TOPICS > Science

In ’08 Election, Environment, Resources Top Concerns for Western Voters

November 14, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The need for that balance goes way back in Nevada’s history, to the place where I’m standing tonight, one of the prime attractions off of the Las Vegas strip, the Springs Preserve, the place where Native Americans once came to get their water. We thought it was the perfect place to discuss the struggle over 21st-century resources.

With us tonight, from left to right, Ron Smith. He is vice president for research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s also executive director of the Urban Sustainability Initiative.

Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, she is a Las Vegas-based businesswoman and a community activist.

Billy Vassiliadis, he is the CEO of R&R Partners, a marketing, communications and government affairs firm that is responsible for the “What Happens Here Stays Here” slogan of Las Vegas.

And Dean Baker, he is a farmer and a cattle rancher from the eastern part of the state.

Thank you all for joining us this evening, and you’ve all been living in Nevada, in your case, Lisa, 20 years, some of you 30, 35 years. And, Mr. Baker, you’ve been here 53 years. You obviously all like this state, and you’ve seen it grow phenomenally.

My first question, Billy Vassiliadis, is, has that growth on balance been good or bad for this state?

BILLY VASSILIADIS, R&R Partners: I think it depends on who you ask, Judy. I mean, I think Dean would probably say not great. Those of us who invested in Las Vegas businesses would say it’s necessary.

The growth in this state — good, bad or otherwise — fuels state government, it fuels schools, it fuels transportation, it fuels health care. And right now maybe we’re addicted to it, but the fact is it’s a part of our life and something we have to come to grips with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so where do you come down on this?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: I’m a realist. And the reality is, if growth stops, many, many bad things happen to the economy of this state. We’re seeing it right now with the housing slowdown. The housing slowdown alone has hurt us.

Judging the benefit of growth

Ron Smith
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
I think there are some really serious concerns environmentally. Water's just one of them. Breaking the crust of the desert around our urban landscapes is causing dust problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Baker, is he right on balance? What would you say?

DEAN BAKER, Rancher: Growth has been necessary for Nevada. It has been a real part of Nevada, but it's unsustainable. It can't go on forever, to grow.

I think we should revise our tax structure so that growth is sustainable and life is held even. You just can't keep spreading over the desert, and raising one house after another, and putting water to it when there isn't any water.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is it fair to say water is the main problem?

DEAN BAKER: From my perspective, where they want to come and take our water, yes. It will do away with part of the state of Nevada the size of Maine to sustain the growth in southern Nevada, and that doesn't make much sense to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ron Smith, you look at all these issues on a day in, day out basis. Has growth been good or not for this state?

RON SMITH, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Economically, it's been good. People have gotten tremendous jobs and we've grown, and we're growing in areas which I think are very positive, like in technology, biotechnology, and so forth.

But I think there are some really serious concerns environmentally. Water's just one of them. Breaking the crust of the desert around our urban landscapes is causing dust problems. There are other issues, as well, in terms of what we've got to deal with, like transportation.

So it depends on which perspective. Economically, yes, it's been very good, sustainable. But environmentally, some serious costs come with that, and we've got to deal with them as best we can.

Political implications

Lisa Mayo-Deriso
Community Activist
It would be very enlightening, if I can use that term, if the national presidential candidates, when they come to the state of Nevada, talked about growth and talked about this community having a vision, and sustainability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Billy Vassiliadis, how is any of this being translated into what's being discussed by the political leaders, nationally and certainly among the presidential candidates? Are they addressing some of the issues that you all have just been discussing?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: Well, the presidential candidates are just starting to, and not at a very deep level yet. I think that they're just starting to understand and recognize the unique challenges that face this state, which, by the way, are identical throughout the intermountain west. There's not a great difference in the issues that we all face.

So I think necessity, the necessity of them campaigning in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Nevada, et cetera, has dictated they talk about it more.

