Standing up to oil and gas interests

Photo of active oil operations in Railroad Valley, Nevada

By Rebekah Stetson

It didn’t get as much attention as it should have, but last week Gov. Steve Sisolak stood up for Nevada by convincing the federal government, for the time being, to drop the idea of leasing for oil and gas in places that could harm wildlife habitat and threaten our clean drinking water. This acreage was up for lease at rock-bottom prices, on land that has almost zero potential to produce oil and gas. I am thankful that our governor used his discernment and stepped in.

All this attention on oil and gas development from the federal government doesn’t make a lick of sense. Oil and gas lease sales have occurred every month since September, with another scheduled for next month. Because the parcels being offered have so little actual oil or gas potential, they often don’t receive any bids at auction allowing oil and gas companies to scoop them up for pennies on the dollar. This underhanded approach is a not only a rip-off for taxpayers, it effectively ties up our public lands from being managed for recreation or wildlife. 

The planned November lease sales included land near Great Basin National Park, the Ruby Lake Wildlife Refuge and the Ruby Mountains. These are some of the most beautiful and cherished areas to me and so many others who visit these areas and support Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy. They are the reason so many of us live, work and play here. Outdoor recreation contributes $12 billion to our economy. It also supports 87,000 jobs ranking in at the third highest sector supporting more jobs than logistics, IT or mining! Locking up land on or near our most valuable recreation areas makes absolutely no sense for Nevada or Nevadans.

The request from the governor, and the outpouring of protest from local leaders and community members allowed the BLM to defer about 100,000 acres that it had planned to lease last week. But the deferrals are only temporary and next month’s lease sales of additional acreage are expected to go on as planned. The December leases involve lands that contain big game migration corridors and areas that are important to the Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone tribes. 

Simply deferring the lease sales is kicking the can down the road. Many of the leases that have been proposed under the Trump administration’s so-called energy dominance agenda impact land that is vital to wildlife, drinking water, outdoor recreation or our cultural heritage. These are places that should never be offered up.

Thank you, Gov. Sisolak, for speaking out against the November sales. I urge you to continue to oppose the wrong-headed rush to sell off our public lands to outside oil interests. Meanwhile, I trust and hope that our Congressional delegation will find more comprehensive protections for our most cherished lands.

Rebekah Stetson is native Nevadan, businesswoman and board member of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.

VanDyke is the right choice for the Ninth Circuit

The front of the US Supreme Court Building

By Juan Martinez

In the weeks ahead, the U.S. Senate has the opportunity to confirm a highly qualified nominee who will help make sure that the people of Nevada benefit from fair and impartial judicial decisions. Lawrence VanDyke has been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to fill a coming vacancy. Senators ought to strongly support this nomination.

The Ninth Circuit is the nation’s largest, hearing cases from Nevada and eight other states. Together, the states and territories in this circuit are home to more than 60 million Americans. The decisions of the Ninth Circuit are often the final word on how the law applies throughout this vast region. It’s important that the Senate get this right.

In Mr. VanDyke, we have a nominee with an impeccable record. His years of legal experience include his service as solicitor general of Nevada, after having also held the same position in Montana (he would be the only appeals court judge to have served in that position in two states) and as assistant solicitor general in Texas. This critical and high-profile role meant that he was entrusted to act as the state’s representative in legal proceedings – including those before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He served as counsel on 28 briefs filed in Supreme Court cases and has argued more than 20 appeals – most of them in the Ninth Circuit, the court to which he has been nominated.

Currently an official at the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. VanDyke graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was also an editor of Harvard Law Review. And – early in his career – he served as a clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often considered the second most important federal court. He is a distinguished appellate advocate with experience in both public and private service.

By any measure, Mr. VanDyke’s resume is outstanding. He has the experience senators ought to look for in a judicial candidate. But just as important, in his work throughout his career and during his recent Senate confirmation hearing, he has shown that he understands the proper role of a judge.

First and foremost, judges are called to set aside their personal or partisan beliefs and apply and enforce the law. Their job is not to act like elected representatives, shaping or changing the law and mandating that their views be followed. They must be neutral arbiters, adhering to the Constitution and defending individual liberty. They must faithfully apply and interpret the law, rather than legislating from the bench.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr. VanDyke vowed to put his personal views aside, calling that “a key and critical part of being a federal judge.” He promised that he would faithfully apply all precedents of the Supreme Court, and said that his goal would be “to look at what the Constitution meant to people at the time it was enacted.” He testified that it’s the responsibility of Congress to “change the rules—whether it’s statutes or the Constitution—it’s not the job of judges.”

