It is a pleasure to return to Carson City and an honor to speak with you.
It has been my good fortune to address the Nevada Legislature during 15 joint sessions. Each occasion has been an opportunity to reflect on the unique nature and responsibilities of our state and our state legislature.
Serving in the legislature is a blessing, but it can also be a burden. Let me tell you why. The laws of the land are written by the men and women in this chamber – not by the governor or judges, who only interpret the laws you write. The word legislator literally means "bringer of laws."
As you craft those laws – whether you're from Gerlach or Las Vegas, Reno or Searchlight, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat – the people of Nevada depend on you. As President Lyndon Johnson said: "Many men can make many proposals. Many men can draft many laws. But few have the piercing and humane eye which can see beyond the words to the people that they touch." I pledge to do all I can to support you as you seek to see beyond the words, beyond the proposals and even beyond the laws you write to see the people we represent.
The last time I spoke before this body, the state was still in the midst of a Great Recession – a recession that hit every state hard, but hit our state the hardest. Thousands of Nevadans had lost their jobs, lost their homes and lost their hope.
As the national economy suffered, Nevada tourism bottomed out and gaming revenue declined across the state. The advent of Indian gaming in California affected Reno and the rest of Nevada adversely. And while Sierra Nevada Corporation, Amazon and an Apple tech center have brought jobs to the region, Northern Nevada families and businesses are still struggling. In Washoe and Clark Counties, homebuilding dropped and foreclosures spiked. And while home buying has increased, foreclosures are still too high.
Although Nevada's economy is not back to full strength, progress has been made over the last two years. Now, as we emerge from those difficult times, it is crucial that we renew our investments in the future – in education, public safety and clean energy. These investments will help us prosper in the short term, and protect us against another downturn in the long term. Such investments are easy to postpone when times are hard.
Let me share this example. In 2004 the residents of Clark County decided they needed more police officers on the streets and voted for a small sales tax increase to pay for them. This legislature provided half the increase in 2005, but told law enforcement to return to ask for the other half.
Clark County law enforcement officials have waited seven years to put more cops on their beats, and the people they protect can wait no longer. Putting more police on the streets is vital to ensuring our neighborhoods are safe. It's also vital to ensuring that the more than 40 million people from around the world who visit Las Vegas each year feel secure. As a world-class tourist destination we have a responsibility to protect our visitors as we protect our own families. It's time the legislature met its pledge to grant law enforcement the second half of what the voters already approved. I congratulate Governor Sandoval for respecting the wishes of Clark County voters, and supporting this tax increase.
I also applaud Governor Sandoval for his role in our state's efforts to implement the healthcare reform law. I am pleased I was able to facilitate a conversation between the governor and the White House, paving the way for 78,000 Nevadans who would not otherwise qualify to access affordable health insurance.
The Silver State Exchange is used as a model for other states. The tax credits available in the exchanges, coupled with the expansion of Medicaid, will bring an unprecedented level of federal funding to our state, create jobs and provide care for tens of thousands of Nevadans who are currently living without health insurance.
Nevada takes pride in caring for visitors from across the world. But it's also crucial that we care for our fellow Nevadans – ensuring the health of all our citizens, especially those who need extra help during these challenging times.
When it comes to entertaining guests, Las Vegas is the gold standard. We have the best casinos, clubs, dining, entertainment and shopping in the nation – and the world. The city is home to some of the most exciting sporting events, including boxing, rodeos, soccer and mixed martial arts – not to mention UNLV basketball.
But despite a decade of rumors and several concrete proposals, Las Vegas still doesn't have a major, multi-use arena – the kind of stadium that could host anything from a concert to a major sporting event. A new arena could be the next frontier for this pioneer town. But to make a top-notch stadium a reality, it will take top-notch cooperation between Clark County stakeholders.
For proof of what just one driven person can do, look at Tony Hsieh and Zappos. Tony revitalized the old City Hall and his investment has spurred new businesses by the score to relocate to downtown Las Vegas. With the success of the new Smith Center, downtown has changed dramatically. When a community unites behind an idea, marvelous things are possible.