Now, again, I don't think they're talking about the dissatisfaction of the Nevada voter yet. I don't think it's gotten to that depth yet. Most of the issues I think are rather new, because Richardson's the only real western candidate I think that we've got, but Obama, Clinton, others have started that discussion.

I think, as we get closer to the caucuses, our media folks here are going to start demanding more, more answers to those questions, because there is definitely a role for the federal government in these issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dean Baker, are any of these issues we've been discussing, are they going to play a role when you decide whom you're going to vote for, even in the January caucuses or next November in the general election?

DEAN BAKER: It would certainly play into my thinking if one of them decided to look at this whole thing very carefully, and see what the impacts were going to be, and the consequences of it in the long term.

I think it's necessary, because, like the others have said, it isn't sustainable to grow this way continually. There are limits. And it is a national issue. It doesn't matter whether you're even in the southeastern states. This year, water is an issue there and natural resources, so it is an issue that the country needs to look at very deeply and carefully.

RON SMITH: You know, back to Billy's comments about national figures and the politicians, I really don't think they know much about the southwest, to be blunt about it.

LISA MAYO-DERISO, Community Activist: It would be very enlightening, if I can use that term, if the national presidential candidates, when they come to the state of Nevada, talked about growth and talked about this community having a vision, and sustainability, and sort of set the example.

Because what happens, you know, the national platform talks about one thing, and then the people that actually make the laws for our state are the local politicians. If national leaders were taking the lead and saying, "I understand the west, and I understand growth and water issues," that may help us to get our local politicians to say, "Wait a second. It's OK to take a position on this."

Because these aren't popular positions in the state of Nevada, you know, growth, and slow growth, and conservation over piping water are not popular political issues.

Western impact on '08 election

Dean Baker
The water issue impacts both Utah and Nevada. The pipeline goes along the state line and draws the water and the flow system that flows out of Nevada into Utah.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How important is it that the politicians, that the presidential candidates address these issues, when it comes right down to it?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: It's politically smart for them to do it, because the west could very well decide who's going to be the next president of the United States. Secondly...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You really believe that?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: I really do. Secondly, these issues are multi-state issues. Transportation, roads, those are federal highways. Those are interstate highways. They impact California; they impact Utah; the entire west is impacted.

The water issue is also a multi-state, multi-jurisdictional issue. The air, the environmental issue is a multi-state, multi-jurisdictional issue. And I think the federal, the national politician that grabs the fact that the future of elections is going to be decided in the west, because everybody's migrating here.

I mean, you know, growth means people are coming from the east, the Midwest. They're moving to these states. And so they are going to need to figure out what role the federal government could play in facilitating and possibly mediating between states and some longer term planning, especially on our natural resources. They're federal resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's interesting you say that, because so many people have the idea that many in the west think the federal government ought to just butt out of their business. You're saying that's not the case?

RON SMITH: That wouldn't be my perspective, because, in many ways, the kind of research that we need to do, which comes from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and so forth, can only be funded at the federal level. And we need that kind of support in order to study these problems.

DEAN BAKER: The water issue impacts both Utah and Nevada. The pipeline goes along the state line and draws the water and the flow system that flows out of Nevada into Utah. So there are concerns of two states involved there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, my question is, do you feel your concerns are being listened to by these candidates, by the people who could make a difference in whoever occupies the White House and who runs the government starting in January 2009?

LISA MAYO-DERISO: I personally haven't heard -- you know, listening to what I've listened to, I haven't heard anybody talk about those specific issues that are specific to the west.

RON SMITH: But Billy has an important point. With the demographic shift that's going on, people leaving the Midwest and coming to the west, the new reality for the national politician is that these are the future metropolitan areas of the United States.

Phoenix is going to have -- in the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, there's predicted to be 10 to 12 million people in 2034. There's going to be almost 4 million people here in this valley in that same year. That's the demographic reality they're going to have to face.