He’s absolutely right. If a law isn’t having the intended outcome, it’s up to Congress to fix it. And if they don’t, they can be held accountable in the next election.

In addition to his academic credentials, professional achievements, and judicial philosophy, Mr. VanDyke is a nominee with a deep understanding of Nevada and the West. He represented the interests of Nevadans for four years as our Solicitor General. He grew up in Montana and graduated from Montana State University, and later served in government not only in Nevada, but also in Montana and Texas. He will bring a knowledge of our region and our concerns – one that can only help inform his work on the court.

In short, Lawrence VanDyke is exactly the sort of fair, objective judicial nominee that Nevadans should expect. Nevadans elect our lawmakers and we don’t need judges taking on their roles, or substituting their personal political opinions. Such a commitment to impartiality is essential to delivering on the foundational promise that all Americans stand equal under the law.

Nevadans can be proud of Lawrence VanDyke’s nomination, and we look forward to his swift confirmation.

Juan Martinez is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Nevada.

Occupational licensing boards are a hazard

Front of the Nevada Legislature building

By David Colborne

What is the difference between being a homeopathic medical examiner in Nevada or Utah? 

Utah doesn’t license homeopathic medical examiners, nor should they since homeopathy is a long-debunked pseudoscience. A “homeopathic medical examiner” is every bit the fraud that a “creationist archeologist” or a “flat Earth astronomer” would be. Nevada, on the other hand, does license homeopathic medical examiners, which is utterly disgraceful as it legitimizes fraud via government license and statute. 

That occupational licensing sometimes protects fraudulent occupations via government statute (like, for example, so-called “oriental medicine,” a field of quackery originally invented by Maoist China, which of course Nevada also happens to license because why wouldn’t we?) is one among several reasons why state-run occupational licensing should definitely be rethought, if not abolished outright. Luckily, Nevada’s Dental Board and Board of Pharmacy were kind enough to recently remind us all of another great reason — they’re also funnels for incompetence and graft. 

The theory behind occupational licensing goes something like this: Some occupations are downright hazardous to our health when done improperly. To protect ourselves from, say, malicious interior designers, it’s a good idea for there to be some sort of certification organization, agency, or board that confirms a provider for a particular service is qualified to provide the service. Additionally, this organization should also be able to receive complaints and revoke certifications for incompetent or fraudulent providers of these potentially hazardous services. 

I agree with all of that, by the way. I like my doctors, plumbers, barbers and electricians to know what they’re doing.

None of that, however, justifies requiring Nevada’s dentists through force of law to pay $1200, plus an additional $600 every two years, to the GOP Chair Michael McDonald Welfare Fund. It also doesn’t justify paying the executive director of the Board of Pharmacy, a board that failed to complete mandatory background checks for a decade, more than $150,000 per year. And it certainly doesn’t justify requiring more than a quarter of Nevada’s workforce to pay state-mandated license fees to more than thirty chronically unaccountable occupational licensing boards. 

How unaccountable are our state occupational licensing boards? Like most of Nevada’s problems, as the state’s latest audit report notes, that’s a question that’s been wrestled with for decades. Ironically, while Nevada’s occupational licensing boards are directed to ensure that those working in regulated occupations perform their work according to best practices, Nevada’s occupational licensing boards are barely regulated at all. Consequently, each occupational licensing board tends to make up its own rules as it goes along, frequently at considerable cost to those they regulate. For example, state boards spent more than $500,000 on outside contract lobbyists (that’s even if you subtract the $72,000 Michael McDonald charged the Dental Board for metabolizing oxygen, carbon and water into carbon dioxide, heat and bodily waste). 

Worse yet, some boards use disciplinary fines to fund operating expenses. This is a phenomenally bad idea. As Ferguson and Waldo have conclusively demonstrated, letting agencies keep fees for revenue encourages agencies to seek out fine-generating activity, no matter how dangerous each activity might or might not be to anyone. Nevada’s drivers are already well acquainted with this dynamic if they’ve driven through Esmeralda County, where more than 10 percent of the county budget comes from traffic fines. Similarly, it’s probably not a coincidence that the State Board of Cosmetology, whose fines remain with the Board per statute, issued over 900 fines (more than every other occupational licensing board combined) totaling nearly $200,000 just between July and September. 

What should we do to hold Nevada’s occupational licensing boards accountable?

