Democratic state Senate candidate Kelli Ross said today that she is the "union" candidate in the District 18 race in Las Vegas, while Republican Scott Hammond said he will listen to but not vote in lockstep with labor in the Legislature.
The two candidates in the newly created Senate seat in northwest Las Vegas debated on Jon Ralston's Face to Face television program. The Senate contest is one of five viewed by both parties as critical to controlling the 21-member house in the 2013 legislative session.
Democrats now have an 11-10 edge in the Senate.
During the debate, Hammond, currently a member of the Assembly, said he would seek to reform Nevada's prevailing wage law so that public construction projects could be built more cost effectively and generate more jobs. Paying less would stretch public construction dollars further, he said.
He pointed to the Phoenix, Ariz., area, where prevailing wage rates are $14 an hour compared to $42 an hour in Nevada.
"I think we need to reform that, look at putting it back on to something that is the standard market, and I think we're going to see significant savings there," Hammond said.
Ross said she would oppose any move to reduce the prevailing wage, a wage set for construction workers hired for state and local government projects. The prevailing wage guarantees a qualified workforce, she said.
"Not only would it not save money it would even hurt the middle class that much more," Ross said. "When you're paying a prevailing wage you're guaranteeing that you're going to get a job done, get a job done on time and get the job done right."
State law requires the state Labor Commissioner to survey contractors who have performed construction work during the past year in order to determine the prevailing wage rates. Prevailing wage rates are required to be paid on all Nevada public works construction projects such as schools, libraries, roads and government buildings costing more than $100,000.
Ross acknowledged that most of her endorsements are labor groups, and she said there is not a labor position she is aware of that she would oppose in the Legislature.
"Yeah, I am the union candidate," she said. "But I'm also the candidate that is there for the people. I am born and raised in Nevada. These people know that I'm going to do what is right for them, and what is going to bring our middle class up to the standards that it should be."
Hammond said he will listen and try to respond to union concerns.
"But I'm not going to be beholden to the union organizations," he said.
The debate also delved into the issue of taxes, and Hammond's support for extending a package of sunsetting taxes supported by GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval in the 2011 session. Hammond said he has not yet decided whether to support extending the sunsets in the next two-year budget as proposed by Sandoval to avoid further cuts to education.
Hammond said the tax extension in 2011 also resulted in the complete elimination of the state business tax for small Nevada employers.
"The reason why I haven't made up my mind is because I still want to see what the Economic Forum is going to tell us in the next couple of months," he said.
The forum estimates the tax revenues that will be collected by the state for the next two-year budget.
Ross said she supports the tax extension, but called it just another Band-Aid that does not solve the state's long term revenue issues.
In a discussion of education concerns, Ross said the current public funding formula shortchanges Clark County at the expense of rural and Northern Nevada. It needs to be changed so Clark County taxpayer money stays in the south, she said.
An interim legislative committee recently endorsed revisions to the public education funding formula to compensate for such issues as poverty and non-English speaking students, factors found more often in Clark County than elsewhere in the state.
Hammond said the formula can be reviewed, but giving parents more choice in where their children attend school, including expanding charter schools, will improve student achievement.
Senate District 18 has a Republican advantage, with 39.9 percent of the voters registered GOP compared to 37.6 percent for Democrats as of the end of August.