By Michelle Rindels, Riley Snyder and Megan Messerly

The Nevada Independent

David Calvert photos/The Nevada Independent
Gov. Steve Sisolak stands during an inauguration ceremony on the steps of the Nevada State Capitol in Carson City on Monday.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s inauguration on a chilly Monday morning in Carson City ushered in a new era in Nevada politics as he became the first Democratic governor in 20 years and marked the first period in decades that Democrats have held nearly all of the state’s constitutional offices.

Light on specific details and heavy on his admiration for Nevada and its citizens, Sisolak in his speech nonetheless hinted at two of the major policy areas he will tackle as governor: health care and education. He also thanked termed-out Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval for eight years of service in which Sandoval tackled the state’s ailing education and health-care systems. Sisolak credited him for “always putting people over partisanship.”

“As governor, I pledge to follow the example you’ve set — to find common ground, reach consensus, make a difference in people’s lives, and keep moving this state forward,” said Sisolak, 65, who choked up after he took the oath of office and several times during the speech.

The inauguration took place at the entrance of the state capitol in Carson City, which was draped with silver and blue fabric. Hundreds of attendees sat on the breezy front lawn of the capitol, muddy from melted snow, and Sisolak’s team hired a food truck to supply free coffee, hot chocolate and apple cider to the bundled-up guests.

Sisolak was highly complimentary of Sandoval’s work during the campaign and beyond, highlighting the popular moderate Republican governor in TV ads, but also nodded to the fact that Nevada’s public education system still ranks at the bottom of national surveys.

The new governor said that Nevada needs to get its education system “back on track,” calling it “the bedrock of a thriving economy and the pathway to a better life for our families.” He said that the state won’t be able to continue to attract out-of-state businesses without offering workers’ children a quality education.

“So we’ve got to do better by our students, and that means doing better by our educators,” Sisolak said. “The future of Nevada is in their hands — and they should have the resources and the respect they deserve.”

Sisolak had promised during the campaign to raise teacher salaries and reduce class sizes, pledging not to take a salary until the state’s education system is “turned around.”

On health care, Sisolak also pledged to address the rising costs of prescription drugs, bolster protections for pre-existing conditions, ensure access to women’s health care services and protect “a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions,” a nod to his support for abortion rights. He shared the story of an elderly couple he met at a retirement home who split their blood pressure pills in half each day because they couldn’t afford paying two copays.

“It’s a loving gesture. But it’s also a travesty,” Sisolak said. “No one should have to ration off their medicine or skip doctor visits or be forced into bankruptcy because of an unexpected illness. But today, too many people are doing just that.”

During the campaign, Sisolak promised to expand prescription drug transparency legislation passed by the Legislature in 2017, create a state drug purchasing coalition, prevent “surprise billing” from out-of-network health care providers and improve Medicaid reimbursement rates, among other proposals. He also proposed creating a so-called Patient Protection Commission that would recommend changes to the health-care system that could be implemented by the Legislature.

Sisolak, who hails from Southern Nevada and is the former chair of the Clark County Commission, also referenced the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. He described the state’s response to the tragedy as evidence of Nevada’s “compassion and common decency.”

“We were broken on 1 October, but I’ve never been more proud to be a Nevadan than as I was that day,” he said.

Sisolak also noted two more historic milestones for the state on Monday — the inauguration of Aaron Ford, the state’s first African American attorney general, and Kate Marshall, the first Latina lieutenant governor — after Nevada last month became the first state in the nation to have a female-majority Legislature. Treasurer Zach Conine, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Controller Catherine Byrne were also sworn in during the event.

The ceremony showcased the diversity of the state — bilingual remarks from Sisolak staff member Francisco Morales, who recently became a U.S citizen, an invocation by Reverend Deacon Reynelda James, an elder in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and a pledge of allegiance from two elementary school students.

Two hours before his inauguration as the 30th governor of Nevada, Sisolak and his family attended Mass inside the sunbathed sanctuary of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Carson City. Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is Catholic like Sisolak, attended a similar Mass before he took office in 2010.

Hundreds of attendees, including leaders of churches from other denominations and many children from the parish school, took communion in front of a stage decked with poinsettias and joined in hymns and a chorus of “Home Means Nevada.”

Deacon Tom Roberts shared scripture from the Sermon on the Mount, reading “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” and “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Sisolak made several campaign-style stops in rural Nevada as he and his wife drove up from Las Vegas to Carson City over the weekend. The festivities don’t stop with the formal inauguration, either.

The new governor is also scheduled to hold a public reception at the Nevada State Library and Archives, and a private state dinner at the Governor’s Mansion for “constitutional officers, legislative leadership, former governors, administration senior staff, and distinguished guests.”

Sisolak’s priorities as governor will be laid out in his first State of the State address, scheduled for Jan. 16, where the governor will unveil his budget priorities and goals for the 120-day Legislature. According to economic forecasts, the state will have $8.8 billion in projected tax revenue over the next two years, $560 million more than the last two-year budget.

He will also host two inaugural ball events — one in Reno and another in Las Vegas — in the coming weeks.

Sisolak’s inauguration comes at a high water mark for state Democrats. Four years after the 2014 midterm bloodbath, which saw Republicans win every statewide office and take control of the state Legislature, Democrats now control five of six statewide constitutional offices, a super-majority in the state Assembly and came 24 votes short of winning another super-majority in the state Senate.

But Sisolak’s path to the Governor’s Mansion wasn’t an easy ride. He first had to spend millions to fend off a leftward primary challenge from former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, while his Republican opponent Attorney General Adam Laxalt faced only token opposition.

Sisolak positioned himself as a moderate in the vein of outgoing popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, a comparison aided by Sandoval’s refusal to directly endorse Laxalt and thinly veiled criticisms of the Republican candidate’s plan to repeal a hard-won business tax championed by Sandoval in 2015.

This article was reprinted with permission by the Nevada Independent. Visit them online at thenevadaindependent.com.