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Sisolak, Lombardo square off over education, abortion in general election debate

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Incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and his Republican challenger, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, laid out competing visions for Nevada on the debate stage Sunday in the first — and likely only — general election debate in the race for governor.

The pair sparred on a range of issues, debating the governor’s performance on COVID response, the economy and education, while Sisolak pressed Lombardo over his record as sheriff, a recent increase in crime and his position on abortion.

The nearly 90-minute, town hall-style debate — moderated by VT CEO Jon Ralston on Sunday morning — comes less than three weeks before the start of early voting. It also precedes the distribution of mail ballots, which is occuring in six days in Washoe County and in 18 days for the populous Clark County.

The debate, initially streamed online in a limited capacity as part of VT’s IndyFest event, will air on television at 6:30 p.m. Monday on KSNV Channel 3 in Las Vegas and KRNV Channel 4 in Reno. It will also air nationally on C-SPAN on Tuesday.

Sisolak was first elected governor in 2018 after spending nearly a decade as a Clark County Commissioner. Lombardo, after more than two decades in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, was elected Clark County Sheriff in 2014.

Below are highlights from the debate. Click on the links to jump to specific topics:


Education

Lombardo backed an increase to teacher pay in Nevada, but he did not commit to a precise percentage increase to those wages, saying any increase would need to be tied instead to inflation indices and negotiations with teacher unions.

“It’s important that they have a livable wage, so they can even purchase a house to live in here in the state,” Lombardo said, noting that he would support a 2 percent or 3 percent increase based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of the average change in prices over time.

Sisolak agreed that teachers need to have higher wages, pointing first to an increase under his administration and saying “there’s not one teacher who couldn’t make more money doing something else. They teach because they love the discipline of teaching … but it shouldn’t be that they can’t afford things.”

Sisolak also said the raise “needs to be more” than 3 percent, and said it would not be possible under Lombardo, noting his plan to recreate a voucher program would likely lead to public education budget cuts.

Accusing Lombardo’s “school choice” plan of threatening to siphon up to $300 million dollars of state money allocated to public schools, Sisolak said that the state “cannot afford to have school choice right now.” Arguing that private schools do not need to accept students who might be more expensive to teach, including English-language learners or students with learning disabilities, Sisolak also said he would “stand behind the teachers in the state of Nevada.”

Lombardo pushed back against the governor, saying, “We should not be regulated because of the ZIP codes we live in.” As for effects the program might have on the public education system, Lombardo said it is “absolutely false” that the use of vouchers implies a lack of faith in public schools.

“You have to look at different ways of doing business,” he said.

Lombardo also criticized the governor for removing a mandatory retention requirement in the Read by Grade 3 program, an effort launched in 2015 by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, as a way to ensure students read at grade level by the end of third grade. Lombardo said the program should be widespread and hold students to high standards.

Sisolak responded that his administration does not want to hold students back if they cannot read, but that “we want to make sure kids get educated.” He also touted a funding formula change, the first in more than 50 years, that consolidates education funding streams and, in theory, sends money to school districts based on students’ needs. Sisolak added that the Legislature shouldn’t be involved in categorical funding — money targeted to specific education programs — no more than setting the curriculum.

Asked about a 2019 law, AB168, that implemented a “restorative justice”-based system in Nevada schools for students that, in the past, would have been summarily suspended or expelled for certain behavior — a bill backed by all but one Republican legislator at the time — Lombardo said “we know it’s not a good idea at this point.”

Sisolak pushed back on the assertion that the bill had failed, but did concede that it needed to be adjusted, primarily through the addition of more funding for more deans, who are tasked with handling discipline.

Trump and election fraud claims

Asked if President Donald Trump — who endorsed and campaigned with Lombardo — was a “great” president, Lombardo said: “I wouldn’t say great. I think he was a sound president.” He added that Trump “moved the country forward, versus backward.”

Then pressed on whether Trump’s repeated assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from him, including through alleged widespread fraud in Nevada — claims that have not been supported by any evidence, in either Nevada or other states — Lombardo said “it bothers me” and said he did not believe the election was rigged.

Lombardo said there was a “modicum of fraud,” but “nothing to change the election,” and still defended his support of Trump.

“You’re never going to agree with anybody, 100 percent, with everything they do,” Lombardo said. “Even in my own party, there are people that don’t agree 100 percent of what I present forward. But you know, you’ve got to look at the totality of the person and their ideas and their leadership and support it in that aspect, because you’re never going to have the perfect candidate.”

Biden and the national economy

Sisolak called President Joe Biden a “very good” president, arguing that he inherited problems from Trump. He added that many of the criticisms lobbed against Biden are out of the president’s control, such as the price of gasoline.

“I think that the president has done well with what he’s been presented with,” Sisolak said. “He’s continuing to move forward, and it’s tough decisions he’s had to make.”

