Behind the Bar: How the mining tax compromise deal came to be

Since The Nevada Independent sprung into existence in 2017, we’ve covered three legislative sessions and fights over major tax policies pushed to the very end of the 120 days.

In 2017, a 10 percent excise tax on marijuana was defeated after negotiations broke down over a bill funding Education Savings Accounts, but was eventually resurrected in a compromise that saw another “school choice” program funded in exchange for votes from Republicans.

In 2019, Democrats pushed through a bill making permanent an expiring state payroll tax rate, relying in part on a legal opinion that the maneuver did not require a two-thirds majority vote (a move eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court.)

Even in the 2020 special session, a bill reducing mining tax deductions died, then appeared to gain a crucial Republican vote, then died again within 48 hours.

But even with diminished Democratic majorities, the mining tax bill of the 2021 session (AB495) appeared to glide to passage — introduced on Saturday eveningheard Sunday, and then passed out both legislative chambers on Monday with the needed two-thirds majority, even getting four of nine Republican senators in favor.

But the quick passage and (relatively brief) floor speeches are only the tip of the iceberg and don’t explain why a tax deal in 2021 worked out when many of the same players and issues were involved in past sessions. 

The final deal was sealed up in a Sunday morning meeting in the state Capitol — all four legislative leaders, budget committee chairs and top Republicans on those committees (Sen. Ben Kieckhefer and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles) met with Gov. Steve Sisolak and his staff, agreeing to the rough contours of the “deal” to pass the mining tax with enough Republican votes in tow. Negotiations on both the structure of the mining tax itself and the concessions made to Republicans were handled by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the face of the deal in public and the prime legislative negotiator of the deal in private.

The deal wasn’t fully baked — negotiations and last minute requests continued until the final hours of session, including a hold up on voting out the capital improvements budget bill until the final 15 minutes of the session, just to ensure that all parts of the bargain were fulfilled.

Participants involved say that a tax compromise worked in 2021 (as opposed to all the previous examples) both because of political pressure — potential tax initiatives on sales and gaming revenue from the Clark County Education Association, as well as three legislatively driven mining tax question. All three of those could have not only major political ramifications, but serious ramifications for industry — many feared a mining tax, which would likely gin up rural turnout and hurt Democrats statewide, would still likely pass given how close a similar 2014 initiative came to passing.

But beyond the ballot questions, personalities and quirks of term limits also played a role. Three of the six Republican votes for the deal are either termed out, or planning to run for a nonpartisan race. 

The deal: Several portions of the “deal” closing the session and getting votes for the mining tax bill were readily apparent as of sine die.

Lawmakers moved to strip the straight-ticket voting language from Sen. Roberta Lange’s SB292, and other Republican asks were included right in the text of AB495. These include:

  • $15 million in federal COVID relief funds to help with learning loss at charter schools.
  • $4.745 million in tax credits in the coming fiscal year for the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides private school tuition grants to eligible low-income children. The bill also loosens the rules and allows new students to apply for the program.
  • $600,000 per year to the need-based Silver State Opportunity Grant Program, restoring funding to levels approved in the last biennium.
  • Authorizing Medicaid reimbursement for personal care services, legislation long sought by Republican Senate Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Gardnerville).

Other sweeteners were added in a last-minute amendment to SB461, the “waterfall” funding bill directing allocations of the state’s expected $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars. The $15 million in appropriations include:

  • $6 million to the Collaboration Center Foundation to augment services and programs assisting people with disabilities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), a yes vote on the mining tax bill, is an advisory board member at the foundation. 
  • $5 million to the Nevada ABLE Savings Program to be distributed as grants to persons with disabilities affected negatively by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • $4 million to UNR to establish a statewide “Dean’s Future Scholars Program” aimed at assisting prospective first-generation college students in the sixth grade or higher. Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) previously worked as an executive at UNR, and sponsored a bill this session (SB118) establishing a similar statewide program for first-generation college students.