I realize there are many hurdles to overcome to turn dreams into a dome – including finding a way to finance such a huge undertaking. Those decisions – how to finance the project and where to locate it – will be made at the local level. But it's time we united around this idea to move Southern Nevada's economy forward.
Tourism has always been Nevada's lifeblood – and will continue to be its signature industry – but the recent downturn reinforced the need for Nevada to diversify its economy. To stay competitive, we must invest in the future – and the future begins in the classroom.
In his first State of the Union address – long before standardized testing or Race to the Top – President George Washington spoke about the value of education. This is what he said: "There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness." Much has changed since 1790. But those words are as true today as they were 230 years ago.
Education is not only the key to America's happiness; it is the key to America's competitiveness. Today's students will compete for tomorrow's jobs with peers from neighboring states and far away nations. But while other countries are investing in education, this nation – and Nevada in particular – is lagging.
Since 2008, state and local budget cuts have cost this country more than 300,000 education jobs, including thousands in Nevada. Our largest school district, Clark County, lost more than 2,500 education jobs, including 1,000 teaching positions. And Washoe County schools lost more than 200 classroom jobs – a 5 percent reduction in staff since the recession began.
Nevada can no longer afford to put off investments in our children. If we ever hope to compete with students from Tucson or Burbank – never mind students from Tokyo or Berlin – we must adequately fund education today.
As technology changes rapidly, the job market changes rapidly. So do students' educational needs. If America is going to train the next generation of scientists and engineers, it will need more and better-trained science and math teachers. Nevada is no exception.
Our students consistently perform below their United States peers in math and science. Nevada teens that go on to college are also less likely than their peers across the country to study the STEM fields of math, science, engineering or technology. Our students are bright and inquisitive. And our teachers are talented and dedicated.
I recently spoke to one of my granddaughters, Piper who goes to school in Clark County. She's learning math in third grade – math that I never learned in high school. Her teachers – and all of Nevada's exceptional teachers – do so much with so little. Imagine what they could achieve if we gave them the resources they need and our children deserve. We ask much of these teachers, but we don't always provide them the support and resources they need to succeed.
Many students learn statistics or science from teachers who know more about Social Studies or sonnets. Many of the educators teaching our kids math and science weren't required to study math and science. Only one percent of fourth grade teachers majored in math in college – although every single one of them teaches math every single day.
Both teachers and students need more access to role models in the STEM fields. They need more field trips, to understand how businesses operate and learn skills successful workers possess. They need more internship opportunities to build new interest and skills.
Across the country, school districts are looking for creative ways to meet the need for STEM educators. In Wisconsin and New Jersey, it's teachers who are getting an education. Those states provide college-level math and science courses for STEM teachers.
Arkansas has recruited 120 science and technology industry professionals to attend a fast-tracked teacher certification program in exchange for three years teaching in high-risk schools.
And in half a dozen cities across the country, Math for America – founded in New York City by a brilliant mathematician, Jim Simons – is recruiting math and science graduates to teach in urban schools. The program offers financial incentives and meaningful professional development to keep those recruits in the classroom, where these teachers are thriving and helping students excel in math and science.
In Nevada, the Desert Research Institute offers free professional development and training for teachers who want to learn about environmental and climate science. DRI has trained 800 teachers from 134 schools in 10 Nevada counties. The Institute also sends teachers "green boxes" – hands-on, science projects they can use in the classroom, with all the supplies from cotton balls to glue.
These successful programs should serve as examples of how K through 12 schools can partner with colleges, universities and private industry. But DRI's small but growing program is funded by donations from NV Energy customers. As a state, we shouldn't rely on the kindness of a few to ensure our children succeed. We must invest in creative, large-scale programs that will better prepare teachers and students.
Helping students excel also means ensuring they have the emotional support they need. The events of recent months remind us that many children experience trauma or tragedy at a tender age. There are 500 children for every one counselor in Nevada schools. 500 to one.
Schools need the resources – especially more counselors – to support kids during their time of need, whether a crisis at home or a tragedy in school. Investing in youth, supporting their emotional development and instilling them with knowledge means teachers win. It means our state's economy wins. And most importantly, it means Nevada children win.
