Tuesday, March 22, 2011 | 5:45 p.m.
Text of Sen. John Ensign's speech on March 22, 2011, to the Nevada Legislature, as prepared for delivery:
Governor Sandoval, Speaker Oceguera, Majority Leader Horsford, members of the Senate and Assembly, and other constitutional officers, distinguished guests, and my fellow citizens:
Let me start by saying that it is great to be here today with all of you. The challenges facing our state are not small, and neither is the dedication that you will each need to show in the coming months to get Nevada back on the right track into the future.
Driving across the state of Nevada today is somewhat reminiscent of our state’s past when population booms spurred by mining put this part of the country on the map.
Towns were springing up in Nevada almost overnight, and people were coming from across the world to share in the profits from our state’s earth.
I recall this time in our state’s history because the mining bubble burst. These once vibrant towns succumbed to a less desirable fate, and the ghost towns that still stand today are a reflection of that time in our state’s past.
When the mining bubble burst, Nevada changed direction by diversifying its economy so that gambling became the reason why people crossed our state’s borders. Nevada survived the mining bust and thrived.
The toll that the economic recession of the last few years has taken on our state has brought ghost towns to our state once again.
In exchange for the rowdy ghost towns of the past, the ones that we drive by today are entire neighborhoods that are in foreclosure and for sale, plots of land that have been left undeveloped, and buildings that have been abandoned before completion.
The cause of these ghost towns was the bursting of the housing bubble.
Throughout the better part of this decade, our state experienced a population boom much like it did back in the glory mining days of the past.
Nevada’s vibrant economy brought people and businesses from all over to our state. Low property values meant that people were buying up homes faster than they could be built, and property prices were rapidly inflated as a result.
Unfortunately, when the housing market went bust so did our economy. A state plagued by ghost towns does not have to be our future; we can change our state’s path into the future just as the Nevadans generations before us did when their economic prospects dried up.
So how do we do this? Diversify Nevada’s economy.
As members of the Nevada Legislature, you are required by law to balance the state budget. Unfortunately, the United States government is not required to do the same despite the efforts that I have led back in Washington to change this.
Does this make sense to any one of you? Families are required to balance their budgets; businesses are required to; states are required to do the same; and yet, the United States government is under no such requirement to ensure that the money it spends is not outweighing the money that it takes in.
Today, our country is living on borrowed money. As our spending levels have rapidly increased, our need to borrow money to float our dollar has increased, as well. China owns more of our debt than any other entity.
I’m certain that those of you here today have seen a news story or two about the budget battle back in Washington. The core fight on this issue is not whether we should make important spending cuts to the federal government’s budget; it’s how much.
President Obama has reiterated his pledge to get the United States on a path toward fiscal responsibility, but without his leadership on entitlement reform, negotiations in the House and Senate have left only Republicans at the table. In fact, many Democrats have been grumbling that he hasn’t been leading on the issue of spending cuts. The nation’s struggling economy is not just a one-party problem; it’s an American problem that requires a bipartisan solution.
So how do I think we get our economy back on track? I actually think that the answer is not simple, but we need to start by reducing government spending to allow the private sector to grow and create jobs.
More government spending is not the answer to our economic woes; investment in the private sector is.
To quote Ronald Reagan, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
However, cutting government spending while increasing the tax burden on the American people is not how we jump start our economy.
Increasing taxes on small business, our nation’s job creators, means that employers will be faced with the choice to either hire some of our nation’s unemployed or pay more money to the government.
We cannot afford to get this wrong: we cannot balance our budgets, state or federal, by raising taxes and stifling job creation.
For the United States this would mean that companies will outsource more of their jobs overseas and our struggling economy will further sour.
For the state of Nevada, balancing the budget with tax increases will mean that our friends and neighbors remain unemployed, more business will go out of business, and companies looking to move to a business friendly state will not come to Nevada.
I know that you have your work cut out for you, but you have a leader in Governor Sandoval and he is willing to stand beside you to make the tough choices that are needed to get Nevada growing and thriving again.
Unfortunately, if we do not work to improve education in our state and country, the spending cuts that we make at all levels will matter little if we have an under educated workforce.
We have to be honest about our K-12 system. It is not measuring up. Talk to our universities and colleges, and when they tell you that a large number of our Millennium Scholars take remedial classes, something is wrong.
I am speaking as a Nevadan when I say that education needs to be based back in the local schools, not mandated from Washington, D.C., by the Department of Education.
Instead of mandates to the states, the Department of Education should be a think tank for different approaches to education from across the country, to share what ideas in education are working the best and which are not providing the results that they should.