Partisan divisions on Nevada growth

Billy Vassiliadis
R&R Partners
You've got geographic divisions that have become deeper and deeper. Growth has been part of that issue. Mr. Baker and other folks in the north feel that they are unfairly being tapped into to help support southern Nevada's growth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other question in connection to all this, has the growth that we've been talking about on all these issues changed the politics of this state, in terms of how the people in this state view the Republican Party, Republican candidates, the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates?

LISA MAYO-DERISO: Oh, I think so. I think that, in this state, we have -- you know, you're really almost on two -- one side of the fence or the other. There doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground. You're either very pro-growth, you're on the development side, you're on the gaming side, you're on the pro-growth side, or you're on the other side of the fence that says, "We need to stop this. We're in a real critical situation here."

And hopefully, you know, there's not a lot of middle ground there, so you tend to have, I think, the Republicans on this growth side, and you tend to have the Democrats on the environmental side. So I personally seem to see that divide there pretty clearly in this state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how the rest of you see it?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: No, I don't agree with that. No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: I don't think it's partisan. I think it's much more framed by where they live. There is a -- politics have become fairly fractured because of growth in this state.

You've got geographic divisions that have become deeper and deeper. Growth has been part of that issue. Mr. Baker and other folks in the north feel that they are unfairly being tapped into to help support southern Nevada's growth.

Southern Nevadans are saying, "Wait a minute, we're paying most of the state's educational funding. We pay most of the state's health care funding. You shut us down, you're shutting down your schools, you're shutting down your health care opportunities, et cetera, et cetera."

RON SMITH: I would add one thing. I think there's a huge amount of people in the middle that are neither pro-growth or anti-growth. They are not cognizant at all of what the issues are. They are not concerned.

They're newcomers. They've been here on the average in Las Vegas 13 years. We've got 5,000 people moving here a month at this point. The real issue is, do we have the political and social will to deal with sustainability? That is the issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what's the answer to the question? Is there the political will to deal with this sustainability question?

DEAN BAKER: From what I've seen, there hasn't been the will at all. It hasn't been looked at carefully within the state. I think it should be within the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And could this election change that in some way?

BILLY VASSILIADIS: You know, I'd like to say yes, but I don't think so. I mean, I think to -- I guess to change an old phrase, necessity is the mother of will.

And the closer we're getting to these -- the closer we get to showdowns on water issues, the closer we get to gridlock. The closer we get to the environmental issues becoming dangerous, I think the will will be formed, that people will demand will, they'll demand action, and it'll happen.

Nevada has always had a pretty remarkable way of working through things, and I think we will again.

RON SMITH: I think that's a good point, the last point that Billy's made, is that Las Vegas is known, and I think Nevada's known, for constantly recreating itself, doing the unexpected, doing that which is not imaginable, but yet we do it.

And I have to tell you that there's been a lot of speakers come in from other places that say, "This would be the ultimate test for Las Vegas, to reinvent itself and become a model, this state, this city, a model for the rest of the country in terms of sustainability."

LISA MAYO-DERISO: I think what we need is a leader, someone with a vision that comes up and says, "Here's how you get there," at the national level, and then trickle down to the local level that says, "Here's how you address these issues. And I'm willing to take on these issues that aren't necessarily the emotional issue of the day."

These issues tend to sort of get pushed to the sideline over other, you know, national issues. And I think we have got to have somebody that's willing to step forward and say, "I'm willing to take the lead on this."

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, on that note, I'll say thank you to all four of you. We appreciate it very much, Dean Baker, Billy Vassiliadis, Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, and Ron Smith. We thank you all.


JIM LEHRER: And thank you, Judy. You can continue the conversation on the nation's water supply shortages in our Insider Forum. Water experts Carol Couch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis, and Peter Glick of the Pacific Institute will be taking your questions. To participate, go to

Tomorrow, Ray and Judy will look at the problems a booming population brings to schools and health in Nevada.