Lombardo blamed higher inflation on “giveaway money” from the government.

“There’s been significant (money) — to the tune of several billion dollars — been given away across the nation,” Lombardo said. “Some of it’s been beneficial. But they’re [dealing] with the increased inflation as a result of it.”

Sisolak disagreed, noting that there are more dollars chasing fewer goods, but that’s also caused by supply chain issues and other factors. Inflation is more controlled by the Federal Reserve, Sisolak said, adding that the president keeps a distance from that.

Election integrity

Asked if there was an “election integrity” issue in Nevada, Sisolak said “absolutely not.”

“I agree with our Republican Secretary of State [Barbara Cegavske], who’s done a great job, assuring me there’s not a modicum of fraud,” Sisolak said. “There’s virtually no fraud in the elections in the state of Nevada.”

Sisolak also defended mailing ballots to every active registered voter in the state, a policy first implemented in 2020 amid the height of the COVID pandemic, saying “more options to vote is a good thing.”

Lombardo challenged universal mail voting, posing a rhetorical question: “What’s the problem with targeted mailing?”

He also raised the possibility that people could fill out ballots that are not theirs if sent to old addresses or pile up at neighborhood or apartment complex mailboxes. Lombardo said he supports implementing voter ID requirements.

Sisolak questioned the implication that increasing access through universal mail ballots increased the likelihood of fraud.

”That’s like saying that the more roads we build, the more opportunity we’re giving people to speed,” he said, reasserting that it was a “good thing” to give voters more options.

Taxes

Sisolak was pressed on a television ad in which he claimed he had not raised taxes “on Nevada families” while governor, despite presiding over a tax increase on the mining industry meant to boost education dollars as well as the continuation of a business tax originally designed to sunset in 2019. Asked when he “ever said no to a tax increase,” Sisolak pointed largely to his time on the Clark County Commission, including opposition to a version of the “More Cops” tax and an increase to the county sales tax.

As governor, Sisolak said proposed taxes from his Democratic legislative caucus were killed before they could ever progress — “they didn’t ever get to my desk to be vetoed because I talked to them [legislators] and said ‘this I can support and this I can’t.’”

Sisolak also dismissed the possibility that the mining tax increase negatively affected everyday Nevadans.

“I don’t know how many of you are investing in gold bullion, who might have been affected by the increase of the mining tax, but I haven’t bought any gold so it didn’t affect me,” he said, adding that no employee was laid off from a mining company because of the new tax structure.

Lombardo pushed back, arguing that “it flows downhill,” and that a tax on businesses would eventually have “an effect on the business to be successful and move forward and provide jobs.”

The sheriff also asserted that he would “never” raise taxes, and said that should a hypothetical situation arise that would necessitate a tax increase, “I would look inside first.”

Asked in a follow-up question whether he would resign if he raised taxes in any way after pledging not to, Lombardo demurred, saying that, before raising taxes, “in my opinion, there’s always another way.”

Northshore Labs

Both candidates sparred over the issue of the politically well-connected firm Northshore Labs — which ran COVID tests for the City of Henderson and UNR before having its contract terminated after a review from UNR found 96 percent of a sample of tests conducted at an on-campus site were false-negatives.

The company’s connections to the state and the contracting process were first revealed in an investigation from ProPublica and co-published by VT in May.

Asked why he didn’t notify the public about the testing issue as soon as the state knew and at the same time Northshore’s public contract was terminated, Sisolak first asserted that the state is cooperating with a federal investigation into the company and that neither he nor his administration is under investigation, as some political ads have claimed.

Sisolak also defended the initial contracting process with Northshore, pointing to the chaos of the winter Omicron variant wave of the pandemic that had stretched COVID testing wait times beyond a week at a time, when “we were at a loss in terms of what the pandemic really entailed.”

“We were trying to expand our testing capabilities, our capacity,” Sisolak said, explaining the state’s decision to fast-track the licensing of the company, which he noted was also licensed at the time by the federal government and more than 20 other states.

“I never intervened on behalf of this company, they never got one penny of the state’s resources, and as soon as we found out, we suspended their operations,” Sisolak said.

The governor also denied any impropriety related to a major donor to his campaign, Peter Palivos, whose sons were both deeply involved with Northshore Labs’ expansion to Nevada.

“This guy, on my life, on my mother, my children, my wife’s life, never asked me about this,” Sisolak said, denying also that Palivos ever emailed, texted or called him about Northshore.

Lombardo’s campaign and Republican-aligned political action committees, however, have described the Northshore issue as one of “cronyism.” When asked what evidence he had to back that up, Lombardo said it was “vicarious liability,” and that as the head of the state, Sisolak ought to speak to “everything that your agency does.”

