Senator Debbie Smith Focuses on Education and Jobs


Photo by BRIAN DUGGAN/Courtesy of Reno Gazette-Journal

Photo by BRIAN DUGGAN/Courtesy of Reno Gazette-Journal

Former Nevada State Assemblywoman, Debbie Smith, has been an active representative for education reform, health legislation and government accountability. As of the 2012 elections, Smith won her first seat in the Nevada State Senate and plans to continue to pursue legislation in the areas of education and health.

“I believe that — at this point in time — there is just a circle of issues that are all tied together, and that really is our education system and jobs in the economy, and that is where we need to be focused,” Smith says.

Though born in Arizona, Smith spent most of her youth in rural Battle Mountain, Nev. She attended both Glendale Community College and Truckee Meadows Community College, where she became a graduate of several programs, including the Emerging Political Leaders Program at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School and the Council of State Governments — WEST Western Legislative Academy.

Throughout her years growing up in Northern Nevada, becoming an active member of the Nevada legislature was never a consideration. In fact, Smith says it was once her dream to attend medical school.  According to Smith, her career in Nevada politics resulted from the natural progression of her life and stemmed from her passion for the wellbeing of students.

Smith’s first involvement in the Nevada education system came when she was in her early twenties and joined the school board of Lander County in Battle Mountain. After moving to Reno, she married Greg Smith and had four children — Olivia, David, Ian and Erin.  Smith says that it was because of her family that she decided to join the Parent-Teacher Association at her children’s school. It was not long before her interests expanded to schools in the surrounding areas and eventually to all of the schools in Nevada. Eventually, she became PTA President and joined the Nevada Council to Establish Academic Standards for Public Schools.

It was through the aforementioned organizations that Smith began her active involvement in Nevada education legislation. For eight years, she was the Chairman of the Council to Establish Academic Standards and helped shape the new standards for Nevada schools. The late Assembly speaker pro tempore, Jan Evans, was Smith’s Assembly representative for 14 years until she retired in 2000 due to a terminal illness.  As Evans was stepping down from her position, she asked Smith to run in her place, a request which Smith was more than happy to oblige.

Smith cites two major factors that motivate her to continue her career in Nevada politics. The first is her family, especially her children, who first inspired her on the path of education awareness and reform.

“I always try to function in a way that I can go home and face my family and have them be proud of what I’m doing,” Smith says. “At the end of the day, the people who we care about most are the people we want to respect us most.”

Smith’s second motivation comes from those Nevada citizens who strive to make a difference in their state. According to Smith, it is those seemingly small moments when a person or a group may come up to her on the street to thank her for what she has done that make all the challenges of her job worthwhile.

“I’m just, every day, inspired by the people I meet and what they’re accomplishing in their life,” Smith says.”We have so many people in this state, everyday, who are out doing amazing things—who are volunteers, who are working against all odds to accomplish great things,”

In the upcoming legislative session, Smith has objectives that cover a variety of key issues in Nevada. She plans to revisit a bill she is extremely passionate about that would require the immediate collection and storage of DNA samples from felony arrestees with the goal of preventing future crimes.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Smith is also largely invested in cost effectiveness and allocating the budget sensibly. She has proposed a bill to cut down excessive government reports and another to make sure privatized services are economical. She supports a bill that assigns tax credits to local businesses that hire someone who has been unemployed for at least six months.

Smith was also a sponsor of Assembly Bill 248, which requires school administrations to develop budgets based upon the performance of teachers and principals. The new performance evaluation process will aid legislators in making budget decisions assigning need-based funds for schools.

“I have an ongoing interest in making sure that we’re always looking at efficiencies and the way we look at budgets,” Smith says.

For the majority of Smith’s career, her central focus has been on improving Nevada’s education system. This session, she has proposed a bill that will make full-day kindergarten mandatory for all Nevada students. Smith says the goal is to create a strong learning foundation for children. She plans to address a Rainy Day Fund for Nevada’s education system in which money will automatically be put aside for public schools in case of emergencies.

“A better education system will improve our economy and jobs outlook, which will also add back to the education system,” Smith says.

With a small legislative body that has only four months to address the budget and a wealth of other complex issues, time is the biggest hindrance for Smith and her colleagues. She says finding time to do all the things she wants to do is very challenging.

Smith’s decision to run for the Nevada State Senate was brought forth by her desire to continue implementing her expertise in Nevada statutes and legislation. After 10 years of serving as an Assemblywoman, Smith was nearing the 12 year term limit. Smith says she truly thought it was the end of the road for her political career. But when Democratic Senate Seat, Sheila Leslie, resigned as the representative of District 1 of Washoe County to run against Sen. Greg Bower in District 15, Smith was able to run in her place. She says when it comes to members of the legislature, strong experience is crucial and believed she could fill that role.

“I believe that Washoe County has a small number of legislators, and we need as much strengthened leadership as we can get,” Smith says.

Out of all of her career highlights and the bills she has been involved in, Smith is most proud of her hand in creating the 2-1-1 line for Nevada. The line is open to the public with information on health care, energy, Medicare and updates on current crises.  It was especially useful during the Caughlin Ranch fires and the plane crash during the 2011 Reno Air Races.

Smith has been on the board of several organizations, including the Education Alliance, the Nevada Afterschool Network and the Northern Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation. Numerous organizations have awarded Smith for her legislative accomplishments, including the Public Education Foundation, the Nevada Association of School Boards, the Clark County School District, the Nevada Association of Social Workers, and the Nevada Justice Association. She also received a Legislator of the Year Award from the Nevada Conservation League in 2011.

Follow Senator Debbie Smith on Twitter @sendebbiesmith