The state’s Division of Internal Audits recommends that the various occupational licensing boards should be administered under the Department of Business & Industry. Honestly, that’s not a bad idea. The Governor’s Office has struggled to administer Nevada’s overly numerous occupational licensing boards for several administrations now. Putting them under a department with administrative expertise, a pool of pre-existing office staff and a bit more focus might help at least prevent the sort of issues we saw from the pharmacy and dental boards. 

There is, however, a somewhat more obvious solution to this problem than moving some boxes in a bureaucratic org chart: Eliminate some (if not all) of Nevada’s occupational licensing boards. 

Nevada licenses more of its workers through state-run occupational licensing boards than any other state in the country. We license more of our workers than California (which, licensing 17.2 percent of its workers, ranks 46th). We also license more of our workers than Idaho and Wyoming (which rank 4th and 5th — anybody who tells you Republicans support “smaller government” is trying to commit fraud and should be treated accordingly). Despite this, Nevada is no safer for employees or the public than any other state. Put another way, we certainly don’t have a “first in the nation” reputation for employee or public safety. 

The reason for this is simple: Occupational licensing boards don’t exist to serve the public. They initially exist to serve the occupations they license by artificially restricting the number of people who work in each licensed occupation. This, however, only lasts until the Iron Law of Bureaucracy takes hold and each board begins to function to serve itself at the expense of its members. This scenario has clearly happened to the Dental Board and, if the excessive fines issued by the Cosmetology Board are any indication, is probably happening there as well. Once that happens, laborers in each licensed occupation labor to pay the high salaries of board members and their staffs, whose sinecures are protected through statute.

Thankfully, occupational licenses aren’t the only way we can hold industries and employers accountable; arguably, they’re perhaps the least effective. The Institute for Justice lays out several options which are far more effective at protecting the public and don’t require the creation of punitive boards full of bureaucrats with six-figure salaries. These include market competition (not everyone’s favorite tool, I know, but one I’m fond of), voluntary third-party certification, bonding and insurance (voluntary and mandatory), deceptive trade practice acts and even state certification. 

Granted, none of these options will pick the pockets of Nevada’s dentists to pay Michael McDonald’s lobbying fees, nor will they keep workers from other states from easily bringing their skills to Nevada (remember, rural Nevada has a serious dentist shortage) without filling out forms and paying various licensing fees before they get to work. Even so, these are arguably small prices to pay for greater, more affordable access to better, safer services for every Nevadan.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org

When government is too much and not enough, all at the same time

Photo of the front of the Nevada Legislature building.

If you ask most right-leaning folks what they want from government regulators, they’ll usually just tell you, “less.” If you ask most left-leaning folks, they will argue for regulators to have more power over our lives, unless it affects them personally in any sort of negative way, and then they’ll also tell you they want “less.” (I have yet to meet the small business owner of any political persuasion who wants more legal red tape.)

I don’t want to chill this undercurrent of bipartisan agreement, but the “more/less” debate on government regulation is too often wrongly framed. It’s not a two-dimensional lever like a volume controller where it’s relatively easy to find the Goldilocks zone by tweaking the total number of regs to just the right amount. It’s about who is holding the levers, the quality of the regulations, their purpose (real and putative, which occasionally are the same) and their execution. 

Take the marijuana industry, where I have often argued there should be less regulation. There should be a net reduction in the number of rules regarding pot sales and cultivation, of course, but the really offensive thing about marijuana licensing is how arbitrary and capricious it is allowed to be. When requirements are cost-prohibitive to most start-ups and qualified applicants can be denied because “better” applicants have more personal or political connections, the goal of those laws is nothing more than to act as a protectionist racket. In other words, it’s not the fact that pot is regulated, it is the way the regulations are written and enforced that makes corruption so inviting — and breeds so much well-justified suspicion into the levelness of the playing field.

Ultimately, the more heavy-handed regulators get in any industry, the more likely that industry will corrupt itself by co-opting the regulators. And those without the right connections will take their businesses underground, won’t do business at all or will find some other workaround. And those workarounds can be even worse than the over-regulation was.

In Storey County, for instance, the fear of over-burdensome utility regulations led developers to side-step and form a public water district. This allowed the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center to blossom quickly, diversifying the small county’s economy during some rough economic times. But the private entities and individuals running the water district are so entwined with the developers themselves that it is impossible not to raise one’s eyebrows at the potential conflicts of interest there. And whether or not everything in Storey County is strictly above-board, the opportunities, such a melding of private and public interests create for graft and corruption, are endless. 