“You should have, front facing, as the leader of the state, said, ‘Hey, if you took this test, come in and get another test because we have determined that a percentage of the majority were false, for your personal safety,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo also said the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which he heads as sheriff, was approached by Northshore and that Metro ultimately declined to work with the company because they could not prove they could process both tests from Nevada and from Chicago, where the company is based.

Pressed on why he did not speak out against television advertisements falsely claiming that Sisolak was personally under federal investigation, Lombardo said he had not seen any “evidence contrarian to that point of view.”

Sisolak then interrupted, calling Lombardo’s statement “ridiculous” and asserting that Lombardo has an impact on what outside political action committees claim even if, by law, they are not allowed to coordinate messaging.

Immediately after, the two began dueling over another issue entirely — whether Lombardo erred in denying benefits entitled to officers who die in the line of duty to the families of two Metro officers who died from COVID.

Lombardo argued that contact tracing conducted by Metro found that neither officer contracted COVID on the job and said that the families had “self-admitted” as much.

Sisolak countered that it was not “self-admitted,” before pointing to the widows of the two officers in the audience of the debate and criticizing Lombardo for not attending the funerals of the officers. Lombardo then argued that Sisolak’s involvement in the memorial service was “political theater.”

Lombardo’s record as sheriff

Responding to a political ad attacking his tenure as sheriff — including alleging that he cut 112 officer positions from Metro, disbanded the department’s gang unit and gave contracts to campaign donors — Lombardo pushed back point-by-point over claims he called, again, “political theater.”

Lombardo said the positions in question were part time, not police officers, cut as part of COVID budget constraints and later restored after “we came back from COVID.” On the gang unit, Lombardo said the positions were placed in area commands for “better timely, quality investigations” before some of those officers were placed back in a separate gang unit to retain “intelligence functions.”

And on the issue of contracts for donors, Lombardo said the contract in question — an $18 million long-term contract for radios through Motorola — was signed first under his predecessor, Doug Gillespie, and only continued under his tenure, and with the approval of Metro’s fiscal affairs board (where Sisolak was a member during his time as a county commissioner).

Crime rates

Asked about the recent uptick in crime following the pandemic, Lombardo asserted first that “for six years of my tenure, crime, in totality, went down 35 percent.”

“The last two years, crime has increased,” Lombardo said. “Last year it was 5 percent, this year, year-to-date, is 3 percent. And that is a direct result of the Legislature, the management and the oversight that is provided by our sitting governor.”

Asked for specific policies that he deemed “soft on crime,” Lombardo criticized the raising of larceny thresholds from $900 to $1,200, tying them directly to a 70 percent increase in such crimes. He similarly criticized a change to prosecutions for first-time offenses for stolen vehicles, which he tied to a 22 percent increase.

Lombardo also called the initial criminal justice reforms proposed by Democratic lawmakers “draconian,” and defended Metro’s eventual “neutral” stance on those laws.

“We were neutral because we finally got to somewhere that we could live with knowing that it was still bad legislation,” Lombardo said.

Sisolak was asked “what changed” after he had once called Lombardo the best sheriff in the country.

“He changed when he suddenly saw a political opportunity, and this is his vehicle to climb the political ladder,” he said. “And he’s entitled to do that, but his priorities changed at that time.”

Neither candidate mentioned the pandemic in their discussion of crime, though Sisolak said broadly that “people are not safer today than they were eight years ago,” and that “crime has expanded.”

Lombardo challenged a specific assertion that his department did not respond to burglaries — describing it as “an absolute falsehood” — and said that there were “twice as many burglaries because of the change in legislation.”

He also said that Metro has struggled to hire new officers because of “the attitude that has proliferated amongst the public space, of defund the police and lack of support for the police.”

“It’s not sexy to be a cop anymore because they don’t feel they have support,” Lombardo said. “My intent is to change that paradigm.”

Sisolak, in response, challenged that “the requirements of being a cop was ever a sexy position,” and said he never supported “defund the police.”

Housing

A congressional probe of eviction practices by companies such as Siegel Suites found that the real estate and investment group failed to comply with the federal eviction moratorium, used government rental assistance programs and, in some cases, expedited evictions.

Campaign finance records show that since 2018, Siegel Suites has donated $38,000 to Sisolak, and since 2014, the company has donated $27,000 to Lombardo.

Asked about the campaign contributions, Sisolak said he has hundreds of thousands of donors and he is not beholden to a specific group. To help those struggling with housing, the governor said the state has to do something about corporate landlords.

“We need to come up with a plan so the corporate landlords cannot dictate the price of rent,” Sisolak said. “We need to look at the abatement procedure that exists for multifamily units and non-owner dwelling units.”

Lombardo said the problem of affordable housing can be summed up by supply and demand.

“It’s land, land, land and you have to have affordable land in order to have affordable housing,” Lombardo said. “If the land is not affordable, it doesn’t pencil out.”