President Herbert Hoover called this nation's children its "greatest natural resource." But in Nevada, the next generation isn't the only thing bright and bursting with energy.
Nevada is also blessed with some of the world's richest renewable energy resources. Nevada deserts bake in the afternoon sun. Winds whip off the snow-capped mountain peaks for which our state is named. And below the soils of Northern Nevada, water heated deep in the Earth bubbles to the surface.
The renewable energy industry has been a bright spot during dark economic times, helping our state attract new businesses and create thousands of jobs that can never be outsourced.
For instance, construction continues outside Tonopah on the largest solar power tower project in the world. Rising more than five hundred feet in the desert, this is a historic investment in technology that will capture the power of Nevada's sunshine, store it in molten salt and use its heat to generate clean electricity for 75,000 homes. And in a dry lakebed not far from my Searchlight home, three and a half million solar panels stretch across more than 3 miles of desert.
In northern Nevada, Ormat's geothermal power plants provide enough electricity to power every home in Reno.
And in Spring Valley, near Ely, a successful wind developer has erected enough wind turbines to power 45,000 homes. Nearby, construction continues on a transmission line that will connect the Northern and Southern Nevada electrical grids for the first time – making it possible to transfer power from where the wind blows hardest and the sun shines brightest to where demand for electricity is highest.
These successes didn't happen by accident. They are the result of more than a decade of coordination between businesses, utilities and all levels of government.
The linchpin for this progress is a state law that guarantees a market for Nevada's clean, renewable energy resources. This law, better known as the renewable portfolio standard, requires a minimum percentage of electricity to come from renewable sources.
Coupled with federal energy, public lands and tax policies that strive to even the playing field with fossil fuels, this law has given Nevada an opportunity to take control of its energy future.
Nevada's renewable portfolio standard was signed into law by Governor Kenny Guinn in 1997.
It was written by Senator Randolph Townsend, a leading advocate for renewable energy in Nevada. Senator Townsend would no doubt still be serving in the Legislature – and continuing to advocate for renewable energy – if not for the wrong-headed and counterproductive term limit law.
In my view, arbitrary term limits purge a part-time legislature of full lifetimes of experience. I urge you to reverse this, which denies our constituents the right to select their own leaders. Elections are the only term limits Nevada needs.
If Senator Townsend were still in the legislature today, he would agree it's time to revisit the renewable portfolio standard and update it to match the changed reality of Nevada's energy landscape. The legislature most recently updated the law in 2009, requiring Nevada utilities to produce 18 percent of their energy from a combination of renewable resources and energy efficiency measures by 2013. By 2025, a quarter of the energy used in Nevada homes and businesses must come from renewable sources.
And although the standard has helped vastly increase the percentage of green energy flowing through Nevada's grid, there are problems with the statute.
Loopholes allow utilities to evade the spirit of the law.
In fact, those loopholes are so large Nevada's major utility could meet the standard without building a single megawatt of new renewable energy for the rest of the decade.
It's time the legislature made meaningful changes to strengthen the standard. Those changes could be as simple as closing loopholes, which eliminate the motivation for utilities to invest in green power, or as robust as increasing the percentage of our power that comes from renewables.
We should no longer allow the major utility in Nevada to meet the portfolio standard with energy credits from a Utah hydroelectric dam built in 1896 – the same year Utah was admitted to the Union. We should no longer allow them to meet the portfolio standard by handing out energy-efficient light bulbs at Home Depot.
Closing these loopholes will strengthen the law and send a powerful signal that Nevada remains committed to kicking our dependence on out-of-state, fossil fuels.
Nevada has an opportunity not only to create jobs but also to create history by becoming completely energy independent. We have a chance to put Nevadans to work building a smarter transmission grid and solar, wind and geothermal facilities that will power Nevada and our neighbors, and make this state a healthier place to live.
In Pahrump, Valley Electric is already proving this possible. Valley Electric recently became the first utility located primarily outside California to join the Golden State's electric grid. This groundbreaking alliance will create a market in California for Nevada renewable energy.