Obviously, Republicans asked for more during the negotiations, but any concessions had to be weighed against whether their inclusion would peel off any votes from progressive Democrats and satisfy the Clark County Education Association (see the last-minute inclusion of a study on school board makeup and potentially appointing trustees). 

One of the bigger sticking points was a permanent funding source for Opportunity Scholarships. One of the biggest concerns is that families receiving the scholarships will run into the same issue in the 2023 legislative session and again have to advocate for funding amid strong pushback from public education advocates.

A Republican governor in 2023 would likely push for expansion of the program, but Sisolak was cagey when asked during a post-session press conference on Tuesday about whether he would include funding for the program in his recommended budget for the next biennium.

“This was an agreement that was made. I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made,” he said.

Republicans also pushed for further election changes (removal of ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” from the expanded mail voting bill), and a partisan balance on an interim redistricting commission — both rejected by Democratic leaders. 

Other requests, less partisan and more focused on education, were easier to swallow, including money so charter schools were held harmless against financial losses in the switch to a new funding formula (SB463) and inclusion of the $15 million in federal dollars for learning loss programs at charter schools. Other Republican requests were deemed noncontroversial — including measures related to prescription HIV treatment drugs and enrolling recently released inmates in Medicaid (a Settelmeyer bill on both those topics failed to make it out of the Assembly, but the concepts were passed out in other legislation).

The politics: The six Republicans who voted for the mining tax deal had different rationales for voting for the compromise.

Kieckhefer is termed out after this session, and Hammond is termed out after the 2023 session. Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) is planning to run for Clark County sheriff in 2022, a nonpartisan race.

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who in a floor speech complained about special interests pushing the decision, all but committed in an April interview with the Associated Press that he would support a mining tax proposal if it came up in the session. The Henderson Republican said he was undecided on his vote walking into the floor session.

Tolles and Gansert — who represent Northern Nevada — have both staked out reputations as more moderate and willing to discuss enhanced education funding in the right circumstances.

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, Tolles and Roberts both said that having the mining industry in support of the measure was a necessary factor, as well as having the money specifically earmarked for education.  

“I'm not going to be in politics forever, but I'm always going to be a human being and a wife and a mom and a professional and a member of my community,” Tolles said. “And so every decision that I have to make can't be about whatever is going to happen in the future, it has to be about whether or not I feel good about what's right in front of me and how I feel about it when I'm looking back at my life.”

Updated at 6:35 p.m. on Thursday, June 3, 2021 to include more details about the end of session negotiations.

State collects $25 million from 2020 tax amnesty program

Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager prepares to present Assembly Bill 3

A tax amnesty program created by state lawmakers last year as part of a broad effort to balance the state’s pandemic-battered budget brought about $25 million into state coffers from delinquent taxpayers.

The payments, according to a preliminary report produced by the state Department of Taxation, will distribute about $10 million from the state’s general fund, $7.25 million to school districts and the K-12 budget account, and about $7.31 million to local governments. Those payments also resulted in the waiver of about $4.3 million in penalties and $8.1 million in interest, for a total of about $12.46 million.

The tax amnesty program was implemented as part of SB3 in the budget-cut focused 2020 special session, with an expectation that the program would yield about $21 million in funding from delinquent taxpayers. It ran between February and May of 2021, and applied to most types of tax in the state except for the lodging tax, real property transfer tax and any tax on property that is locally assessed.

Around 3,100 individual taxpayers made payments while the amnesty program was open.

State Department of Taxation Director Melanie Young told lawmakers during the 2020 special session that the state is owed about $350 million in delinquent taxes, including about $68.8 million due over the past three years, though only a small portion were considered collectable.

The program applies to monthly tax returns that were due and payable on or before June 30, 2020, and quarterly tax returns due on or before April 30, 2020, including for Sales and Use Tax, Modified Business Tax and Commerce tax, among others. 