He added that it’s vital to negotiate with the county, the state and the Bureau of Land Management to defer the costs of housing on the front end to help building projects achieve financial sustainability.

Abortion 

Abortion in the Silver State up to 24 weeks of pregnancy has been protected by state law for more than 30 years and could only be overturned by a direct majority vote from the people. Though abortion access in Nevada was not affected by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, Sisolak and affiliated Democratic groups have continually hammered Lombardo on abortion, siezing on the Republican candidate’s often unclear answers to media outlets and debate moderators.

During the debate, Lombardo called the constant probing about his abortion stances “politcial theater” and described it as a moot point becuase abortion law is settled in Nevada.

“It’s unfortunate the governor doesn’t have enough respect for the voters to realize that it’s codified in law,” Lombardo said. “There’s nothing that the governor can do to change it.”

Lombardo said he supports contraceptive access and parental notification for abortion procedures performed on a minor, with exceptions for rape and incest. He added that he will not prosecute women who come to Nevada seeking an abortion. Lombardo also said he is in favor of changing mandatory waiting periods but is against mandatory ultrasounds — all abortion-related issues outside the scope of the 1992 ballot measure that could be shaped by the governor.

“My personal belief is pro-life,” Lombardo said, while noting that he supports the will of the people.

Lombardo also walked back a previous statement that he would support a 13-week ban on abortion, saying, “As I thought about it more personally, I support the law that the people approved. I support anything that the people approved.”

Sisolak maintained his stance on abortion.

“Let me make this crystal clear … I support unequivocally a woman’s right to choose; her health care decisions are between her and her doctor,” Sisolak said. When pressed about the timeline he could support for a late-term abortion, Sisolak said, “I do not think that she would have a right to make that decision at 35 weeks, if that’s what you’re asking.”

COVID policy

Sisolak also defended the decision to shut down the Strip and “non-essential” business at the start of the pandemic, in large part because of the expected death toll at the early phase of the pandemic without social-distancing measures.

“I had regular consultations with our medical community, our medical advisory team and the business community,” Sisolak said. “At the time, it was predicted we could lose upwards of 40,000 Nevadans. We still lost, at the last count, 11,501. I’m sorry about every one of those lives lost. Yes, our businesses suffered, but we have come back stronger than anybody anticipated.”

Sisolak signed an unprecedented order in the early pandemic shuttering most businesses, including hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Those closures remained until June 2020, though other pandemic restrictions — including masking requirements in public buildings and businesses — remained in some form into 2022.

Lombardo countered that Nevada’s rules were “draconian” and that it ought to have followed other states. In particular, he criticized Sisolak for following the lead of California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. Lombardo also criticized Sisolak for waiting too long to reopen certain business, especially as the primary concern — that the state’s medical infrastructure would be overwhelmed with COVID patients — did not come to pass.

“We were caught up in the COVID malaise and the economy and the mortality much longer than we should have been” he said.

Lombardo also criticized the state’s vaccine distribution plan, arguing that the state and local government control of vaccine supplies denied the private sector access to “solve this issue.”

Sisolak pushed back on the assertion from Lombardo regarding medical infrastructure, pointing instead to the opening of a temporary medical facility in the parking garage of Reno’s Renown Medical Center and the use of hallways as extra space in Las Vegas’ University Medical Center.

“The medical community was overrun,” Sisolak said. “A lot of this was pre-vaccine, if you go back.”

Unemployment system woes

Sisolak said the state did everything possible to address a ballooning number of unemployment claims created by pandemic closures.

Throughout 2020 and beyond, the state’s beleaguered Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) was crushed under a historic volume of unemployment claims, leading to inflated wait times, a massive claim backlog, headaches for claimants, and the increased potential for fraud as state and federal authorities vastly increased the amount of money paid out by the unemployment system.

“There were hundreds of millions of dollars of fraud perpetrated on Nevada — billions nationwide. We didn’t have enough claims adjusters,” Sisolak said. “We brought in people from Health and Human Services. They weren’t trained in the specific role of claims adjusting.”

Sisolak said that the unemployment difficulties hurt businesses, but noted that he worked with the business community and even received an endorsement from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

Health care and the public option

On the topic of a state-managed public health care option passed during the 2021 legislative session and set to be implemented in 2026, Lombardo said he would “absolutely not” support it.

“We’re already in a dire straits with Medicaid, currently within the state of Nevada,” Lombardo said, noting that the state has failed to address the Medicaid reimbursement model.

Lombardo also dismissed recent findings from a study of Nevada’s public health insurance option that suggests it could generate $300 million to $400 million in health care savings for consumers and the state during its first five years.

Sisolak defended the public option, saying that Nevada is leading the nation and the option will benefit thousands of Nevadans.

Correction (10/2/2022 at 4:24 p.m.): This story has been updated to correct one of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s answers about abortion.

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