This piece was originally published in The Nevada Independent.
As the director of a policy center, I spend much of my time identifying gaps, analyzing problems, and drawing attention to Nevada’s policy challenges — with the singular focus of improving our state. Not surprisingly, this work can often lead to frustration and disappointment. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the heaviness of our efforts (and our organizational workload) as we witness the brutal devastation and subsequent needs across the state. This holiday season, many people posted pictures on social media for the many things – family, friends, delicious meals – for which they are grateful. I, however, decided to reflect on those aspects of Nevada for which I am most grateful, in no particular order.
Bipartisanship: While many are recovering from yet another brutal election cycle where partisan warfare was on full display across social media channels and the airwaves, I am grateful to live in a state where many put the good of Nevada over party politics. Not one but two of our congressional representatives – Congressman Mark Amodei and Congresswoman Susie Lee – are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group working to address some of our nation’s most pressing problems. Admittedly, bipartisanship in the Legislature has declined, but I remain hopeful that lawmakers tasked with articulating a recovery strategy for Nevada in the 2021 session will put the future of the Silver State over partisan politics.
Advocacy: When I arrived here almost 14 years ago, the advocacy landscape was limited. Some advocacy groups would last one electoral cycle and then quietly disappear. Today, the landscape looks dramatically different as dozens of interest groups and nonprofits in all corners of the state organize and show up. For example, a little more than one year ago, I watched the Las Vegas City Council meeting on the ordinance to ban homeless people from sleeping on the streets (when shelter beds are available). Regardless of one’s position on the issue, I cannot recall another (non-legislative) instance when that many organizations and individuals representing such diverse interests showed up to provide input. Part of that success is owed to the fact that national groups have (finally) invested over the long term in building capacity and relationships locally. While one might argue that the overall impact of advocacy groups remains limited (for reasons that warrant further exploration), they are a critical part of Nevada’s policy ecosystem and are driving important conversations on policy priorities and good governance.
Youth engagement: Nevada’s more robust advocacy landscape has been shaped, in part, by greater youth engagement in recent years. Many of Nevada’s advocacy groups are staffed by young adults. Recent data reveals that “young voter participation in early and mail-in voting in Nevada grew almost 250 percent from 2018 to 2020 and roughly 113 percent from 2016 to 2020 in the Silver State.” The Guinn Center is working to support efforts to strengthen civic engagement among youth in Nevada as part of its Building Blocks/New 95 Network initiative, which is designed to connect youth across the state to address specific health outcomes.
Innovation: Despite the two major economic crises in the past decade or so, Nevada remains home to significant innovation. Nevada ranks 16th in the Kaufman Foundation Indicators of Entrepreneurship Rate of New Entrepreneurs. The tragic death of former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh serves as a bittersweet reminder that Nevada continues to be a place that welcomes, supports, and drives innovation — and that often has tangible benefits for our communities. Where we continue to struggle is scaling the innovation and growing our innovative businesses, which can be attributed to our lack of high-skilled workers. And this brings me to my next point…..
Higher education: 2020 is an exciting time for higher education in Nevada despite the gloomy economic outlook and significant budget cuts. This may be the first time the state has had new leadership at its two research universities and in the system office in the span of a few months. The momentum and energy these transitions generate are tangible, and are likely to be accelerated by these new, seasoned leaders who understand the importance of research, high standards for student success, meaningful community engagement, strategic partnerships with businesses and innovators, and collaboration. The recent op-ed penned by Presidents Sandoval and Whitfield acknowledges the “transformative power of institutional collaboration to the benefit of the state.”
Collaboration: Cooperation among regional stakeholders is stronger today than it was a decade ago. For example, Southern Nevada recently celebrated the opening of two new Employ NV Business Hubs, both collaborations among Workforce Connections, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, the Vegas Chamber and the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. This year, Workforce Connections and the Vegas Chamber received national recognition for their strong collaboration to advance workforce and economic development.
Medicaid expansion: Nevada opted to expand Medicaid in 2012 under then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, the first Republican governor to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act. As of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, Nevada’s Medicaid recipients had more than doubled — from pre-expansion (FY 2013) levels of 299,548 individuals to 654,943 individuals, representing an increase of 118.6 percent. Nevada’s expansion of Medicaid may help mitigate the impact of COVID-19, as some experts have asserted that states that expanded Medicaid “are better positioned to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and to prevent the ensuing economic downturn from worsening access to care, financial security, health outcomes, and health disparities.”
Data: Finally, one of the other significant transformations I have observed over the years is the way we collectively view and use data. When I first arrived in Nevada 13 years ago, the collective comfort levels around using and reporting data were minimal. Today, data dashboards abound in local government, universities, and nonprofits. Some school leaders have brought in data analysts to help school site teams understand and use data to set goals and inform academic programming and interventions. New programs are emerging to provide technical assistance and training to educators and administrators with the goal of increasing educator effectiveness and closing achievement gaps.
While there are policy challenges that we must address, Nevada has significant assets among its people, institutions, and values. We must engage and leverage these resources as we navigate the road to recovery and continue to design and implement effective solutions to our problems.
Nancy Brune, Ph.D. is the founding executive director of the Guinn Center, a statewide, independent, nonpartisan policy research center.