Though specific information on individual delinquent taxpayers is considered confidential under state law, the agency shared that the oldest payment dated back to April 1998, and the largest payment was more than $1.5 million. The average payment made into the program was $1,891.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Bill requiring legislative audit of higher education system clears Assembly

The Assembly approved AB416 Wednesday, a bill sponsored by the Assembly Education Committee that would authorize a legislative audit to comb through a specific slice of financial records for the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) dating back to fiscal year 2019.

In particular, the audit will look at the system’s non-state appropriated funding and so-called “reserve accounts,” as well as gifts from private donors and capital project money used by UNLV and UNR. The Assembly passed the bill unanimously late Wednesday.

Still, the language approved Wednesday was vastly scaled back from an original version of the bill that would have required an audit of all of NSHE’s budget accounts — including both state-funded and self-supporting budgets — as well as audits for salaries, bonded debt and compliance with state, local and federal laws for fiscal years stretching back to 2014. 

That original language would have come with a roughly $700,000 price tag, so broad in scope that state auditors “would have had to, literally, reassign our entire office,” Legislative Auditor Dan Crossman told lawmakers. 

To that end, Assembly Education Committee Chair Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod described the cost as “a ridiculous amount of money” and said that broad scope was “never going to move forward” through legislative money committees. She added that it was a cost and level of effort that was largely moot, as NSHE already provides legislators with similar budget reports on its state funding.  

The push for an audit comes as lawmakers have sought to more broadly expand oversight over the state’s higher education system and the way it spends money. 

As the system and the regents governing it have pointed to the power of the purse as an ideal accountability tool in the wake of efforts to expand legislative oversight powers, legislators have long complained that NSHE’s accounts are complex and frequently opaque. 

Even this session, as lawmakers moved to restore tens of millions in cuts to higher education funding, Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) raised concerns across several budget hearings that NSHE’s budget was obscured “behind a curtain.” 

As a result, lawmakers have argued, there is often little time to parse how hundreds of millions in public dollars are being spent over the course of biennial legislative sessions. 

The audit from AB416 would also serve as something of a dry run should voters eventually approve SJR7, a proposed constitutional amendment that would mimic last year’s failed Ballot Question 1 by seeking to remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution. 

Among the key differences between SJR7 and Question 1 is a new provision requiring legislators to provide for a biennial audit of the “state university and any other public institutions of higher education.”

Though legislators would have the power to call for an audit irrespective of the requirement included in SJR7 — as they are now with AB416 — backers of the measure have said the language was included in large part because voters had asked for it in the aftermath of Question 1’s failure.  

As a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment, SJR7 would need to pass through two legislative sessions and a general election vote before taking effect. The resolution cleared the first of those hurdles last week, passing through the Assembly 30-11 and on to the next legislative session.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Assembly finally moves to close the 'classic car' loophole as end of session looms

The examples are all around. Cars driving around with a “classic vehicle” license plate that are not, by any reasonable definition, classic. That’s because of a 2011 law that redefined a “classic car” to include any vehicle over a certain age that drove less than 5,000 miles. It resulted in a sharp increase in the number of classic cars registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

It also created a loophole for emissions testing. Cars with a “classic vehicle” license plate are not required to pass an emissions test. AB349, legislation backed by Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), looked to close the loophole with the goal of improving air quality. 

To fix the problem, the legislation required classic-vehicle drivers to hold classic-car insurance. The bill was received with wide support from environmental groups, the Nevada Public Health Association, the American Lung Association, and health districts in Clark County and Washoe County. They said closing the loophole would reduce pollution and benefit public health.

AB349 made other changes to the state’s vehicle emissions program. It includes provisions to use remote sensing for emissions testing and exempts new, less-polluting cars from emissions testing for the first three years of the vehicle’s life. The bill looked to raise existing fees, bringing them closer to their inflation values, and use funds to help drivers repair and replace old cars.

