Editor’s note: This is the text of the Progressive State of the State speech, scheduled for delivery tonight by former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. Leslie narrowly lost a bid for office against state Sen. Greg Brower in November, and is now a columnist for the Reno News & Review newspaper.
Prepared for delivery by former Nevada state senator Sheila Leslie. Spanish translation to be delivered by Astrid Silva.
Thank you for joining me tonight to discuss the State of our State. I’m Sheila Leslie, a 35-year Nevadan by choice, a former state Legislator, and a committed progressive activist.
In one week, Governor Brian Sandoval will deliver his biennial address. We look forward to hearing more about his vision for the state we both love.
In fact, it is because of that love for Nevada that I am here before you tonight.
I’m worried about Nevada. I’m worried that when Governor Sandoval stands in that Assembly chamber next Wednesday that he is not going to say what we all know needs to be said to create a more prosperous future for us all.
Nevada is one of the wealthiest states in the country. We are among the top four gold producers in the world and top twenty states in per capita income. Tourists from all over the world still flock to Las Vegas. We’re on the verge of a renewable energy renaissance.
As those of us who spend time in the outback know, Nevada’s natural beauty is unparalleled.
And we have the hardest working and most dedicated workforce in the country, whether it’s those who make the beds in the hotels, or educate our children in the classrooms.
Given this abundance, Nevada should be an economic paradise. Instead, we have dreadfully neglected neighborhoods, a demoralized educational system, and a gap between rich and poor that’s wider than at any time since the Gilded Age.
The poor in Nevada pay 10% of their income in taxes, while the rich pay 1.5%. What if we were to tax the rich as much as the poor in our state?
Our world-class gold mining industry pays an effective mining tax rate of 1% into the state general fund. What if we taxed mining as much as Wyoming, at 20 percent?
Nevada is one of three states that does not tax corporate profits. What if these highly profitable mega-corporations paid a nominal percentage of their profits in taxes to Nevada like they do in other states?
If these things happened, we could build a first-class educational system, from pre-K through post-graduate, creating greater economic abundance for all who live here. As it is now, the traditional gateway to a better life, educational attainment, is no longer open for many of our residents.
Last year the Clark County School District said there’s no money to fix the leaky roofs and broken air conditioners. In Washoe County, the Superintendent estimates an additional $40-50 million shortfall in the coming year, on top of the $123 million in cuts our students and teachers have endured over the last five years.
If Nevada taxed mining, corporations, and wealthy interests as much as we do the poor, we could build the best schools, community colleges and universities in the country.
Instead of policies that promote the greater good and shared prosperity, our tax system has created a Donner Party mentality of primitive survival, even if it means sacrificing our children. Our kids are on to us. At the Sun Youth Forum last year, 82 percent of Las Vegas’s brightest youth said they have no intention of living here as an adult.
Nevada is among the top three states where the childhood poverty rate has worsened over the last year; 25 percent of our children under the age of 5 live in poverty. If Nevada were to fix its regressive tax system, we could provide pathways out of poverty, including child care, heath care, nutrition and education, to break the cycle forever.
Nevada has fewer public workers per capita than any other state. Demand on services is growing, but the number of public workers is shrinking. Those who remain in public service are working harder in increasingly tense workplaces as they become targets for anti-worker rhetoric.
The two states that tax minerals the most, Wyoming and Alaska, also spend the most on their people, nearly $14,000 annually. Nevada, at $3,000 per capita, is the lowest out of all the states, with staggering consequences for our people.
I’ve been involved in human services globally and in Nevada for 40 years. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I watched babies die of malnutrition on an island two hours from Miami. As a legislator, I watched Governor Sandoval veto a bill requiring Nevada schools to offer the federally funded national school breakfast program in qualifying schools for vague reasons of implementation.
As a Nevada citizen, I watched in horror when the state mental health budget was decimated during the budget crisis of the early 90s. I worked as a community activist and later as a legislator to restore those cuts, only to see more than $80 million cut from those same budgets once again over the last few years, again due to our tax system that favors rich corporations over the needs of our people.
In Nevada, our jails and prisons continue to provide more mental health treatment than our state programs. We know what to do about this critical issue, and yet a basic item such as a 24-hour urgent care center, is left to languish on a list of “Items of Special Consideration,” which really should be subtitled “Items Nevada Really Needs but Can’t Afford” because we’d rather subscribe to the myth that zero corporate taxes will bring us prosperity.