The state of Nevada is dead last in the country when it comes to graduation rates. How do we begin to bring companies to our state when there just isn’t an adequate job pool for them to hire from? We can’t.
As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I speak with technology companies from all over the world. When I ask them why not choose Nevada as a place for your business to build, the answer is that our schools are just not good enough. They mention that the tax climate is desirable but tell me our K-12 system is inadequate.
We shouldn’t paint all of our educators or schools with the same broad brush. There are great examples of passionate, skilled educators in our state. However, the small percentage of bad administrators and teachers is bringing our whole education system down.
I believe in paying educators who improve student performance more. I also believe if educators are doing a lousy job, they should find something else to do.
It’s time to end tenure for teachers and administrators!
Recently, Bill Gates penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on how teacher development could revolutionize our schools. He said, “We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.”
And he went on to say that, “The United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority. It’s reasonable to assume that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that’s not true. After the first few years, seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement.”
Governor Sandoval is fighting to end teacher tenure in our state, and he is right to work to do so. Nevada’s education system is an important focus of his, and it should be because our state is failing. His work to end social promotion in the third grade if the student cannot read is a very important step in the right direction of education reform in Nevada.
In 1995, I became a big brother through Big Brothers and Big Sisters to a really terrific young man named Donzale. Donzale has not had the easiest life, but his trouble in school may have been prevented if in the third grade he was not socially promoted regardless of his inability to read. Donzale could not read, but was passed on from grade to grade and was left to struggle through the rest of his schooling. I commend Governor Sandoval on his efforts to ensure that other children in our schools are not forced to do the same.
I previously mentioned the need to diversify our state’s economy to get back on track.
Less dependence on tourism means that when the nation’s economy takes a dip, Nevada can hold its own.
But if our children cannot compete with those in other states let alone other countries, our state will continue to be dependent on tourism and our ability for the best days to still be ahead of us will be contingent upon the rest of the country.
The reality is that dumping more money into a bad system will not earn students higher marks. In fact, it will continue to make a bad system even worse.
Education in America has become less about the students and more about the adults.
Teachers in Nevada get tenure after one year despite their ability or lack thereof to actually educate.
We have education majors teaching science and math instead of science and math majors teaching science and math –no other country does this.
We have unions that fight to preserve the job of a teacher or a principal instead of the education of a child.
We are going down the wrong path, and the failure to reverse course means that we may as well seal our fate as a dwindling world power today.
Children need to be the primary focus in education.
Teachers need to be incentivized to teach them and teach them well. The days when teachers were paid the same regardless of performance should be in the past, and merit-based pay should be our future.
A child’s education should not be based on the family’s income level; we know that bad schools lead to bad neighborhoods, not the other way around. So why write off these schools and these children?
The last time I spoke here, I mentioned an amazing school in Las Vegas called West Prep. With Dr. Barton at the helm, this school has taken our education system by storm.
So much so that I recently spoke at the graduation of the first graduating class since Dr. Barton took over. A school that resides in what was one of the worst neighborhoods in Las Vegas just graduated 42 of its 42 seniors and every single one of them will be attending college. 100% were minorities, and 100% were qualified for the free lunch program.
When I think about where these children would be had Dr. Barton not been given the authority that he needed to fire the bad teachers and help these children learn, it’s truly heartbreaking.
When I think about how many children were not awarded this opportunity when the school was known as West Junior High, it’s even more heartbreaking.
The school valedictorian was from the Philippines and she learned to speak English only four years ago because of this school. When she talked about what West Prep and its faculty meant to her, she broke down crying because of the amazing journey that she had been on at this school.
Let me tell you about another one of the fine students from West Prep.
Lazaro Cesar is a shining example of the promise hidden away in our state’s schools. I first met Lazaro when I was speaking at the West Prep graduation that I mentioned earlier. Lazaro walked right up to me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself.
When it was his turn to speak to the graduating class about the promise that they hold, he was sensational. The audience listened to him intently, hanging on his every word and I wondered how he would use his talents to change the world because believe me when I say that Lazaro will impact his world.
He reached out to my office soon after inquiring about an internship. I should mention that Lazaro was 13 years old. After thinking about it, I knew that Lazaro was wise beyond his years and that an internship in my state office would help him on his path into the future.
There were days that Lazaro had to take a bus to my office to intern. He balanced his work load with his homework, and he left a lasting impression on me and my Las Vegas staff.
Lazaro was just accepted on a full-ride scholarship to the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. If West Junior High had not changed, there is no way he would have had the education to get into Exeter.