Going into the last week of the session, lawmakers moved to adopt an amendment authorizing county commissions to impose fees related to emission reduction — a change aimed at removing the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote on the bill, as it previously raised taxes and fees.

After the amendment was approved, the Assembly passed the legislation 25-17 in a largely party-line vote. Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) joined Republicans in opposing the legislation.

The amended legislation removes the fee changes, but it allows Clark and Washoe counties to impose new fees that support vehicle emission reductions. The amendment requires that any new funds be used by local air quality agencies, with at least 50 percent of the funding going “to reduce emissions from a motor vehicle for the benefit of historically underserved communities.” 

But the revenue element of the legislation, Watts said, was critical because it provided a funding pathway for drivers to ensure their vehicles comply with emissions testing requirements.

“The whole reason that I'm working on this revenue piece is to be able to provide a way to help people, sooner rather than later, be able to afford and transition into cleaner vehicles,” he said.

Watts said the legislation, as amended, is an important step in addressing air pollution.

“It’s hugely important to the community,” Watts said on Tuesday. “We know that transportation, and particularly vehicles, are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. We know that it's contributing to all kinds of things that worsen in public health — heat, drought, wildfire, etc… So I think anything that we can do to reduce that is going to be hugely beneficial.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Innovation Zones study still sees issues raised by Storey County, others

Although it has been a month since the contentious proposal creating autonomous “Innovation Zones” was scrapped and turned into a study, the concept has continued to receive pushback as it moves through the Legislature. 

The concurrent resolution, SCR11, would establish a committee of six appointed lawmakers to study the Innovation Zone proposal, including evaluating its effects on economic development, natural resources, the environment and local tax revenues. The measure passed out of the Senate on May 19 on a voice vote.

During its hearing in the Assembly Committee of Revenue on Tuesday, comments from lobbyist Mary Walker in neutral testimony, representing Carson, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties sparked a conversation about tax revenue and future growth concerns in Storey County — the likely location of any Innovation Zone, as the concept backers Blockchains Inc. owns about 67,000 acres of land and spearheaded efforts in favor of the concept earlier this year. Blockchains did not testify in the committee hearing.

Under the original proposal, Blockchains would be allowed to create a new form of local government operating as a “county-within-a-county,” but the measure brought up concerns it would receive all of the tax revenue from technology companies located within the “Zone,” causing Storey County to miss out on taxes it would otherwise receive. Opponents also raised concerns about the Tesla Gigafactory, which has property tax abatements nearing expiration in 2024 and is expected to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments.

Austin Osborne, Storey County manager, brought up the county’s 2016 master plan which includes a high density, urban housing development near the tech properties.

“We're not looking for ranch houses on one acre parcels with horses on that property, we have places in Storey County for that and we want to protect those areas for that,” Osborne said. “[This area is] for the millennials, the Generation Z, the high-tech people, people that want to live very close to innovation.” 

Although Osborne and the county were in neutral on SCR11, he said if a study was to move forward, it should compare the progress of the proposed Innovation Zone project versus what development would look like with Storey County's existing framework — touting that zoning and planning process takes only about 180 days, depending on the developer’s plan. 

In March, Storey County Commissioners voted to oppose the Innovation Zones concept as a bill.

“As long as the state of Nevada puts in the necessary structure in place to manage those [technological] resources appropriately, we're totally in support of it, no problem… As far as the separation from local government and everything related to, the commissioners are strongly opposed to that,” Osborne said. “If an interim study does move forward, we're going to find that really it's not necessary for this method to move things for what I think the goals are placed here… We really are the Innovation Zone already.”

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) shared some of her reservations with economic development bills and projects that oftentimes lack consideration of how it might affect the area, from infrastructure and affordable housing, to the environment and water consumption.

