we do communicate. That doesn’t mean we all get together at one time. But, because we are small, we deal with each other on a very personal level. I don’t see partisan politics at that level, especially at the state. As far as being able to communicate and sit in a room and get down to nuts and bolts of things, we’re able to do that, and that’s a huge advantage for Nevada. That is also true for when we have businesses come here.
Kate Marshall: One of the beauties of Nevada is that people do see you in the grocery store. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is that people don’t necessarily know, they certainly don’t know what a lieutenant governor (LG) does. Any problem they might have they’ll just come up to you and say, “This is my problem, help me with it.” It may be a federal problem. It may be an infrastructure problem that you’re asked to execute, but you don’t have the funds to do so. It may be a local problem. The good thing about it is you do have someone’s number [you can call to help with the issue]. I had a woman come up to me recently and she said she had a problem in her business. It was a problem with a third party health care administrator; she thought it was the state that had done something. It wasn’t, but we were able to get a hold of the health and human services division and they were able to broker a resolution for her because our state’s so small. I will tell you she started off by saying, “you’re not really gonna return my call.” I said, “I will. It’s Nevada, we will.”
What is the Public Perception Versus the Reality of Public Service?
Hillary Scieve: People don’t know their government and what their ability is. Most people think I have executive powers. My vote is just as much as the city council. People say to me all the time, “Hillary, why did you give Tesla millions of dollars to come to Reno?” We don’t do any of that. Or, “Hillary, make this law.” They believe we make laws.
Catherine Byrne: [The public doesn’t know who has] the authority. Who is in charge of what. They’ll come to us and go, “why can’t you go after state government or some of the locals?”
Vaughn Hartung: The perception is, from my perspective, that there’s some conspiracy government that is somehow hiding something. We genuinely try to serve our citizens, every single one of them. The perception is that we have huge, deep pockets and hundreds of millions of dollars just lying there, waiting to be spent on the needs of the community but we are somehow squirreling that away.
Marshall: I think people are pretty aware that we’re not living high on the hog.
How Important is Public Engagement?
Gansert: One of the greatest challenges we face as elected officials is getting enough input from our constituents. And, making sure we message to them what we’re doing on their behalf. Two way communication is critically important and we’re always looking for ways to improve that.
Schieve: It’s super important because, certainly at my level, I want the community to shape their city. That’s why we were elected for them, so we could implement that. Feedback is really important. One of the other reasons it’s so important is, they can bring something to an issue you never even knew about and completely change your mind. You might go into a subject thinking one way and after hearing the public’s comments, it really changes how you feel about something because they make some very valid points.
How Does Transparency Play a Part in Government?
Byrne: I think we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We put too much emphasis on some issues of transparency and not enough focus on others. We might be more focused on people’s personal behavior rather than what they’ve done while they’re in office.
Marshall: People have a gut sense of what’s happening to privacy, but no real understanding of where they’re giving permission. As elected officials, part of our job is to make sure what we do is transparent, but also that people know that there’s transparency in their lives in terms of what’s happening. There is transparency in drug prices, in your personal data and in what we are doing with public monies. Transparency is very important at many different levels. It’s a major issue for society.
Schieve: Transparency changes at each level too. At the local government level, we have to follow open meeting laws. At the legislature level, they don’t have to do that.
Gibson: We deal with the open records law [as well]. Pretty much anything on our desk at the local level is public information.
Marshall: Governor Guinn did some – thing that I thought was very important in Nevada. He created the executive audit committee. The committee will conduct audits in various agencies and departments in the state and then bring forward recommendations. He did it both to create some transparency and because an audit’s always a good place to make sure there’s a bit of cleaning, things are done properly and the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. We just had an audit committee and a particular agency came front and center and there were some allegations of fraud. Now we have the opportunity to look into that.
Gansert: At a government level we have to be as transparent as possible. We need to make better, stronger strides accomplishing that. That’s why there is mistrust, there’s not enough transparency. Transparency solves a lot of things, to the greatest extent we can provide that. I do believe our citizens rely on us to make the best choices and to implement policy that puts them in a better situation.
