Episode 92: Turning Working Nevadans into Activists

John Tsarpalas, Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 92 | Guest: John Tsarpalas 

How can a public policy think tank change the way Nevadans think about the greatest challenges facing the state?

President  John Tsarpalas joined the program to talk about Nevada Policy’s work over the past year and its ambitious plans for turning even more Nevadans into activists for a freer and more prosperous Silver State.

Read the Transcript

John Tsarpalas: Teachers are really trapped in this terrible system that is not functioning and is not adapting or changing.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. I am very happy today to welcome the one and the only John Tsarpalas, president of Nevada Policy. John, how are you doing?

John Tsarpalas: Excellent.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, it’s been a strange year. Obviously, it was a legislative session this year and that was as always pretty entertaining, not always in a good way, but very entertaining. So, we’ve got a lot to talk about when it comes to what we’ve done so far this year.

And then the big question is, where do we go from here, given what happened in the legislative session, given where we are now in November, and what’s next. Because there is no legislative session next year, but obviously there’s a lot of work.

So, let’s start at the you know, let’s start at the beginning. What was your take from the legislative session? How do you feel about the session overall? I’m still kind of mixed, although I want to say I’m really happy that we’ve got some checks and balances when it comes to a Republican governor and a Democrat legislature.

John Tsarpalas: You’re absolutely right there.

If it wasn’t for the checks and balances of having a Republican governor and one Senate seat still controlled by the Republicans that kept a veto-proof majority out, it would have been a very different session.

So, for Nevada Policy, first of all, session is the busiest, most hectic time of year. It was a disorganized session, I felt. The Democrats had the veto proof majority in the Assembly and one seat short of the veto proof majority in the Senate. And I don’t think they did a good job of scheduling their flow It felt like things were slow in the beginning and then of course way too much at the end. Overload meetings at 3 a.m. All the craziness of the end of session. So, I would say it was disorganized.

But thank goodness we had a Republican governor to push back at times and to veto. The 75 vetoes by Governor Lombardo were record setting and historic. It also can be overdone. Many of the bills were passed in the last few days, last week of session.

The Democrats, or I should say the Assembly or the Senate, has the right to override the veto for 10 days, even if that happens to be in the next session. So, if the bill was passed in the last couple days, then they have eight days to override the Governor’s veto. So, if there’s a complete super majority control and they gain the Senate seat they need, they can override the majority of the governor’s vetos, I believe 63 of them can be overridden.

So that’s hanging out there and it’s an unknown. So, this election is important. Every election’s important. This one’s got its big reason for being important.

But back to the session. So, we felt like from our point of view we were effective. We lobby. I was a registered lobbyist. We have Marcos Lopez on our staff, regular registered as a lobbyist.

We talked to a lot of people. We changed some minds. I know we did well with the Republican side of the legislature, but we did get through to some Democrats on some issues. And also, we think we had influence on Governor Lombardo. We submitted letters to him of recommendations.

I was lucky enough to be put on one of his early committees before he was sworn into office. I was on an interim committee on regulation and one of the first things he did after he was sworn in was come out with an executive order on over regulation and cleaning things up.

So, Nevada Policy was heard. We were very effective. We felt as good as we could up against the odds of the situation, because unfortunately, the Democrat supermajority is ruled by union control. Trying to overcome that is almost impossible because for them to get reelected, they have to have that union endorsement.

Michael Schaus: School choice is obviously the big example there. It still blows my mind that in a year where everybody agreed that education was bad, Governor Lombardo promised $2 billion to public education and yet, Democrats refused to throw anything towards any sort of school choice. They even reduced it.

And that to me should kind of send a message. Obviously, parents should take note, but anybody else that’s just watching the legislative session should also take note and go, well, why would they do that?

And as you point out, it’s because there is so much a union control, especially public union control among particularly the Democrats, but really just in general up in Carson City, I think.

John Tsarpalas: You’re absolutely right. And nationally nine states have passed universal school choice in the last year and a half, two years. So, we are definitely bucking the trend and that’s not necessarily a good thing from our point of view.

Lombardo did touch on it, talking about accountability, that the schools lack accountability. He was trying to get accountability with the two billion dollars that he added to the budget and unfortunately the left thumbed their nose at that.

But that’s what Nevada Policy is about, too. So, people often wonder how do we decide what we do? And we believe in limited government. We believe in free markets. Why? Because free markets are accountable. There’s always a yin and a yang and a balance. You have a customer and you have the provider, the businessperson, the supplier.

There has to be a balance between you getting what you need and the price you’re paying and the person producing it can produce it at a price that’ll provide a profit. You meet in the middle somewhere and it’s balanced.