“My experience with a lot of projects where we say that we want to focus on economic development, is its economic development in a vacuum, without consideration for these other things,” Benitez-Thompson said. “When we talk about impacts, I think this conversation is long overdue… We've got to have a conversation about how this all plays out, and how the next decade looks regionally.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Lawmakers clarify price tag for expanding undocumented student access to Silver State Opportunity Grant

unlv campus

Allowing undocumented Nevada students to apply for the need-based Silver State Opportunity Grant without filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, which requires a Social Security number, would cost about $250,000 annually, officials told lawmakers on Thursday. 

Attending college can be particularly burdensome for students without legal status, who are ineligible for awards such as the federal needs-based Pell Grant. 

While AB213 does not include a fiscal note, bill sponsor Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Andrew Clinger, chief financial officer for the Nevada System of Higher Education, clarified that in order to create an alternative form and process for undocumented students to apply for the grant, the Nevada System of Higher Education will draw up to 5 percent of the Silver State Opportunity Grant program funds, which total $5 million a year allocated from the state general fund. 

“That's why there's not a fiscal note on that piece, because with that language in there it gives us the resources to go ahead and implement that alternative FASFA,” Clinger said during a hearing before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee last Thursday. 

Clinger added that he was unsure whether the complete 5 percent, or $250,000 annual total, earmarked in the bill would be necessary to implement AB213.

“Obviously we want to get as much of those funds out to the students as possible so we will keep those administrative costs as low as we can,” he said. 

Flores, who also practices immigration law, added that the process of filling out the alternative form would ensure privacy protection for undocumented students. 

“It's very similar to the way you would go about filling out a passport, except that it would be our own revised new version of it and it would not be reported and it would not go out to the federal government. It would be locally handled within the jurisdictional boundaries of Nevada,” he said. 

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, expressed concern about the recurring cost the bill would mean for the grant program. 

“If it's an ongoing cost and we start scraping money off of tops of scholarships to get things done, then I think that's a bigger policy discussion for everyone to have,” she said. 

Along with removing the FAFSA requirement to apply for the Silver State Opportunity Grant, AB213 would also scrap the requirement that students sign an affidavit declaring themselves either citizens of the U.S., legal immigrants or to have filed for a legal immigrant status in order to apply for the Millennium Scholarship, which offers free or reduced tuition to Nevada colleges and universities. 

Heading off concerns about the value of extending the scholarship to undocumented students, Flores noted that undocumented students’ immigration status is likely to change through their time in higher education and said the state has a responsibility to support all students. 

“We have a vested interest in ensuring that our students who are graduating here, we've already invested X, Y and Z in ensuring that they go through our system of K-12. Now we have a vested interest in continuing to ensure that they graduate and can put all those benefits and resources and all those capabilities to work for our state,” Flores said. 

In addition to expanding access to the state grant for undocumented students, AB213 would also enshrine certain Nevada System of Higher Education practices in state law, such as guaranteeing that graduates from Nevada high schools receive in-state tuition and are eligible for the merit-based Millennium and last-dollar Nevada Promise scholarships. 

The measure also aims to ensure enrolled members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada are eligible for in-state tuition regardless of state residency status. 

The committee did not immediately vote on the bill, which still needs a vote from the full Assembly and Senate in order to be passed as state law before the Legislature ends on Monday.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Lawmakers consider proposal to suspend business licenses over unpaid debt

Lawmakers frustrated with the state’s slow collection of unpaid debt want to start suspending business licenses of entities that owe money to the state.

The bill to do that, AB482, was heard in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday and would require the secretary of state’s office to not renew a business licenses if they are informed by the state controller’s office that the business in question has an outstanding debt owed to a state agency that is currently in collections with the controller’s office. 

It’s intended to capture fees and fines most commonly related to OSHA violations or worker’s compensation premiums, but would include any kind of debt to the state that’s been referred to the controller’s office.

“We don't want to necessarily put people out of business,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton said during the hearing. “We just want them to fulfill their responsibility in paying their fines.”

But there was one small problem — the agency charged with enforcing provisions of the bill, the secretary of state’s office, said the bill had come as a “surprise” and the office still had outstanding questions about how the legislation would work.

