President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo in Nevada’s contentious and crowded Republican gubernatorial primary isn’t necessarily worrying former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller.
Heller, whose relationship with the former president has veered from deep criticism in 2016 to fervent support during his unsuccessful 2018 re-election bid, said in a wide-ranging interview with VT on Monday that Trump’s backing had come as a surprise, but that Lombardo’s failure to win an endorsement at the state Republican Party convention last weekend was a much bigger deal.
“Sure, all of us would have probably loved to have the Trump endorsement,” he said. “But in this case, to know Joe Lombardo is not to vote for him. So whether he gets the Trump endorsement or not, clearly you can see at the state convention didn’t matter.”
Despite a long political career in the Silver State — including eight years in the U.S. Senate, three terms in the House, three four-year terms as secretary of state and four years in the Assembly — Heller remains in the thick of the pack of the 15-person Republican primary for governor, running for a seat that he’s long desired.
Heller promised that if elected governor, he would pursue massive cuts to the state sales tax and the Commerce Tax on gross business revenue over $4 million. Such cuts would likely result in major cuts to the state budget, which Heller said would be made up by a growing economy.
He also promised to pursue the “most aggressive pro-life legislation” possible, would consider reversing Nevada’s decade-old decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and would pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy policy as governor.
Heller sharply criticized the COVID mitigation policies adopted by Gov. Steve Sisolak, and predicted that policies such as mask mandates would be back on the table if Republicans don’t win back the governor’s office.
“What’s going to happen, that first Wednesday after the Tuesday election in November — are the masks all coming back up? We know that this governor is going to do whatever California tells him to do,” he said.
See below for video highlights from the interview. A full video of the interview is at the bottom of the story.
Heller said he hasn’t signed a pledge not to raise taxes — but probably would if asked.
“I’ve never raised the tax in my career. In fact, I was the author of … President Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act,” said Heller, who was involved in crafting the legislation as a member of the Senate Finance Committee and one of 14 GOP members who marked up the bill. “I gave multiple tax cuts throughout my career to Americans.”
He said the mining industry was “over a barrel” when it agreed in 2021 to a higher mining tax to benefit schools and that he wants to review its constitutionality.
Heller has also taken particular aim at the Commerce Tax, a business levy passed in 2015 while Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislative Republicans were in power that applies to businesses grossing more than $4 million a year.
“I truly believe our ability for economic development here in the state begins and ends with repealing that Commerce Tax,” he said. “I believe that there are companies that won’t come to Nevada because they consider that, and I consider that, an income tax.”
Asked if he has encountered businesses that say they are struggling under the weight of the Commerce Tax — which nets less than $200 million a year and accounts for less than 5 percent of revenues to the state general fund — Heller said he hadn’t heard the contrary.
“There’s not a businessman out there that’s come up to me and said, ‘Hey, … don’t repeal the Commerce Tax. Keep it on in the books. I love it,” Heller said.
An independent commission on school funding has recommended Nevada evaluate its property tax formula to help boost revenue for schools. Heller said he would consider the recommendation.
“Sure, I’ll take a look at it. But it would have to be revenue neutral,” he said.
Heller has called for cutting the sales tax — the largest source of money flowing into the state’s general fund at about one-third of revenue — by 20 or 25 percent. He explained that the goal is to eliminate the burden of ongoing inflation from Nevada taxpayers.
“Government loves inflation. The reason they love inflation is because their coffers grow,” he said.
He has also called for reducing the state’s general fund by 20 percent. Asked if his plan meant layoffs for 20 percent of the state workforce, he pointed to high vacancy rates in state agencies.
“I think if you didn’t fill them, you’d probably get to that 20 percent. So I don’t think it would be that difficult,” he said.
But he doesn’t want to cut public safety spending, arguing that the Legislature “defunded the police” last session by reducing take-home pay in the form of altering the benefits structure. Asked how he would retain Nevada State Police troopers, he said their main concern is the high amount they have to pay into the PERS retirement system from their paychecks. Adjusting that would amount to a raise.
“If they get a reduction in their contribution to PERS, yes, their take-home [pay] will go up,” he said.
Heller said Nevada has a “rigged” voting system, which he attributed to the massive expansion of mail voting ahead of the 2020 election that was made permanent in 2021.