What we’re trying to do with school choice, parental choice, another way to say it, is to make it a marketplace. When schools are accountable to the parents because the parents can move the money, then you’ve got a marketplace, and then things will get corrected. And until then, I don’t see that happening.

You can tweak the public school system, but until that accountability is built back into it, it won’t matter. I think that has to happen by having different systems playing off each other: charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, and public schools all in competition against each other.

Then the individual units within will rise or fall, and literally public schools will go out of business. Not all of them, the bad ones and the good public schools will grow because there will be competition amongst each other.

Michael Schaus: And the bad public schools, by the way, will be able to learn from the good systems or the good schools. I mean, we’ve seen this in charter schools where if it’s a bad charter school, it gets shut down. And that’s a benefit because charter schools, if they’re not doing that well, look around and say, “Hey, what can we do better and how can we change this so that way we can succeed?”

And so there are a lot more maneuverable than traditional public schools, for example.

John Tsarpalas: A lot of people don’t realize charter schools are funded by the state.

Michael Schaus: Right.

John Tsarpalas: Completely. And yet they operate at half the money of the public school. So, the unions keep them starved. Public sector unions for schools are always complaining, not enough money, teachers are underpaid.

By the way, teachers are underpaid because there’s no competition in what they can get paid because they have no other schools to go to that are going to pay a different rate. So that’s not fair to them. The teachers are really trapped in this terrible system that is not functioning and is not adapting or changing.

But back to the charters, they’re starved and that’s not fair either. So, people need to understand that. That’s just one little pet peeve of mine. Sorry.

Michael Schaus: No, I mean, that’s a perfect point. And all this kind of leads into as I start to look at the year ahead, Nevada Policy did a ton of great work throughout the legislative session.

This summer, obviously, there were a couple things that you guys put out. We can talk some more about that. But I also want to talk about moving forward the next year. Everybody’s going to be focused on political campaigns. Everybody’s going to be focused on candidates and, and what have you.

Where is Nevada Policy’s focus in the next year in between the legislative sessions as we’re going into this crazy political time?

John Tsarpalas: Well, our focus is on policy to people. And let me tell you a little story about that. You also touched on it on everyone’s going to be focused on campaigns.

When are we going to educate our 20 to 45 year olds on civics and how the system works and basic economics and the ideas and principles that are behind who they should vote for? Because elections are only one step in the system. It is then the policy that’s passed. It is that legislation that’s enacted that’s what’s important. That’s what changes lives.

So, I eat lunch down the street at a typical Las Vegas restaurant bar. It’s got the separate glassed off area where there’s no smoking, and then there’s the bar with the video poker, and actually you and I have eaten there many a time. You know where I hang out. The waitress there is Laura. She’s been the same waitress every day for the four years I’ve been going there.

When I first got there, Laura was 28 years old, divorced with a four year old daughter. She worked as a waitress three days a week, bartends on weekends because her daughter is with her ex-husband, and she’s going to school the other day, she’s not waitressing at nights to become a nurse. She works really hard.

It’s a big restaurant. She’s the only waitress. She runs around in there, works hard, runs off to school, goes home, is a mother. Going in regularly, we talk when some days it’s slower. She knows the schools are a problem, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. And she doesn’t know what’s causing the problem. She doesn’t understand that.

She has no idea what Nevada Policy does. When I talk about policy, she doesn’t know what that is. She grew up here in Las Vegas. She went through the Clark County school system. Obviously, she’s working on her higher ed degree.

She just doesn’t know. I asked her, “Where do you get your information? Where do you find news?” It’s TikTok and Instagram. That’s it. That’s all she cares.

So, with time, I’ve been talking to her about policy. And four years has gone by. She got remarried this last year. Her husband’s got a decent job. So, one day she announced to me, “I’m finally off food stamps because my husband and I have enough income now together. I couldn’t do it when I was a single mom.” And you know, that’s what food stamps are for. I get it.

But she’s proud of it. She wants to be independent. And they found a private Catholic school. They’re not Catholics, but because they have more income, they’re paying the private school to get the daughter a better education.

This is wonderful. She’s exactly what we want in a Nevadan. She’s industrious. She’s trying hard. She’s concerned. She’s a good parent, etc.

She’s what clicked in my mind. She’s the person we have to reach. I mean, how many 20 to 45 year olds are in hospitality in this state with a tattoo on her arm and she’s divorced, and she’s got a kid or, you know?

She’s the typical person and she understands very little. So how do we educate that group? Because if you’re going to have successful elections, and I don’t care what party it is, we’ve got to have voters that are asking the questions of the candidates and then choosing candidates that are going to solve her problem. How do we solve Laura’s problem?

