City and state

Senate candidates bring different government experiences to new race

Republican state senate candidate Phil Salerno approaches a Sparks home, where he pitched his candidacy to the residents.

Republican state senate candidate Phil Salerno approaches a Sparks home, where he pitched his candidacy to the residents.

Photo By Dennis Myers

If politicians were not aware of hard times before this election year—and they were—there’s nothing like walking precincts door to door to remind them.

That’s what Republican Phil Salerno was doing last weekend in his campaign for state senate. He was covering I Street between Rock and Sullivan. As it happens, this is the neighborhood where Gov. Jim Gibbons grew up—his house was two blocks south. And many of the houses Salerno passed were empty with foreclosure notices on them. One such house on a cross street had two notices on the front door—“NOTICE TO TENANTS OF THE PROPERTY” and “NEVADA NOTICE OF TRUSTEE’S SALE.”

It’s a reminder of the difficulty Salerno and his colleagues have been having on the Sparks City Council—city layoffs, police and fire cutbacks. Sheila Leslie, his Democratic opponent, has been struggling with the same kind of choices in the Nevada Legislature with a few more zeros on the end of the numbers.

The candidates in Washoe senate district 1 are both longtime public servants, familiar to the public, but they come from different levels of government. Salerno has been on the Sparks City Council since 1995. Leslie has been in the Nevada Assembly since 1998.

By comparison with some sprawling districts, the senate district in which Leslie and Salerno are running this year is pretty compact and dense, making it fairly easy to campaign in. It runs from the Keystone Avenue area on the west to McCarran Boulevard East in Sparks and from Moana Lane in the south to the McCarran Boulevard area in the north. It is the core of the metropolitan area.

The senate seat is currently held by Bernice Martin Mathews, who is term-limited. In fact, Salerno and Leslie are also both term-limited in their current posts.

Salerno owns a printing company. Leslie is a coordinator for the Second Judicial District Court.

Salerno said he has no specific plans yet for legislation but does have some things he wants to look into. One is the report of the “Spending and Government Efficiency Commission” (SAGE) appointed by Gov. Jim Gibbons early in his term, the latest of a number of governors’ commissions to propose efficiency and reorganization recommendations. Salerno said he’s read the report three times and finds a lot of good ideas in it.

“I don’t think the governor has fully implemented a lot of things in the report, and I’d like to take another look at it,” Salerno said.

Salerno said he is skeptical of collective bargaining for public employees and wants to try to bring bargaining sessions under the requirements of the Nevada open meeting law.

Democratic state senate candidate Sheila Leslie, right, with Sen. Bernice Martin Mathews at a fundraiser for the Committee to Aid Abused Women.

Photo By Dennis Myers

“When you’re running a city like the city of Sparks and 82 to 90 percent of your budget goes to payrolls and benefits, there’s something wrong with that picture,” he said.

He said he would take sensitivity to municipal issues with him to the legislature, particularly when it comes to mandates imposed on local governments. As an example he pointed to four-person engine crews the Sparks Fire Department is required to have as a result of a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement.

He said because of the requirement, fire crews “cannot enter a structure until a fourth man is on hand. So they have to fight the fires from outside until another man shows up. For years we fought fires with three-man crews.”

The four-man notion may be a nice idea, he believes, but its necessity should be decided by those who have to live with it. And even a state senator should be able to pressure the feds on such issues, he said.

“I think a senator’s job is to work with the federal government on a higher level and make them understand that these cities right now are hurting—you know, the unemployment rate, the foreclosures,” he said. “You can’t be passing down these mandates right now.”

If Salerno has no specific bills in mind, Leslie has several. One will beef up the information and transparency of Nevada’s “Sentinel Events Registry,” which provides consumers and insurers with information on infections acquired in hospitals and deaths or serious injuries that happen in hospitals. Currently, the registry provides totals for areas, but not for individual hospitals. A couple of Las Vegas hospitals have voluntarily begun releasing such information, but others do not.

Leslie also wants to repeal condemnation power given under state law to mining and sugar beet companies. She said there have been “heart wrenching” instances in the small counties of homeowners told by mining companies to sell or lose their homes under eminent domain. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a private business to have that kind of power,” she said.

And she will take a look at whether technology requiring drivers with a drunken driving history to have to breathe into alcohol-detection devices before their ignitions will work is a good fit for Nevada.

Salerno is a supporter on the Sparks council of using Sales Tax Revenue Bonds (STAR bonds) to lure news businesses to the area. Leslie supported legislation sponsored by Assemblymember Debbie Smith of Sparks to reform the use of STAR bonds. The bonds use public funds to build commercial projects if developers can make a case that half the customers will be tourists. Seventy-five percent of sales taxes generated by the project go to paying off the bonds. Both Legends in Sparks and the Verdi Cabela’s were built on STAR bonds, though there has been no follow-up confirmation that either project is attracting the threshold of tourists called for by the law.

As an assemblymember, Leslie upset Sparks city councilmembers by trying to change the way councilmembers are elected in Sparks—by ward instead of at-large. At-large elections are more expensive and tend to give an advantage to affluent candidates.

In 2008, Salerno was fined $5,000 for violating state ethics law by failing to disclose a substantial business relationship with the Sparks Nugget before voting on the Lazy 8 casino project opposed by the Nugget (“Salerno fined in Nugget ethics dispute,” RN&R, Oct. 16, 2008). The action resulted from a complaint filed against Salerno by Harvey Whittemore, Lazy 8 owner and a powerful legislative lobbyist. Subsequently, Salerno requested and received an opinion from the Nevada Ethics Commission on how he should handle votes involving the Lazy 8.

In March, Salerno cut his pay as a city councilmember 7.5 percent in recognition of the city’s recession-related difficulties.