Deputy Secretary of State for Commercial Recordings Kim Perondi told the committee that the office had liability concerns about potentially suspending a business license as opposed to placing a business on an administrative hold, or if it could lead to corporations being unable to operate because of a single individual’s debt owed to the state.

“While overall the secretary absolutely supports the concept of preventing debt write off and preventing those owing money to the state from continuing to profit from state contracts and such, we will be testifying in neutral on this bill because of the way it's drafted,” she said.

Perondi said the office would continue to work with supporters on the bill, who said it would add more teeth to existing state law on debt collection.

Rusty McAllister, head of the Nevada State AFL-CIO and appointed member of the state’s Industrial Relations Division advisory board, said the legislation came from a general frustration between the division and state Controller’s Office (which handles debt collection) over businesses opting to refuse to pay or decline to pay any fines or fees owed as workers’ compensation premiums and OSHA violations.

McAllister said the division currently has more than $20 million in uncollected fees and fines, and regularly shifts off accumulated debt as “uncollectible” even as businesses continue to operate in the state. He said most fines are within the $500 to $1,000 range, but some continue to accrue to the tens of thousands of dollars range.

“Every time that we're asked to write off this debt and send it to the Board of Examiners as a write-off, this is money that the state could use,” he said. “And at the same time, we're tired of seeing these businesses stay in business, doing business here in the state with no ramifications.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Lawmakers considering bill to ensure rural counties appoint public defenders independently from the judiciary

Lawmakers are considering a bill meant to ensure rural counties comply with a 2008 state Supreme Court order requiring every judicial district in the state to develop a plan for appointing indigent defense services independently from the judiciary. 

Across the state, there have long been issues with the legal defense provided to indigent defendants — people with low incomes who are unable to obtain qualified, competent legal counsel on their own without substantial hardship. The state has been sued in the past over its sparse public defender system in its rural counties and has dealt with disparities in indigent defense from county to county.

But Nevada has also dealt with issues with public defenders appointed by the judiciary. John Piro, a public defender in Clark County, explained that before the 2008 order, there were instances in which “baby lawyers” were assigned to serious cases of murder and sexual assault, and at other times, some attorneys were more interested in “keeping the judge happy than providing zealous representation,” both leading to ineffective representation of indigent defendants.

Following the Supreme Court order, both Clark County and Washoe County developed plans to create that independence by excluding the trial judge or justice of the peace from the selection of counsel and approval of attorney fees. However, those policies have not been adopted statewide.

Marcie Ryba, the executive director of the Department of Indigent Defense Services (established in 2019) and the presenter of the bill, AB480, said that the measure would be important for enforcing the Supreme Court order as rural counties prepare to submit plans for handling indigent defense services this September.

“Each plan, with the assistance of the Department of Indigent Defense Services, will set forth the county's process for selection of counsel, how they approve compensation of indigent defense providers and how they pay and improve case related expenses,” Ryba said during a hearing of the bill on Tuesday.

The bill builds off of a $2.4 million appropriation over the biennium for improving indigent defense services in certain rural counties. Those funds will be used by the department to address the state Supreme Court’s decision in Davis v. Nevada (2020), which stipulated that the state needed to eliminate economic disincentives for public defenders and establish minimum standards for indigent defense services.

The measure also aims to reduce the disincentives by eliminating caps on fees for appointed indigent defense counsel. Fee caps can create an economic disincentive, by leading to lawyers taking on excessive caseloads or resulting in under-researched cases by inexperienced counsel.

Members of the Clark County Defenders Union testified in support of the bill on Tuesday, after an amendment from the union meant to preserve pay parity with District Attorneys had been added. They argued that the measure would help ensure there are effective and zealous public defenders in the state.

“As of today, I have 169 open cases and 1,297 closed cases,” said Kara Simmons, a Clark County deputy public defender of three and a half years. “Our dedication to our clients is what brings us into this office outside normal working hours, what drives us to stay late into the night and come in on the weekends. We need to make sure we keep quality attorneys here that are dedicated to this level of service.”