Michael Schaus: This is key because normal average everyday people out there, we understand what the problems are. We realize inflation is a thing. The grocery store is getting more expensive. We understand our local public school is not good for my daughter. We understand housing is getting more expensive. It’s really hard to buy a house, especially if you’re working in some of the major industries here in southern Nevada.

Those are problems that people understand intuitively because they face them every day. What they’re missing is that link between what’s causing it and how to fix it.

This is a big problem that we run into in the policy world. You’ve got candidates out there who say, “Oh yeah, housing is a problem. Let’s enact rent control so that way your prices don’t go up.” Obviously, you and I know that that is the exact opposite of what you should do, but most people just think that sounds like a solution and kind of move on.

So, bringing the idea of policy and explaining policy to people directly would be a huge step. If you are somebody out there that actually cares about politics, this is kind of step number one. This is seems like where you have to start.

John Tsarpalas: Absolutely. So, here’s where we’re at. We have really changed our focus.

Now, we still have the basic policy shop. We have brilliant people researching and writing papers. What Laura needs to understand was what was in our affordable housing study and what it said and what were the causes. She isn’t going to read our study. It’s a great paper, by the way, and it’s still available online at npri.org/affordable- housing. And then just download it, obviously.

How do we break it into small tidbits for her? But how do we even get her to nibble at it, to taste it, to find out about it? So, we’re now running social media ads, Instagram particularly. And it will say something like “Can’t afford a house in Las Vegas? Here’s a list of 10 houses under 350, 000.” We’re actually getting MLS listings and sending them a listing and they’re giving us their email address to get the listing.

And then we’re sending them an email a week later with a link to our video on supply and demand on housing. It’s a cartoon video. It’s a very simple animation. And then they’ll get something else about how affordable housing the week after that.

So, we have broken up our audience into six separate audiences. If you’re interested in affordable housing and supply and demand, you’re only getting that kind of information, a little link every week to something we have done or perhaps an article by somebody else. But we’re keeping it simple, keeping it bite size and leading them down the path of becoming an activist in that situation.

And that brings us back to legislative session because we tested some systems here that were really important. As you know, we do a legislative scorecard every year, which is a printed ranking of the fiscal conservative votes of our legislators. And there’s some great stories in it. That’s also available at npri.org/scorecard. You can download a copy. If you’d like printed copies, just reach out to info@nevadapolicy.Org and we can mail you copies of the booklet.

But in the process of assembling the information, we had a wonderful giant tracker, which I know in the past you’ve been involved in. So, we track bills. We let you know where they are at as they’re going through the legislature. We give our recommendations. We give updates.

But this year we went even further and if you wanted to send your legislator an email saying you’re opposed to this bill or you want them to know your opinion on a bill, you could do that through our legislative tracker.

You could literally click on it and up would come a template with a templated letter, but we had also geotracked everybody in our system. So, it automatically sends it to the proper legislators, the correct assemblyperson and/or the correct state senator.

What we’ve found in the last couple weeks of session and didn’t get it implemented, but next time, is artificial intelligence to write the actual email that you’re sending so that it will incorporate more of your points that you’d like, and every email then doesn’t look like it’s coming from a template. So, the legislators are never going to know if you wrote it, AI wrote it, or whatever, but we’re giving you a very simplified way.

So back to the policy to people. As Laura learns more and more about affordable housing, when they’re in session, we’re going to send her information about affordable housing bills, and when you can step up for a hearing, and “Hey, how about sending them an email? All you have to do is click here, put your name on it, and maybe click a couple boxes of things you want to emphasize, and it’s done for you.”

So that’s where we’re going with this. And the whole idea is to create a simpler form of activism, but activism and to pressure the legislators to go down roads that are going to actually correct problems, not exacerbate them. For instance, their solution to affordable housing is always rent control, which does messes up rental markets in 10 years from now. You have no rentals. So that’s the concept.

Michael Schaus: Well, it’s an important concept, too. School choice is such a good example because it’s overwhelmingly supported by most people in Nevada. Poll after poll after poll shows that most Nevadans like the idea of expanding school choice and yet that doesn’t translate into political action. Well, why is that? It’s because the unions are a concentrated interest. They are right there talking to Democrat lawmakers, donating to them and even some, you know, squishy Republicans.

Parents on the other hand are a very dispersed interest. We’re not concentrated. It’s a bunch of people all over the state who might not agree on other things, and they don’t come together. So being able to reach out and actually connect with that dispersed interest and then concentrate their efforts is how you actually make changes in in public policy.

We’ve seen it in other areas. We’ve seen it in other states. I mean, this is what’s happening in those nine states he mentioned where school choice actually passed. It’s because that dispersed interest of parents was concentrated and turned into actual political change as well as policy change.