We must prove Nevada is serious about creating a vital Western clean energy grid by developing our state's own market for renewable energy. Strengthening our renewable portfolio standard would be a good start.
Over the next two decades, renewable energy technology and generation will become a $7 trillion market in the United States. Nevada has a head start to capture much of that market. But we must stay serious about attracting new investment and creating customers for our renewable power.
We shouldn't think of the renewable portfolio standard as a benchmark we have to meet, but as an opportunity we can exploit. The standard isn't a ceiling. It's the minimum we should be doing for Nevada's future. Since God blesses us with sunshine, wind and hot water powerful enough to light the Las Vegas Strip and brighten The Biggest Little City in the World, we shouldn't take it for granted.
As we recognize our state's natural, renewable gifts, we should also celebrate the energy and determination of our citizens.
We saw that energy and excitement on display last November. For the first time in our state's history, more than 1 million Nevadans voted – shattering records set in 2008. Statewide, more than 80 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot – the highest rate since 1992. We should be proud of that enthusiasm. By comparison, only 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots nationwide in 2012.
Our high turnout is thanks in part to one of the most modern election systems in the nation – a system that makes it easy for eligible voters to make their voices heard. With two weeks of early voting and simple online registration, Nevada has made voting easy and accessible.
But we can still do more to ensure every eligible Nevadan casts a ballot on Election Day. Do you realize more than 600,000 Nevadans are eligible to vote, but not registered to vote?
To increase participation, I'm suggesting you pass legislation allowing same-day voter registration in Nevada. Instead of requiring Nevadans to register 30 days before an election, we should allow eligible voters to register on the day they decide to vote – whether that's during early voting or on Election Day.
Eight states currently permit same-day registration. Wisconsin, Maine and Minnesota have successfully allowed same-day voting since the '70s. California and Connecticut passed same-day voter registration laws just last year.
Allowing same-day registration does encourage participation in the democratic process. And it doesn't increase incidents of supposed fraud, a canard repeated by those who would prefer to keep minorities, the poor and the elderly away from the polls.
In fact, voter fraud is as common as being struck by lightning. In the last eight election cycles there have been only ten documented cases of voter fraud. Ten. Not ten cases in Nevada, but ten cases in the entire country.
The system in place to protect Nevada's ballot boxes is so successful, last year the Election Integrity Task Force arrested a Clark County woman when she attempted to cast ballots at two different polling locations.
President Franklin Roosevelt said: "Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting." If only that were true. In several states, legislatures have passed photo identification laws that intimidate eligible voters. Nevada should resist this harmful trend. We shouldn't fix what isn't broken.
This session, the Nevada Legislature will consider a number of election reforms, including a photo ID proposal. This proposal is a solution looking for a problem. Any change to our state's voting process should be enacted to encourage voter turnout, not discourage Nevadans from taking part in democracy. Our elections belong to the citizens. And when their voices are heard at the ballot box we all win.
Nevada has no resource more powerful than its people. Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Western novelist and outdoorsman had Nevada's pioneer spirit in mind when he wrote: "One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."
I believe Nevada is that native home of hope.
Throughout the last century, that hope attracted people from every corner of the country to our high deserts, alpine lakes and mountain peaks – sometimes for a visit, but often for a lifetime – just as the Las Vegas Valley's artesian waters and the Carson and Truckee rivers once attracted pioneers to Nevada. I am confident that same hope of our pioneer predecessors will carry us forward in this young century – a century that has already brought challenges and successes.
We have met the challenges together. But now is not the time to stop striving. It is the time to redouble our efforts to make every Nevada business profitable, every Nevada family prosperous and every Nevada story positive.
The decisions you will make in these legislative chambers will not be easy, but each new test is another opportunity to make lives safer and more secure for all Nevadans.
Wallace Stegner also urged us to draw strength from our shared history even as we invest in our collective future. He said: "When [the West] fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery."
It is up to us, public servants, to follow the wisdom of Wallace Stegner, and through cooperation and coordination, create a society to match Nevada's breathtaking scenery.