He compared the fallout from the 2020 election to the outcry over Florida election procedures in the 2000 presidential election, saying issues such as well-publicized images of mail ballots left outside community mailboxes in apartment buildings was a sign that the system “can’t guarantee that whoever filled out that ballot is the person that they say they are.”
“It’s like putting money in cash in an envelope,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing. I mean, who does that anymore?”
Heller also repeated his criticism of Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, whom he called a “Democratic operative” over his alleged acceptance of invalid signatures on mail ballots.
During a hearing for a lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign ahead of the 2020 election, Gloria said the county’s signature-verification machine accepted about 30 percent of signatures off the bat, and that he had lowered the default settings after testing it with other groups of signatures — in part because the machine required a higher resolution of signature images than what the Department of Motor Vehicles had on file.
Attorneys for the county said at the time that the machine was used to capture the “low-hanging fruit” of signatures that closely resemble those on record with the office. A representative of the secretary of state’s office said Clark County’s ballot rejection rate was in line with the typical rejection rate statewide and in most other counties.
Challenges raised by Republicans over Clark County’s use of signature-verification machines ahead of the 2020 election were roundly rejected in court — one judge wrote that a lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign and state Republican Party “failed to show any error or flaw” in the county’s signature-verification process.
Another lawsuit brought in federal court challenging the signature-verification process for mail ballots in Clark County was rejected by a judge who said there was “little to no evidence that the machine is not doing what it’s supposed to do and incorrectly verifying other signatures.”
As for the move by several rural counties away from electronic-voting machines and toward paper ballots with hand-counting, Heller said he would support those efforts if they helped improve confidence in the election system.
“Doesn’t matter what system you have in place, if nobody’s confident, what’s the point?” he said.
Heller quipped that he and Trump have “never been on a double date,” a nod to the pair’s up-and-down relationship.
The former senator said as early as 2015 that “I do not support Trump” and returned a campaign donation from Trump to charity following comments the candidate made about Mexican immigrants. He also said he was “99 percent” opposed to Trump at a 2016 candidate rally with then-Senate candidate Joe Heck, a Republican who un-endorsed Trump following release of the Access Hollywood tapes detailing the future president discussing the groping of women.
Heller mended fences and campaigned with Trump in 2018, and called that 2016 rally with Heck “probably the biggest political mistake I think I’ve made in my career.”
“I should have walked off that stage,” he said. “For that, I apologize. Not only to Donald Trump, but to the voters here in Nevada.”
Heller added that he had most recently spoken with Trump about six weeks ago at the former president’s estate in Mar-A-Lago.
“We had good conversations, but he never let on how he was going to do [endorsements],” he said. “And, you know, if you can get into Trump’s mind, please let me know how that’s gonna work.”
Heller said that if given the option, he would never have opted Nevada into the Medicaid expansion — a decision Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval made in 2012 that has led to nearly a third of the population tapping into the government-paid insurance system.
He said if he could undo the decision, he would, but now would need to take a look at the arrangement with the state budget director.
“Once he put it in place, once it gets so deep into society, it’s very, very difficult,” to walk it back, he said. “I would love to, but I’m not quite sure … that’s doable.”
Even though Nevada voters passed a law in 1990 enshrining the right to an abortion as late as 24 weeks of gestation, Heller said he plans to sit down with the attorney general and “find out how far we can go” to restrict abortion.
“I’ll support the most conservative piece of legislation … that I can get passed through the legislative session, and we’ll let the courts take it from there,” he said.
Asked how he might convince women coming from out of state to seek a legal abortion that they should carry their pregnancy to term, Heller said he would want to ensure family counseling clinics are available that could share alternatives to abortion. But he said he did not want state funding going to either those clinics or abortion clinics, and would support abortion alternatives by “encouraging” them.
“You have a soapbox, you get up on there, and you set the tone,” he said.
Energy and environment
Lake Mead is only 30 percent full, and the continual decline of the reservoir’s water level has led officials to turn on a “third straw” pump station to maintain physical access to water as shortages on the Colorado River compound.
Heller lauded the work of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, saying it had ensured the region is “good for at least another 20 years,” and said he had seen firsthand as the owner of a 180-acre farm in Smith Valley the effects that conservation have on water usage. He said he would oppose any effort to transfer water from one basin to another — referencing the contentious Las Vegas pipeline project sought by the water authority that was finally shelved in 2020.