John Tsarpalas: You’re absolutely right. That’s what’s the problem with most taxes. It’s a dollar for more a year in taxes for you, but it’s a hundred million given to some other group. That is the problem. But hopefully we’re bringing people together, letting them understand.

We have literally the six audiences. So, we have an audience just for parents, people interested in education. We have a different one just for business entrepreneurs. That would be about taxes and regulation.

Good governance, which is actually what we consider our initial audience, our original audience. And that’s about election integrity and open records and emergency powers and what Nevada Policy’s original goals were, I guess, if you want to say it that way.

Policymakers have always been a separate audience to us. I mean, we lobby. We try to educate candidates during the election period on policy so that they understand ideas that they can put forward before the voters, but also that they will consider how they’re voting. So, policymakers are a huge audience to us. Within that, there’s a group of activists as well.

We have another one that’s free markets. That’s where our affordable housing lies, basic economics. Those things are just important. And lastly, we have all of this information happening in Spanish. So, we have a Spanish audience.

The idea truly is reaching people where they’re at with their problem and then starting to explain long term solutions to the problem. Often the problem is caused by government or by some other large controlling group such as organized labor or even too big of businesses. I mean, crony capitalism, big business is a problem as well.

So, that’s what we’re fighting for and educating people on. And our goal is to reach literally 100,000 people in this state on a regular basis.

The other thing we’re finding with our targeted system is our open rates are phenomenal. We’re now over 40 percent on our emails getting open versus 12 percent for most companies. So, the interest is there. We’re not losing them. They want to know what they want to know. They just need to be given what they want and not dilute it with information on things they don’t care about.

Very few people in our audience care about the public employee retirement system, but we do wonderful work on that. And it’s really important because the system eventually is going to go broke. But most people don’t care because it doesn’t affect their life that day.

Michael Schaus: Now obviously all these efforts are completely free and don’t cost you anything, and nobody has to support you whatsoever, right?

Or should they go to nevadapolicy.org/donate and maybe help out a little bit?

John Tsarpalas: That’s a wonderful idea, Michael. Go to nevadapolicy.org and download some information and if you like it, come back and donate. We are very proud of our work.

One last plug. We have a regulatory sandbox paper. It’s called “State Permissions versus Market Possibilities.” This is probably the most enjoyable, hardcore policy paper I’ve ever read, because he made the case on how many lives Uber has saved on New Year’s Eve from drunk drivers. It’s a great way to turn it into something real, and that’s in this. Please go to nevadapolicy.org and download our regulatory sandbox paper.

I had never thought about how many lives Uber has saved from drunk driving. And it wasn’t legal here for three years. They had to change laws to do it. And that’s just such a perfect explanation of over regulation.

Michael Schaus: It’s so great to think about how little changes in regulatory reform can actually have real, meaningful, tangible results.

People are alive today that wouldn’t have been alive otherwise because of Uber. It’s a strange thing to think about, he lays it out great in that paper. It was a fantastic paper.

So again, go to nevadapolicy.org. Download some of this information and definitely support the work that Nevada Policy is doing.

We get behind all these ideas, whether we’re talking about school choice or regulatory reform or any other number of issues. That is only made possible because of all of you, everybody that actually supports the work that they do at Nevada Policy. Everybody that shows up to their events, that donates $10 here and $5 there. That is part of this group that is trying to make sure Nevada remains such an incredible and wonderful place to live.

Hey, John, thank you so much for joining us today. Again, go to nevadapolicy.org/podcast as well because there not only will you get these podcasts delivered right to your inbox, but you can also let us know if you think that there is a topic or a guest that we ought to have on the show.

Thank you so much for listening. This has been Free to Offend.


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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.

John Tsarpalas

John Tsarpalas


John Tsarpalas is the President of the Nevada Policy, and is deeply committed to spreading limited government ideas and policy to create a better, more prosperous Nevada for all.

For over three decades, John has educated others in the ideals and benefits of limited government. In the 1980s, John joined the Illinois Libertarian Party and served on its State Central Committee. Later in the 90s, he transitioned to the Republican Party, and became active in the Steve Forbes for President Campaign and flat taxes.

In 2005, he was recruited to become the Executive Director of the Illinois Republican Party where he graduated from the Republican National Committee’s Campaign College, the RNC’s Field Management School, and the Leadership Institute’s activist training.

Additionally, John has served as President of the Sam Adams Alliance and Team Sam where he did issue education and advocacy work in over 10 states, with a focus on the web.

John also founded or helped start the following educational not-for-profits: Think Freely Media, the Haym Salomon Center – where he served as Chairman, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity and Midwest Speaking Professionals.

A native of Chicago, John now lives in Las Vegas with his wife of more than 40 years.