It’s the same problem as the marijuana over-regulation, but arrived at from the other direction. At least the county is finally taking some steps to clean up this tangled web. (Storey County is uniquely susceptible to problems like this just because it’s so small. One wonders if it might not be worth thinking about re-drawing some of our county boundaries, but that’s a column for a different day…)

The regulation of any private industry should be as minimal as possible, but not less than that. Any regulations should be narrowly tailored to serve an identifiable and significant public interest, such as safety or the ability to correctly and fairly assess a tax burden. 

If and when regulators are needed, they should be full-time workers (or paid that way) to prevent the dual loyalty problem that can weaken faith in our government with even the appearance of impropriety. 

From distributing alcohol to selling cars to permitting taxi cabs to keeping the alleged riff-raff out of gaming, Nevada gets this wrong time and again. I’d say we need to restore a better balance, but I don’t think as a state we’ve ever had it right. That balance should be the goal of every lawmaker, every legislative session.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

‘Pipeline-to-nowhere’ project literally puts Boulder City at a crossroad

Interstate 11 during construction

BOULDER CITY – Many residents of this bucolic town still scratch their heads about it.

Some see it as a scandal barely averted, one that would have changed Boulder City’s small-town feel forever. Others wonder if it went far enough for a community under pressure to expand despite its cherished slow-growth ordinance.

I call it the pipeline-to-nowhere, but that’s not an entirely accurate description.  The water line project was headed somewhere in anticipation. 

The 16-inch line stretches west along US 93 from the edge of developed Boulder City toward Railroad Pass, then cuts south along US 95 down into Eldorado Valley and the new I-11 Interchange. There it stops.

Although the new line is buried, bright yellow fire hydrants mark its path. The image of hydrants popping up across the desert seems absurd, but there it is.

By the time you reach the end of the line, you can barely see Boulder City proper. A vast swath of undeveloped desert fills the space in between, but you’re still standing on city-owned land.

Bringing a new water line that far into an empty area would normally signal impending commercial development, but that’s not how the project was sold to Boulder City residents. Officially, the water line was promoted as a necessary expense to support the needs of the impressive Copper Mountain Solar 4 power plant in Eldorado Valley. Back in February, a news release by the city manager’s office enthused, “This project, when complete, will build a redundant waterline to the line that provides water to the solar fields. The water is used mostly for cooling towers and to create steam for power generation.”

Just to drive home the point of its importance, the missive added, “The existing line to Eldorado Valley requires regular maintenance due to high usage. Building the new line will provide redundancy.”

Not to be redundant, but you get the idea that this project was an essential addition to the solar facility.

That was in February, before Mayor Rod Woodbury lost to then-Councilman Kiernan McManus and James Howard Adams knocked off Councilwoman Peggy Leavitt in surprisingly heated campaigns that saw voters reject a big spending ballot question and respond to the challengers’ historic preservation and slow-growth messages. Overnight, the face of the city’s elected leadership underwent substantial change.

So, it seemed, did the priority of running the new water line all the way to the solar facility. The important redundancy issue, suddenly, wasn’t such a big issue, after all.

The city posted on its official website a time line to illustrate just how long the water hookup has been under consideration. That’s a lot of planning just to come up short.

Skeptics who wondered whether the city’s effort was more about bringing water to an important interchange than providing a backup for the energy field found their suspicions stoked. Even those who envisioned a bustling and much bigger Boulder City had to admit that it’s quite a coincidence the line now extends to what promises to be a very busy and quite lucrative I-11/US 95 interchange. 

But it’s official. In a letter dated Sept. 5 from Copper Mountain Solar 4 vice president Akshaya Bhargava to the Boulder City’s contracts/real estate manager Brok Armantrout, the company acknowledged the change of course and the end of the project. “With the completion of this water line, both the City and CMS4 have fulfilled all of their respective obligations under the above referenced agreements. CMS4 acknowledges that any further costs associated with modifying or extending this water line for use by CMS4 are now the sole responsibility of CMS4.”

What was sold as a $2 million expense that was essential to the success of the solar project was no longer necessary. And it’s been reported in the hometown Boulder City Review that ending the arrangement will save the city a few million in construction costs.

Which leads those Boulder City skeptics to further suspect that may have been the plan from the start. Expansion in the city is reined in by a slow-growth ordinance put in place decades ago in an effort to preserve its character and avoid the breakneck development that was taking place in the rest of Southern Nevada.

