By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
State Sen. Julia Ratti said on Nevada Newsmakers that state lawmakers should go on a tour of Nevada communities to hear how citizens want the state government to spend the nearly $3 billion it will receive as part of the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan.
“I think that is the right thing to do, for sure,” Ratti said when host Sam Shad suggested a “listening tour.”
“And I don’t think that is just my idea. I think you would see a lot of conversations at all levels of the (legislative) building. I think the governor’s office — I won’t speak for the governor’s office — but I think it is critically important to all of us that we get some good public engagement.”
Lawmakers will form many ideas on how to spend the money, said Ratti, D-Sparks. However, nothing should be decided before hearing from citizens.
“Sixty-three legislators will have lots of ideas,” Ratti said, referring to the number of elected members of the Legislature. “But more importantly, I think we’ll want to set up a process so the public can give us their ideas. I have ideas but so to my neighbors, so do my friends, so do areas of our community that we don’t hear from as often as we need to. So a good public engagement process is going to be an important part of it.”
Already, The Every Nevadan Recovery Framework includes a robust plan for community engagement and feedback, said Meghin Delaney, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s communications director.
The federal windfall, designed to help states recover from the Covid pandemic, is rare and steps should be made to ensure it is spent wisely, Ratti said.
“It is a once-in-a-generation experience we are having,” she said. “I think we are living through history but once you’re in the middle of it, it is hard to see. But we are all going to look back at this part of our lives as transformational, no question. There has been transformations that have happened in my life and all lives because of what we have learned through being isolated during a pandemic.”
The pandemic has caused accelerated change that will probably be with us a long time, Ratti said.
“We talked about tele-health. We’ve talked about e-commerce, about automation of jobs,” she said. “We are going to have significant transformation. It makes sense to me that we take a step back. Not too long (of a step); we’ve got to get the dollars out and get the dollars working. But we could take a step back and say, ‘OK, what can we do with these resources that are transformational and make sure Nevada is stronger going forward?”
Lawmakers have only had a few days so far to view parameters from the federal government on how the money should be spent, Ratti said.
“To be fair, we have had the guidance for a couple of days and it is 125 pages, so we are still wading through it ourselves,” she said of the American Rescue Plan.
“We’ve learned two things. We can’t use it for the rainy-day fund and you can’t use it for federally matching (funds),” Ratti said.
“But setting that aside, first of all, by far, the most important priority is stabilizing our current government,” she said, noting cuts made to government services in last year’s special session. “And that is probably not the ‘big idea’ that everyone is going to be talking about.”
The state’s unemployment system — Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) — proved to be a major failure for thousands of Nevadans who lost jobs during the pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate hit a national high of more than 29 percent in April, 2020, and people who needed a lifeline in a crisis suffered through DETR website crashes, full days waiting on the phone for help and unemployment checks that were promised but never arrived. Those issues, too, must be fixed, Ratti said.
“It has taken a huge hit,” Ratti said of DETR. “We are not doing as well by Nevadans as we should be because of the systems issues — $50 million, easily, should go there to make sure that is working.
“The other pieces are infrastructure,” she said. “We have had lots of conversations as a nation about how we are not doing enough to take care of our roads, bridges, parks, all out outdoor resources, everyplace we can to do infrastructure. And that has a wonderful effect of also creating jobs. So I think that is going to be incredibly important.”
Automation of jobs, especially in Nevada’s gaming industry, is a reason why DETR must also take a lead in retraining workers, Ratti said.
The automation of self-check-in kiosks, robotic bartenders and ordering tablets at restaurants are all parts of automation that were moving into gaming properties before the pandemic hit, according to news reports.
“There is no question that there were trends that were happening before the pandemic,” she said. “So certainly, we need to make sure our work force is getting the retraining, the right skills, getting the right jobs for them to come back to.”
Viable solutions to the problems caused by the pandemic will not be an easy fix, Ratti said.
“Is there one magic pill that is going to solve that? No,” she said. “But I know across the aisle, across the plaza to the governor’s office, figuring it out is a priority.”
Ratti said she was thankful the Biden’s administration’s pandemic recovery plan included child care in its definition of infrastructure.
“One of the wonderful things about the pandemic is that we’ve had some opportunities for learning and we learned very quickly that when your child-care system shuts down, the work force shuts down to a certain degree as well,” Ratti said.
“I happen to work in a field (public health) where a lot of essential workers and people were still going to work, but to keep people coming to work when there was no child care was a significant challenge,” said Ratti, founder of the Human Services Network. “There is no question that child care is part of our infrastructure, in terms of keeping our communities going.”