On energy, Heller said he’s “not a climate change denier” and was an “all of the above energy supporter,” which he said included oil and gas. He said the potential of electric-powered vehicles and generation is immense, especially in parts of Nevada well suited to massive solar fields, but “I do not want to do it at the expense of economic growth because it’s not mature enough to handle what we currently have.”
He sounded a similar tone on the state’s efforts to set non-binding carbon emission reduction goals.
“I don’t want it to be a drop dead number to the point that it shuts down the economy. If that was going to be the case, obviously, I would push back heavily against it,” he said. “But having targets and saying, ‘Okay, this is where we want to be,’ that’s fine. I can accept those kinds of targets … I think we have an obligation as a government entity to give those kinds of incentives and try to meet those kinds of goals.”
Heller said he believes public school teachers are underpaid. Asked how he would address that pay deficit while still trying to cut 20 percent of the state budget, Heller said his tax cuts and other “relief” for struggling businesses would spur more growth and that he could “absolutely” grow Nevada out of a 20 percent cut.
“Cutting the size of government is for an economy to grow,” he said. “That’s what this is all about. This is about economic growth. This is vitality.”
He pointed to South Dakota’s high rate of economic growth, noting that the state did not implement shutdowns of businesses and schools to the extent Nevada has.
“You can grow the revenues here in the state of Nevada. You just don’t have to do it in such a burdensome way that it stymies economic growth,” he said.
Heller said he supported efforts to reduce class sizes, and said he was never a supporter of full-time kindergarten. He also would support re-instituting the “Read by 3” policy adopted by Sandoval to hold back third-graders who are unable to read, an issue he said was made worse by the COVID-related school closures over the past two years.
Heller also argued that breaking up the large Clark County School District would address an uptick in violence on campus.
“It’s too big for the administrators to control. It’s too big for principals to control. The schools are so big, it’s too big for … even the teachers to be able to control,” he said. “I think if you break that down into four or five different districts … the policing of the school district would be much easier.”
While Heller called a lack of access to child care “one of the biggest problems we have today,” he thinks the solution is tax relief and incentives.
“It’s not about spending a lot of money, it’s about giving incentives for businesses to thrive,” he said.
Putting moms and dads back to work making a good salary so they can afford child care is the way to go, he said, but he criticized Nevada’s reliance on warehouse jobs and said “that has to stop.”
“If you bring in minimum-wage jobs, you’re gonna have more of a burden when it comes to health care,” he said. “The whole purpose of this discussion that we’re having is a thriving economy, a growing economy that people are making above minimum wage, they’re making good wages so that they can afford child care. And for government to have to subsidize that is a failure.”
On the minimum wage, Heller said he supported a Nevada law whereby the minimum wage is rising each year to end at $12 an hour in 2024, or $11 if the employer offers health benefits.
Heller drew a contrast between himself and frontrunner Lombardo by sharply opposing any rent control, although he acknowledged that buying a home is simply unaffordable for many young adults.
“I’m not saying that there’s any easy solutions. But the wrong solution is rent control,” he said.
The former senator said the biggest problem driving a lack of housing supply is the federal government’s lengthy process to approve new development of land on the outskirts of cities. Lands bills that authorize those expansions come about once every 10 years, he said, and are not put up for approval until all states submit their requests to Congress.
“When it was done, it was great. But it was already 10 years behind,” he said. “So something has to change.”
Immigration and crime
Heller has asserted his opponent Lombardo created a “sanctuary city” when he withdrew the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department from a 287(g) partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. No jurisdiction in Nevada has described itself that way, however; Lombardo has claimed a role in deporting 10,000 people and his agency says it still cooperates to connect people released from jail with ICE even in the absence of the agreement.
“I’m not going to allow Nevada to become a sanctuary city,” Heller said. “We’re not going to practice catch and release.”
Asked whether he directly connects immigration with crime waves, Heller said that’s not necessarily true.
“It isn’t the immigrants themselves. It’s the amount of drugs that come in from our southern border,” Heller said. “Every fentanyl death in Nevada is a government mistake, a government error, a government doing its job poorly.”
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