Gov. Brian Sandoval revealed Thursday that Nevada has signed its first contract with a drone industry company and that state officials are talking to 15 to 20 companies interesting in doing business or manufacturing unmanned aerial vehicles here.
Nevada is one of six states selected last year by the Federal Aviation Administration to develop test sites for drones. They are primarily used for military purposes but are ripe for commercial development.
“We’re in the pilot seat,” Sandoval said in a wide-ranging interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board. “We are starting to gain traction. … We are positioning ourselves to really be a hub.”
Sandoval said Nevada officials have one signed contract with a “confidential company” and this week are meeting with FAA officials in New Jersey, with officials from the five other states in the program. The governor said he wants companies to not just use Nevada as a drone test site but to build manufacturing facilities in the state, which has far more usable airspace than other states chosen by the FAA.
“We don’t want people to come in and test them and leave,” Sandoval said.
Nevada figures to get a big chunk of the $11 billion-a-year drone industry, which is expected to grow to $100 billion within a decade. The other five states testing drones include Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
The UAV industry is expected to employ 15,000 people in Nevada within 10 years, about the size of the workforce of Nevada’s mining industry.
Nevada was selected in part because researchers here can access airspace near population centers, and the state offers the opportunity to study how civilian unmanned aircraft might operate adjacent to military airspace controlled by the Navy and Air Force to support operations at Creech, Fallon Naval Air Station and Nellis Air Force Base.
Sandoval said that Nevada has been expanding its manufacturing base and that 41 percent of the companies that have recently moved to the state are involved in manufacturing, which often involves higher wages and steadier work.
“Those are the most sustainable jobs,” Sandoval said, adding that his goal is to diversify the state to make it less reliant on tourism and gaming.
“Nevada can never be as vulnerable as it was when the recession hit,” he said.
Nevada is on a short list of states trying to lure a $5 billion Tesla Motors battery plant. Other states competing include Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Sandoval said talks with Tesla are “really sensitive” and other states are competing by offering millions of dollars in free land to the company.
“We are still in the game,” Sandoval said. “It’s highly competitive.”
Sandoval is running for re-election but faces little competition. He has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate in 2016, but he dismissed such speculation again Thursday.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a friend, will visit Las Vegas next week to raise money for Sandoval and to attend a Republican Jewish Coalition conference. Bush is one of a dozen potential GOP presidential candidates.
Asked whether he would support Bush if he ran for president, the governor laughed and said it’s too soon to decide.
“I have a lot of respect for Governor Bush and what he accomplished in Florida,” Sandoval said of Bush, who was his mentor when he ran for governor in 2010. “I really admire and respect him, but I’m not going to sit here today and say who I’m going to support for president.”
In 2012, Sandoval made an early presidential endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. After Perry dropped out of the race, Sandoval backed the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.
Asked whether he would agree to be a vice presidential running mate, Sandoval dismissed the question with his standard refrain: “I love this job. It is a real gift and a blessing to be able to sit in this chair and on any given day I can make decisions and affect policy in this state. … I look forward to going to work every day.”
Sandoval also noted that Nevada led the nation last year in job growth, although its unemployment rate of 8.7 percent trails only that of Rhode Island. The governor said that is because the construction industry, which lost 100,000 jobs during the recession, has yet to regain strength.
During Nevada’s peak growth, construction accounted for 12 percent to 15 percent of Nevada jobs, he said, compared with about 4 percent to 5 percent now, which is about the national average.
“We have all these individuals that need to be retrained,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
On other issues, Sandoval said:
■ He isn’t too concerned about proposed legislation in Congress that would try to outlaw all Internet gaming. He favors allowing only online poker, not all games. Nevada and Delaware have signed a pact that should allow people in both states to play against one another by summer. He said he is talking to New Jersey and would offer other states Nevada’s gaming expertise if they want to launch online poker sites.
“We are poker-only and will continue to be poker-only,” Sandoval said, adding he hadn’t studied the proposed legislation in Congress, but “I would question whether federal law could supersede our state law.”
■ His education agenda for the 2015 Legislature includes legislation allowing more school choices by offering parents vouchers for private school costs; requiring children to be able to read adequately by third grade or be held back; expanding all-day kindergarten at at-risk schools; and possibly putting more money into teaching English to immigrant students. Last session, the state added $50 million for such ELL programs.
Sandoval noted he added $500 million to the education budget last session and expects funding to increase again during the next session as the state recovers and revenues from taxes and fees increase. He said Nevada needs to update funding formulas that are decades old to better allocate education dollars across the state in rural and urban areas.
“We don’t have an unlimited amount of money, so what we spend we have to ensure is spent well,” he said.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.