The bill was approved by the Assembly on a 36-5 vote on Friday, and now heads to the Senate.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Amended bill would give Esports oversight powers to Gaming Control Board

A legislative effort to create an independent regulatory body for the state’s Esports industry, which involves different competitions using video games, has been amended to instead give regulatory authority to the Gaming Control Board if the bill is passed.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) introduced an amendment to his bill, SB165, during a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Monday that would create an Esports Technical Advisory Committee with members appointed by the board. The previous version of the bill would have created an independent Esports commission with oversight powers within the Department of Business and Industry.

During the initial hearing of the bill in March, Kieckhefer said that the intent of the bill was not to tread on the authority of the board and that the bill does not address gambling as it relates to Esports. Despite the change to the structure of the committee, the group is still meant to be composed of industry professionals and would help regulate Esports in Nevada.

Kieckhefer also discussed the industry’s large viewership and financial potential as reasons for needing a committee to foster Esports growth in Nevada. A presentation submitted along with the bill shows some Esports events in the past few years that have had more viewers than championship games in professional baseball and basketball.

“Esports is very simply the fastest growing entertainment sector in sports,” he said. “Our state as a whole, but particularly Las Vegas as a global destination, should be a partner with the Esports industry in bringing events and businesses to our state.”

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a video game trade association, opposed the initial version of the bill, but moved into the neutral position after the latest amendment.

“ESA appreciates the chance to … explore revisions to the bill that would help advance the sponsor’s goal to promote the growth of the Esports industry in the state of Nevada,” Alisa Nave-Worth, a representative of the association, said during the hearing. “We believe that the revised version of the bill is better suited towards advancing that important goal.”

The amendment also removed a project cost from the Department of Business and Industry for implementing the bill, and Kieckhefer noted that the Gaming Control Board would be able to absorb any costs of establishing the new Esports committee.

The bill was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and awaits a hearing in an Assembly committee.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Legislature dismisses final 2020 election contest against Democratic assemblywoman

The final challenge to the legitimacy of Nevada’s 2020 election ended not with the revelation of scandalous evidence, but with a thud in a quiet, nearly empty legislative committee room on Thursday.

There, three Assembly members — Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) — met as a somewhat rare election contest committee to hear and recommend dismissal of an official challenge by former Assembly Republican candidate Cherlyn Arrington, who lost her bid to Democrat Elaine Marzola by nearly 1,200 votes in the 2020 election.

No fiery defenses, groundbreaking evidence or actual lawyering occurred on Thursday — Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers informed the committee that Arrington’s attorney never responded after the election contest committee was formed in late March.

That led the committee to vote to approve recommending that the contest be dismissed with prejudice — meaning it cannot be re-filed over any procedural issues. Roberts voted against the motion, saying he was concerned about “gaps in notification” but acknowledged that “it would be difficult to follow up if they did do that, since the body would be adjourned in a week or so.”

Yeager said that the committee and Legislature as a whole would lose jurisdiction over the case in a little more than a week, so it did not make sense to extend a lifeline to the legal challenge at this point in time.

“I don't think there's enough time, even if the parties were to file something, of course, the responding party would need time, and then there's time for a reply,” he said. “So I don't think we would be able to complete our work during this session.”

Arrington — who along with a host of other losing Republican 2020 candidates filed a series of unsuccessful lawsuits in November seeking to overturn election results — tweeted earlier this week that she had asked for the contest to be dismissed in April, amid an apparent communication snafu with the secretary of state’s office.

For her part, Marzola said on Thursday that she wasn’t paying close attention to the election contest meeting — it started and finished while Assembly members were in a floor session. 

“I know, obviously, that I did win, so I'm really excited about it,” she said. “I've been here over 100, 105 days, serving the state of Nevada, that's what's important to me.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.