Schieve: The other thing about transparency is that, sometimes, [government officials] really believe they’re coming out and being completely transparent, giving all the facts and laying it all out and that’s still not enough sometimes.
Gibson: [People] deny the facts.
Schieve: You can have it right here in black and white and that’s not what they believe.
Gansert: That’s part of the public process. Part of the public process is disclosing everything that you can and try to educate them. Transparency will help and you can try to educate citizens as much as possible. That improves the process and improves the outcome, but it’s always a challenge.
Hartung: [Some people still] believe it’s a conspiracy. They don’t realize we are doing something that is actually going to benefit the general public and put more taxpayer dollars towards all those things that benefit us. As soon as they write one thread on social media, it becomes fact.
Schieve: Honestly, the best thing I did is get off Facebook about a year and a half ago.
Hartung: So did I, it’s only family stuff for me.
Schieve: My stress level went down. I always felt like I had to respond because I want to be responsive. But, Facebook is not my phone at City Hall. Once I started to engage with that I was spending a lot of my time on Facebook. I realized none of us should be on Facebook; we should be out in the community doing our job.
Marshall: That’s where people lose it, they tend to think it’s all about the social media. I would say all of us in this room, as elected officials, also have to take responsibility. We’ve all been in a situation where you look back say, “Gosh, I could have done that better.”
How has Partnership Affected Government?
Gansert: At a state level we know each other and, especially on the Senate side, it’s very small. We work extremely well together, but we differ on policy. We try to work out our differences. With the numbers with the majorities and the minorities right now, it can be very difficult to find a resolution where folks are really happy with that. A lot of times there’s a bill where the outcome has been negotiated, so it’s okay that everyone’s not happy with it. But, there’s a different list of priorities for the different parties. At a federal level, I think it’s very toxic, but at a state level we still work very well together and really try to come up with the best solutions when we have challenges.
Marshall: It was my first time presiding over the Senate, you’re really just trying to run the committee. I really thought the process, the procedure and the formality was very important. My staff would [ask me], “Why do you say thank you after every sentence?” And, I said, “Because ,when we get to the end and everyone’s so exhausted, that ‘thank you’ might remind people just to be polite. We can move forward through this better if we are polite to each other.” I tried so hard to be very polite, make a little joke here and there, ease the tension and to allow the formality of the procedure to facilitate people’s ability to come to a resolution. On social media formality just goes out the window and people feel like they can have road rage and say anything because they’re not in front of someone. One of the things we had, at least on the Senate side, was people treated each other like colleagues. That was very important.
Gansert: I would agree with that. We treat each other as colleagues and very respectfully. And that’s actually how you work best together is treating each other with respect and listening and trying to find a resolution.
Hartung: At our level, [partisanship] doesn’t even come into play.
Schieve: As mayors we always say, “There’s no Democrat or Republican way to clean the street.” Quite honestly what we do affects the quality of life.
Hartung: We’re ground level.
Schieve: My perception [of the last session] was not that it was, “We all get along regardless of policy.”
Gansert: We don’t agree on policy, so when it comes down to it we treat each other very respectfully. We have some bills we didn’t agree upon from a policy standpoint. One was around the modified business tax and the bills required for that and so we had a heated debate about that. We had a disagreement and it will probably end up in a lawsuit based on what Republican’s think is a violation of the Constitution. As far as policy priorities, I know everybody’s concerned about making sure we have a strong, sustainable economy. Our caucus is really focused on making sure that businesses can thrive. To support what they’re doing and not create too many barriers to entry and regulations and requirements that makes it harder for them to be successful. In the end everyone needs a job and they need the best quality of life that’s possible. And, our economy needs to be sustainable. Some of the choices that we make are difficult but that’s what we’re looking towards. We’re looking toward making sure people have a good quality of life in the state of Nevada.
Marshall: One of the challenges is finding the solutions that fit. It’s no different for a Republican to say, “I need the economy to thrive. I need businesses to work.” And, for a Democrat to say, “I need people to be able to have jobs and afford a living.” Neither side will have that unless both sides have that. The ability to solve those problems without losing sight of the fact that both sides are needed to get to the correct answer. To me, that’s the challenge as an elected official.