Our state cannot afford to lose another Lazaro. We cannot afford to let another school wallow in the promise that could have been. The United States cannot afford to continue to fall behind other nations when our freedom as a nation is on the line.
Education budget cuts are a highly debated topic as of late, and I will say to you that money only matters if our schools are reformed. Our schools do not need more money that ends up wrapped in bureaucratic red tape; they need the money that they are provided to go directly into the classroom.
There are no silver bullets in education, but there are answers out there. We just need the political will to make the changes and put our children’s interest in education above the special interest!
I recently spoke with Andre Agassi. Many of you know the great work that he has done with Agassi Prep, but 650 kids is not his goal nor is it mine.
As he has said, charter schools are not the answer to improving our schools. A bad charter school is just as bad as a bad public school or private school.
However, there are great charter schools in this country because there are great charter school operators. This is not a union verses nonunion, Republican verses Democrat issue; one of the best charter school operators is Green Dot which is union.
The issue for our state is that we have one of the worst charter school laws on the books. Our laws need to be changed so that the best in the class charter schools want to come operate in our state.
The people in this room today are the only ones that can change this law to help visionaries such as Andre Agassi improve our school system. Better charter school laws will attract the best in charter school operators.
Improving our state’s education system will encourage businesses to come to Nevada and will help our state’s economy in the long term, but there are also things that we could be working on in Washington, D.C., to help the businesses that are already in our state.
As I mentioned before, mining is what put our state on the map, but it is also what has helped our state during this recession. Were it not for mining, many communities in Nevada would be in worse shape than they are.
As the primary job-creation engine for rural Nevada, hardrock mining companies have provided thousands of high-paying jobs, pay millions of dollars in tax revenues, and support other parts of the state’s economy through purchases of equipment, supplies, and mining-related services.
Additionally, these companies typically build, at their own expense, infrastructure to support their operations and contribute to schools and many local community projects where they have mining operations.
Unfortunately, the lengthy permit process on mining companies means that the expansions they wish to make or the new projects that they would like to undertake have been delayed almost endlessly. These delays have prevented this industry from hiring more of our state’s unemployed and from providing more tax revenue to our struggling state.
If Washington were to streamline the review process for mines, there would be thousands more high-paying jobs for Nevadans. It’s frustrating for me to know that Washington is standing in the way of our state’s recovery.
That said, Washington is also standing in the way of our state’s ability to lead the world in renewable energy development which has the potential to boost our economy even more.
Bureaucratic red tape and lawsuits have slowed down or blocked many renewable energy projects in our state.
Also, instead of working toward less dependence on dangerous foreign oil and more American energy independence, the current Administration has done just the opposite.
The Administration’s approach to developing more domestic energy has been to impose regulations, withdraw permits, and shut off access to vital land such as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR).
In three areas in Alaska alone we have enough oil to supply what we get from the Persian Gulf for the next 65 years.
This dependence on dangerous foreign oil translates into higher prices at the pump every time the Middle East cannot get along.
For Nevadans who are already struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, higher gas prices may lead to their inability to do either of these things.
Gas in our state is averaging 3.70, but it could well average over $4 as we approach the summer travel months.
Recently, the United States Chamber of Commerce released a study that exposed the real economic impact that excessive regulations have had on energy development.
It found that 351 delayed energy projects have translated into $1.1 trillion in lost GDP, 1.9 million lost construction jobs, and 791,200 long-term jobs each year.
These regulations hinder renewable, as well as traditional, forms of energy production. Of the projects included in the study, 140 are renewable energy projects.
The solution to this is to streamline the permitting process to allow Americans to access our own resources without facing bureaucratic red tape at every turn.
If we are allowed to fully tap into the potential of our own reserves, we could be one step farther away from dangerous foreign oil and one step closer to the American energy independence that Nevada stands to benefit from.
The next 21 months of my term in the United States Senate will be devoted to ensuring that the state of Nevada and this country are left better than before I first took office 14 years ago.
Reducing government spending, balancing the federal budget, and improving education in America are at the top of my list.
As I said before, Nevada has faced economic difficulty in the past and we have come through stronger. We are facing those tough times again, but opportunity is also on the horizon.
We all have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that economic booms of the past do not remain there. That the history books write of struggles that were faced and overcome. That challenges were confronted and defeated.
I truly believe that the best days are still ahead, and I will continue this fight alongside Governor Sandoval, and all of you, to improve our state and country until we firmly believe that what we have done has made Nevada better and stronger than before.