The New Yorker featured the case of a homeless, alcoholic ex-Marine named Murray Barr in a story that went viral as “Million Dollar Murray.” Two Reno police officers tracked Murray’s time in and out of hospitals and jails over the course of a year and determined that the system spent more than a million dollars to do nothing about Murray. Just think of what a million dollars in treatment, housing, medication and supportive services could have done not just for Murray, but for others in the same situation, often known as “frequent flyers” to criminal justice and health care professionals.
Since “Million Dollar Murray,” Nevada has improved mental health services offering expanded Mental Health Courts and Triage Centers. In Reno, an innovative program was created called the MOST Team which pairs police officers and social workers in vans that respond to suicidal residents and other problems in the downtown core. Yet all these programs were threatened with elimination last session. We should be focused on expanding these solutions that work, instead of threatening to cut them for lack of funding.
Nevada does not have a resource or a money problem. We are a wealthy state. What we do have is a life-or-death weakness with misdistribution of our resources because of state tax policy that concentrates public wealth into fewer hands at the top.
The oligarchs who benefit from the system that makes them rich use large campaign contributions, laundered through ever-increasing and creative Political Action Committees to create even greater political muscle to protect their economic might.
In Nevada, the mining industry hires a lobbyist for every state Senator, matching personalities, gifts, and campaign cash to ensure their will is carried out in state policy. They also pour money into leadership PACs that then dole out the money to caucus members to get around contribution limits.
These corporate contributors later demand tax perks, lax oversight and special interest legislation as the price of their support. Even progressive legislators turn a blind eye to it, insisting money buys access but never a vote.
What if we got rid of the pernicious influence of money in Nevada politics by enacting publicly funded elections? More lawmakers would make decisions based on the long-term health of our state.
During this last campaign cycle, many politicians boasted about making “no more cuts” to education, understanding their constituents have had enough of it. But they’ve been silent on restoring the cuts that have been made.
What if they had the political courage to use Nevada’s wealth to restore and rebuild our state after these bone-splintering budget cuts?
Extending the infamous “sunset taxes,” which include a higher sales tax that falls disproportionately on middle and lower wage earners, is no mark of valor. It’s the path of least resistance that won’t amount to a drop in the bucket considering how far down Nevada has slumped.
Nevada was built on courage, from the indigenous people who thrived in a harsh environment for millennia to social entrepreneurs creating new jobs to immigrants who risked everything to come here for a better life.
Governor Sandoval and legislators need to muster that same courage in order to stand up to some of the most powerful corporations in the world and tell them to pay their fair share.
Nevada is also a live and let live state, one of the first to guarantee a woman’s right to choose, to provide full domestic partnership benefits, and to extend equality to transgender individuals.
What if we were to fully embrace this ethic and make Nevada the Marriage Equality Capital of the world? Let’s pass legislation to repeal our anti-gay marriage amendment and replace it with a law that allows all committed, loving couples the same right to marry that straight couples enjoy. The jobs created and economic boost to our state would be tremendous.
What if Nevada were to embrace a similar job-creating, socially just cause, and build a social safety net that doesn’t have gaping holes? By complying with the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicaid coverage, we can create jobs and help safeguard the health of those who need it the most.
We are heartened to see legislators who were former Tea Party radicals support Medicaid expansion, rally to the cause of immigrants and support driver’s licenses, and oppose further cuts to education.
Watching their movement toward progressive values should give us heart. Those values represent what’s great about this country.
From women’s suffrage, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, national parks, laws against child labor and poisoning our water, and now Obamacare, that will provide most Americans access to health care, these progressive moments in our country underpin our greatness.
Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a struggle.” And nothing is more powerful in Nevada than the gambling/mining/banking cabal of lobbyists who ensure their taxes remain among the lowest in the world.
Nevada has all the ingredients to be a first-class state, an economic and social paradise where the American dream comes true for all who live here. But powerful lobbying interests and their lawmaker friends keep stomping on the cake.
Their faith-based anti-tax position is indefensible in the lowest taxed, highest unemployment state in the nation. It only serves their narrow self-interests of maximizing their profits at the people’s expense.
Rebecca Solnit, one of the West’s leading intellectuals and writers said in her year-end essay last month: “There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable.”
Progressives, let’s not be miserable! Our state needs us to act more forcefully than ever before.