Former beauty queen eyes education funding

Editor’s note: With more new legislators than ever before, Nevada will have some of its freshest political faces coping with the state’s greatest problems. In an occasional series, the Las Vegas Review-Journal introduces the newly elected law­makers who are about to take office in Carson City.

CARSON CITY — Assemblywoman-elect Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, doubts most people would realize she is a former Miss Nevada if they caught her shopping in her neighborhood.

"I would be hanging onto a toddler and having a baby at my hips. I would be covered with sticky fingers. I am not a glamorous person. I like quiet. I like to read."

Reared by her grand­parents and a single mother who worked as a waitress, Benitez-Thompson knows firsthand the value of a good education and intends to strive to improve and protect the education system during the legislative session.

"My daughter will start school in 2012. Whatever we do will affect her in the classroom. I don’t want to see her in classes with 40 other students. We need to have a hard conversation on how we stabilize revenue and properly fund education."

In the February session, lawmakers will have to reconcile significant state revenue shortfalls with Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval’s pledge not to raise taxes. State agencies and public schools now face the prospect of funding reductions of 10 percent or more.

"I don’t think the solutions will be detrimental to the business community," Benitez-Thompson said. "A good investment in education is a good investment in business."

During the 2011 session, she will serve on the Taxation, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Government Affairs committees.

Benitez-Thompson is the first former Miss Nevada to serve in the Legislature. Former state Sen. Sue Lowden is a former Miss New Jersey.

Before becoming Miss Nevada in 2002, Benitez-Thompson was active with the Nevada Women’s Empowerment Project, which focuses on how to get young women out of poverty and off the welfare system.

About 90 percent of adult welfare recipients are single women raising children, Benitez-Thompson said.

"They need education. The best way to come out of a lower economic status is education. And the best way for kids to learn is in classes with a small teacher to student ratio so the kids know they are watched and someone cares."

With her Miss Nevada scholarship money, Benitez-Thompson earned a master’s degree in social work. She then worked in adoption and foster-care programs for Washoe County and now is a social worker who handles hospice cases.

"I work with people with terminal diagnoses, those with expectations of six months or less to live. It balances me. In politics, little things are looked at as so big, so it is nice to go back to my job. I help people face the reality (of dying). They need to say everything they want to say and make the best use of their time. Every moment is precious."

Benitez-Thompson wants legislators to look at all funding options during the session and listen to business and working people.

She won’t commit to supporting tax increases or cuts until they have that conversation.

"My sincere hope is that people at the street level understand how hard this legislative session will be. The status quo needs to be changed. To me, there is no such thing as too much education."

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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