The pace is fast at the close of state legislative sessions. Fortunately, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff knows something about running a race.
Heidi Gansert, the governor’s choice as his top administrative aide, understands the process is more a marathon than a sprint. A dedicated triathlete, Gansert gets when it’s necessary to go full blast and when to maintain a slower pace.
Sandoval knows that, too. He has known Gansert since high school and they both attended UNR. From there Sandoval’s career path took him to the Nevada Gaming Commission, the Nevada Attorney General’s Office and US District Court. Gansert, meanwhile, was elected in 2003 from Washoe County to the Nevada Assembly, the seat formerly held by Nevada First Lady Dawn Gibbons. She spent six years in the Assembly and held the positions of minority whip and minority leader during her career.
A former medical practice consultant, Gansert discusses the run-up to the 2011 legislative session, her role in policy decisions and the governor’s executive team with VEGAS INC.
What was the most significant moment in your life that defines who you’ve become?
I don’t know if there was a particular moment in my life, but I can tell you I have a particularly supportive family. My parents were always great role models as far as public service. We were always looking for opportunities to help others, and I think that shaped who I am.
You were named chief of staff for Governor Sandoval in mid-November, and the legislative session began in early February. Describe the challenges of those couple of months.
The greatest challenge was putting the budget together. The former administration had done some of the groundwork. They had requested information in the regular process of putting a budget together. But the challenge really was putting together a budget that made sense given the economic challenges we faced and reflecting the priorities of the governor. We had to make sure we distributed resources where we needed the resources and were then able to consolidate and combine all of the different agencies as best as possible.
What exactly does the governor’s chief of staff do?
My duties are variable. I worked quite a bit on economic development during the legislative session. I spent a lot of time with minority leadership and the caucuses as well as the majority leadership on Assembly Bill 449, which moved and changed the structure of economic development to the governor’s office. And, again, the budget. The budget is always the big, looming element of the session.
Going into the session, what did you anticipate would be the biggest challenge of your new job?
Given the financial crisis we’re in, it was the budget. We needed something that was sound and reasonable and that’s how we approached it. In the Legislature, I was on the Ways and Means Committee, which looks at the nuts and bolts of the budget, for two sessions. That was my area of expertise. So I expected to work a great deal on the budget, and I did.
Did that turn out to be the biggest challenge?
Yes, especially with the Supreme Court decision that came down in late May. We had to review some priorities and some cuts and some reallocations. In our budget, there was continuation of numerous reallocations from prior-years’ budgets. So property taxes, room taxes, pieces like that we believed we could no longer use given the Supreme Court’s decision on the Clean Water Coalition case. So we had to revamp the budget in the last six days. We knew there was a statutory limitation of 120 days for the session and we wanted to do our best to live up to that.
You’ve now dealt with the legislative process from the legislative side and the executive side. What are some of the big differences?
When you’re in the Legislature, you spend a great deal of time looking at the fine points of the budget, down to a coffee machine. When you’re in the governor’s office, you have a higher-level view of the vision of the administration and of priorities such as education and economic development. You’re looking at the direction of the entire state government as opposed to the small pieces that make up the budget. You’re also looking at policy. So you get to sit back and have a bigger perspective on it than if you’re in the trenches and in the hearings during those 120 days.
Have you changed your view on any aspect of government as a result of the most recent session?
I have a better understanding of state agencies than I had before. When you’re in the Legislature, you’re assigned to committees. I had some understanding about the budget because I was on Ways and Means and Commerce and Labor, so I dealt with policy-type bills and elections bills. Now, I understand a greater amount of what the agencies do. I have a lot of respect for them.
Except for his family, you probably know Governor Sandoval best. What do you think makes him tick?
The governor’s a very compassionate man. He’s a person with strong integrity, very honest, always looking out for people. He’s always been in public service, even when we were back in high school. This probably sounds funny to some people, but we’ve known each other since we were about 12 to 14 years old. We went to different elementary schools, but we knew each other back then. He’s someone you can always count on, he cares about people and tries to make decisions based on facts. He’s very judicial, so when we’d get policy bills brought to the office, he took time to contemplate the pros and the cons and how a certain policy would operate. He’s very thoughtful in his actions.
Tell me his one-word re-election campaign slogan?
