Key state Senate candidates face off on VegasPBS

Editor’s note: This post has been altered from its original version to include updated information. 

Republican state Senate candidates uniformly said they would eschew education cuts but embraced the idea of getting health care to needy Nevadans in a series of debates set for broadcast on VegasPBS this evening.

Steve Kirk, Mark Hutchison and Mari Nakashima St. Martin hit on traditional themes as well, but some gave surprising answers when it came to taxation: they’re not necessarily against all taxes.

“Am I willing to talk about revenues? Of course I am,” said Hutchison, running against Democrat Benny Yerushalmi in Senate District 6. “I will always fund public schools.”

Kirk made a point to say that he hasn’t signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge against raising taxes. “If we determine that we need to raise taxes, let’s do our job,” he said. (In fact, none of the Republican candidates in Thursday’s debates have signed the pledge.)

St. Martin said she favored building more infrastructure projects — and thus creating jobs — in her district, and promised she’d not cut education and fully fund Medicaid for women, children and senior citizens.

The comments came during a series of half-hour debates that will be broadcast beginning at 7:30 p.m. tonight on VegasPBS Channel 10. The debates were moderated by Mitch Fox, host of Nevada Week in Review and featured a segment in which each candidate was able to pose a question to his or her opponent.

No bloating here! 

Kirk, who will face former state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse in November, was asked about a comment on his website about “bloated” school administration. He charged that there are 2,200 Clark County School District administrators making more than $100,000 per year, and that he’d gladly trade one administrator in order to hire two teachers. That statistic was also cited by Hutchison in his Senate District 6 debate.

But according to the Clark County School District, there are only 1,240 administrators in the entire district. Only 216 of those work in the central office, with another 222 working in professional or technical jobs, and the vast majority — 801 — working at school sites as principals, assistant principals or deans, said Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the School Administrators Union.

“Most of our people aren’t making $100,000,” Augspurger said. According to district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson, just 133 of the administrators earn $100,000 or more, making Kirk’s figure inaccurate by 2,067 people and $206.7 million.

Augspurger said the most administrators ever employed by the district was 1,357, back in 2008, but ranks have thinned since then because of the economic recession. “I’m a little surprised at Mr. Kirk,” Augspurger said. “If this is any indication of their [candidates'] attention to detail, I have real concerns.”

As for the notion that administrators are overpaid or unnecessary, Augspurger said his members fill a vital function for a fair wage. “I think we’re woefully understaffed and underemployed everywhere,” he said. “I think the workload’s pretty incredible.”

For her part, Woodhouse — a former school district employee — replied that site-level administrators, at least, were needed to observe and evaluate teachers. But she didn’t quibble with Kirk’s statistic.

UPDATE: Kirk called me this evening to say that he’d misspoken in today’s debate. Instead of referring to “administrators” who earn more than $100,000 per year, he says he meant to say there are 2,200 Clark County School District “employees” who earn that much. The Nevada Policy Research Institute responded to this blog on Twitter this afternoon, saying that it had identified more than 2,200 employees of the district who earn more than $100,000, as evidenced on the institute’s Transparent Nevada website.

I won’t take the time to quibble here with the institute’s combination of pay and benefits to produce a total that exceeds $100,000 for employees whose salaries are less than that. I will, however, take issue with the sentiment underlying Kirk’s (and, I assume, Hutchison’s) charge, i.e. that a non-classroom school district worker making more than $100,000 is wasteful, “bloated” bureaucracy diverting resources from the classroom.

While that may very well be the case in some instances, it certainly is unfair to make the characterization across the board. The basic fact of a $100,000 salary is not automatically proof of waste. If Kirk or anyone else wants to make that charge, they should cite specific examples — actual individuals whom they believe are overpaid, or whose services are not needed by the district as much as a teacher’s. While more difficult, that approach would at least be more accurate.

Foreclosure court

Kirk also embraced the idea of a “foreclosure court,” in which a judge would have the power to “reset” mortgages, presumably to allow homeowners to lower payments and avoid losing their homes. “We need to somehow get the process to reset,” he said.

And asked about medical marijuana, both Kirk and Woodhouse agreed that a system of growing and distributing the drug to patients authorized to have it was appropriate. “I think that’s something that’s come of age,” he said. “I think it’s time.”

Voters in 1998 and 2000 amended the state constitution to allow for medical marijuana and ordered the Legislature to provide for a means of supplying marijuana to patients, but lawmakers never followed through. Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, who is now running for state Senate, has said he will introduce a bill to provide for medical marijuana distribution in the 2013 session.

Both Kirk and St. Martin used their question to ask their opponents about attacks made against them by campaign surrogates, and both Woodhouse and Senate District 9 Democratic nominee Justin Jones replied that they had no control over what outside groups or third parties say in their races. Both Democrats also noted that they were victims of attacks on the campaign trail as well. And Woodhouse added that she hoped all independent expenditures in politics could be stopped one day.

Economic diversification

In the Senate District 6 race, Democratic and small businessman Benny Yerushalmi touted his service on the governor’s Economic Development Commission, and its recent successful effort to persuade Apple Computer to locate some operations in Northern Nevada. Although the state had to give up most tax money it would normally have received, both Yerushalmi and Hutchison said the deal was worthwhile.

“To be honest, Apple would not have come here without it,” Yerushalmi said.

The two candidates parted ways, however, on Hutchison’s idea to exempt all school construction projects from prevailing wage laws, which require workers to be paid a state-determined wage on certain government building jobs. Hutchison said it would save big money, but Yerushalmi said savings wouldn’t be that great.

Sunseting agencies?

Asked about her call to cut wasteful spending, Senate District 9 candidate St. Martin said she would look internally at state government, “sunsetting” state agencies on a rolling basis. She said that wouldn’t necessarily mean closing them, although the word “sunset” in bureaucratic language generally means to end a program.

Jones disagreed, saying state officials shouldn’t be called before the Legislature to justify whether to keep or lose agencies. He cited the governor’s Economic Development Commission as an example.

Jones and St. Martin also disagreed about school choice; she said she’s in favor of vouchers, while he said he opposes them. “There’s no reason that we can’t improve the schools that we have,” Jones said. “I just don’t think that vouchers are the magic solution to our problems.”

St. Martin replied that restricting school choice leaves government schools without accountability, and forces parents to “keep kids in failing schools year after year.”

The debate didn’t get too heated, although St. Martin twice referred obliquely to a recent legal issue involving Jones’s representation of Las Vegas Sands, Inc., which was fined $25,000 by a District Court judge after lawyers were found to have concealed evidence in a wrongful termination lawsuit. Jones was one of the attorneys on the case, but was not singled out by name in the judge’s order.

St. Martin questioned whether Jones would stand up for homeowners over big banks, since his client lists includes Bank of America. And in her closing statement, she accused Jones of lying in his professional career and warned voters that he may by lying to them on their doorsteps. Since her closing statement was the last line of the debate, Jones was unable to say anything in his defense, although he’s declined to comment on the matter because of attorney-client privilege.

In his question, Jones asked St. Martin about a remark made in 2011 in which she allegedly said cuts to education didn’t go far enough. He asked what further cuts she’d prefer. St. Martin replied that she would not make any cuts to education, and that increasing state tax revenues made that unnecessary.

“You just ratified what you said last year,” Jones replied. “That’s where you stand. You have to live with it.”

A final debate — between Senate District 18 candidates Scott Hammond, the Republican, and Kelli Ross, the Democrat, was scheduled to be taped this afternoon for broadcast this evening as well.


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