Boulder City’s pipeline reminds me of another infrastructure project three decades ago that sent water and sewer lines out past the edge of the Las Vegas city lights to what then seemed like the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t. The real estate was slated for massive residential and commercial development with some city officials taking advantage of inside information.

But, to be clear, no one is suggesting either current or former Boulder City officials followed that ethically questionable course. 

It still makes me wonder when that water line will be put to its intended use. Not to mention all those fire hydrants.

For now, it’s just a pipeline to nowhere and, come to think of it, a good place to walk your dog.

Not just lines on a map, electoral districts literally steal votes

sign pointing to voting location

By Jordan Ross

I first got involved in politics as a candidate myself with the slogan “Because the Right to Representation Matters.” I won and have since been re-elected twice more. But the inherent promise in that statement has to be constantly made good if I expect my constituents to keep re-electing me. I live in a small township, I’m close to my voters, and they know they have the right to expect me to respond to their concerns.

This is an increasing problem across many parts of the country where gerrymandering has allowed candidates who don’t really have the support of their constituencies to continue in office. The bottom line is that the voters in the communities just aren’t represented at all – their votes have been stolen.  

The Virginia legislature truly represents its people for the first time in years after a court threw out it racist gerrymandered districts. And a court in North Carolina has started the same process, banning obviously rigged districts, and ordering new ones to be drawn for their congressional elections. Last year the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the congressional district maps in that state; they were drawn so bizarrely the state had become a laughingstock of corruption in elections.  

It seems you don’t need to blatantly segregate and discriminate against voters to take away their right to vote – just draw district lines that make their votes worthless.  

An interesting proposal from Beatty public school teacher Benjamin Pennington has begun the slow process of becoming a constitutional amendment to Nevada’s Constitution. I would suggest that there is one very good concept in this proposal. I would support the introduction of ranked voting to reflect the opinions and goals of a larger portion of the electorate more accurately. The mathematics clearly support that. All too often the current two stage past the post system yields a final winner that a majority of voters would rather not have. Ranked voting would produce office holders with a much broader base of support and less polarization of politics. 

However, I strongly object to multi-member districts. Voters want to know who their personal representative is and to be able to hold that one person accountable. Single member districts would be smaller and would keep representation closer to the communities they serve. As for gerrymandering, we’d be better off in codifying the current court-imposed system of legislative nesting of two assembly districts into each Senate district. Nesting instantly eliminates all gerrymandering of Senate districts. 

Combine that with the proposal by the League of Women Voters for an independent redistricting commission that would end gerrymandering of Assembly districts and you’re done. This is more important than some voters may think; for a decade we’ve already had nesting, keeping gerrymandering out of Senate districts but this was imposed by a court 10 years ago when the Legislature couldn’t agree on district borders. But nesting is not enshrined in either statute or constitution and is at risk of disappearing without pressure from voters to keep it. 

I do think the Legislature should be a little larger. The growing urban population has reduced the number of legislative seats in Nevada’s rural counties. I think both major parties want to support rural life and adding a few more seats would cost very little and add a few more rural voices without proportionally disenfranchising urban and suburban voters. There would also be the benefit that districts would be closer to urban voters as well. The legislature could on its own increase the size to 74 seats in both houses and keep nesting at the same time. This wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment. 

Mr. Pennington’s effort is in the right direction. I support the effort for electoral reform and as a state we should look into further changes to better represent the voters. But this proposal isn’t ready for prime time. 

The independent redistricting proposal by the League of Women Voters is long overdue and the success of such commissions in other states should dispel any doubts some voters may have. It’s just too much to ask legislators to be fair and impartial when they’re drawing their own electoral borders. 

All of this may seem too nerdy or too much like inside baseball to many voters, but everyone needs to know the value of their vote is on the line and it’s worth doing something about.

Because representation matters.

Jordan Ross is a constable in Laughlin, Nevada.

Now’s the time for Nevada lawmakers to accelerate on electric cars

A photo of an electric charging station

By Ken Evans

The Nevada Legislature’s interim Legislative Committee on Energy is meeting this month for the first time. While the 2019 Legislature took big steps forward on clean energy, more work remains, especially in the transportation sector. This committee will be crucial in assessing the energy policies Nevada needs heading into the 2021 legislative session.

My nearly 35-year professional career has included several civilian and military experiences related to real estate development and the infrastructure systems required to support the development. As the president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, I now represent over 300 businesses. As such, I am acutely aware that Nevada must consider the future of transportation–and plan accordingly. 