I’m not sure I could come up with something in one word. I think he’s done an outstanding job and he’s led us through a very critical time in the state of Nevada and we’re coming out on the other side. It looks like the economic indicators are positive so I’m very proud of his work. He’s just done an amazing job in difficult times.
Is Governor Sandoval Hispanic?
That’s an interesting question. Of course he is. That’s his heritage.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the state?
I think the biggest challenge now is growing and diversifying our economy. We’ve spent a lot of time doing that. I mentioned AB449. It moves the Office of Economic Development to the Office of the Governor, and I’m meeting weekly with that department in the transition to help understand the operations and how we can improve them. The governor has his own economic development engine. Whenever he comes back from meetings and events where he speaks, he brings back cards from people he wants me to call, people who are interested in Nevada. We want to make sure this office is very accessible to people who grow their businesses here. He’s made himself personally involved. It’s all very positive.
How big a role will you play in the revamped Economic Development Office during the next couple of months?
I’m definitely helping during the transition period. We’re redefining the board. The board right now has members who are all appointed by the governor, but the new board will have some elected officials. It will have the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, three members from the private sector appointed by the governor and one each appointed by the majority leader and the speaker, and a rotating one from the minority leader. There’s also someone from the (Nevada System of Higher Education) as well as from the (Department of Training, Employment and Rehabilitation). The governor really wanted private sector involvement.
Isn’t the new system multi–tiered?
There’s a council made up of elected officials that will serve as ambassadors, always talking about Nevada and supporting Nevada businesses. And a more operational board will look at organizations that want to come here and at the catalyst fund and if organizations should get catalyst fund money. The different development authorities throughout the state, the NDAs (Nevada Development Authority) and the EDAWNs (Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada), are going to be a part of a model that’s much more accountable. We’re going to use a contracting process. Before, there were allocations out to these various regional development authorities. Now, we’re going to say, “These are the jobs that we expect regional authorities to do and if you’d like to be able to present a proposal, please submit one and we’ll decide who gets those funds.” That office, the Economic Development Office, will decide who gets that funding and make sure it’s very accountable so that we count every dollar.
Who’ll make the final call on what businesses get incentive money?
The office itself will be making that call with advice from the board with the elected officials at the top and the various private-sector appointments.
So that’s the office of Economic Development Director Mike Skaggs as opposed to the Nevada Economic Development Commission?
That’s right. And the director of that office will be a gubernatorial appointment. This new board will make three nominations to the governor and the governor will hire that person. That’s something different because right now, economic development has been under the lieutenant governor. What the governor talked about during the campaign was that he wanted to make that a part of the office of the governor and make that a cabinet-level position. That director will be very important to the success of economic development.
What’s the timetable for hiring the director?
We’re looking at six months or so. The first priority is putting that board together. That was done July 1. We’re looking at the various appointments that need to be made and that group will put together the job description, find nominees and provide three names for the governor to consider. The current Economic Development Commission will continue to operate through June 30, 2012. The reason for that is that they approve tax abatements to companies. What we don’t want to do is have economic development stop while we’re reorganizing.
The legislation says the new board includes the elected official or a designee. Do you expect the elected officials to be hands-on or will they hand this off to their staffs?
I’m not sure what the other elected officials will do, but I know the governor plans to chair that and be present. It’s the priority for his administration and I know he really wants to be a part of it. So I can tell you he’ll be there and he’s always very well prepared.
Will meetings be in Las Vegas, Carson City or in both locations with a videoconference?
I imagine they could be held in both Las Vegas and Carson City or in either place.
Is Governor Sandoval planning any undisclosed strategies for reapportionment?
At this time, I don’t think we are. I know the governor has said he wasn’t going to be calling a special session. When the Legislature was in session, they brought up and passed a couple of bills, but they didn’t hear all the bills that were presented. They just introduced a couple that won and were passed out the same day. I know it’s just residing with the courts.
Now for something completely different. Some people may not know your passion for triathlons. Any upcoming triathlons on your calendar you care to share with the world?
I’m not sure. Last year, I was fortunate enough to do a couple of them, but I’m going to be out of town for the one I like, Donner Lake up near Lake Tahoe. Maybe I’ll get to do the one at Pyramid (Lake). The most adventurous triathlon I ever did was the Escape from Alcatraz. You jump off boats adjacent to Alcatraz Island and swim into the (San Francisco) marina area. Then, you ride over the hills to the Golden Gate and part of the run is on the beach. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.