States have struggled to establish a transportation and infrastructure revenue model that is fair and equitable to electric vehicle owners. Although well-intentioned, several approaches have resulted in the unintended consequence of making these vehicles cost-prohibitive for most drivers without bringing in significant revenue. Nevada can take a smarter, more holistic approach by studying the options, factors, and benefits that electric vehicles provide – and those benefits are significant.

The cost to power an electric vehicle in Nevada is about $1 per gallon, meaning Nevada drivers can save on maintenance and fuel costs. Whether they own just one vehicle or a fleet of hundreds, Nevada businesses can succeed and grow through those savings. Installing charging infrastructure for these new vehicles provides yet another economic development opportunity for our community. Nevada cities can elevate local workforce development in training workers from disadvantaged backgrounds to install charging stations in homes and businesses.

There’s another set of benefits to factor in when we think about the switch to clean transportation, and that’s improvements to our health. Exhaust is linked to a number of health issues, and Clark County’s air quality is poorly ranked. The impacts are most pronounced in low-income communities and communities of color. By promoting electric vehicles, we are creating a better quality of life, new business opportunities, and savings for employers and workers alike – a triple bottom line.

That’s why any plan to fund our infrastructure needs must be equitable and must consider the gains we’ll see from promoting electric vehicle adoption. I believe the Committee on Energy is up to this task. Its leaders are Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, who led the push to expand access to solar power, and Sen. Chris Brooks, who championed the increase in Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. Now is the time to chart a path toward a future where that clean energy is powering zero-emission electric vehicles.

Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ken Evans is currently a board member for the Uplift Foundation. As part of its focus, the Uplift Foundation participates in outreach activities to ensure communities of color are aware of the social, environmental and economic development benefits of renewable energy.

How a proposed new voting system would really work

Front of the Nevada State Senate building

By Ian Mylchreest

If the Fountainhead Society can gather 97,598 signatures across Nevada’s four congressional districts, we all could have to vote on a very different electoral system for the state Senate. So if you were a voter in the last election, should you sign the petitions? What will Nevada Senate voting look like in 2024 if this change is implemented?

Like many petition drives, the organizers’ explanation puts an idealistic face on it. Beatty school teacher Ben Pennington says the new system would eliminate redundancy between the two houses of the Legislature and give rise to new parties and more independents being elected. He says a similar system for electing upper houses in Australia has inspired his plan.

Well, if the Australian experience is anything to go by, this new Nevada system will not eliminate this redundancy: the state Senate will still be dominated by Democrats and Republicans. It is unlikely to let a thousand new political flowers bloom across the Silver State.

The new system proposes using the existing congressional districts to create four multi-member seats that would elect five members each. It would do this with a single transferable vote. What this means is that voters would have to number at least five candidates in order of preference. The parties would hand out “how-to-vote cards” with their candidates numbered 1, 2, 3 and so on. 

Democrats would, of course, rank Republicans last — and Republicans would return the favor because those are the candidates who are most likely to be elected and those each party most wants to defeat. The only exception would be when a truly abhorrent minor party like the American Nazi Party nominated a candidate, and then the others would all rank it last.

Based on the last congressional elections, the most likely result under the new system would be that three Democrats would be elected in District One, which voted 66 percent for Democratic Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nev.). The rest of the vote went to a sacrificial Republican and a scattering of others who barely broke one percent of the vote, but two Republicans would likely have been elected from the remaining votes. 

In District Two, the opposite would probably have happened. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) won nearly 60 percent of the vote and a similar vote would have resulted in three Republican and two Democratic state senators.

The other two seats where the winners won with closer to 50 percent of the vote would probably have produced two from each major party and the last seat would likely have been a toss-up depending on the preference vote counts. That is, we would see the gradual eliminating of the candidate with the least votes, transferring his or her voters’ second and third and succeeding choices to the other candidates. That elimination and transfer process would go on until one candidate has a quota.

Yes, multi-member districts would mean there would be a “quota” to get elected. Each of the winners need to win a quota, or a number of votes determined by the number of valid votes cast at the election. Say there were 150,000 valid votes cast in Congressional District One. To win a state Senate seat, a candidate would need (150,000 + 1) divided by 6 (the number of seats plus one). So the final five would need to have won 25,001 votes after preferences were decided. This is a relatively high number, which makes it less likely that a fringe candidate or an independent could get elected.

In practice, the leading Democrat and Republican on the how-to vote cards wins many times more votes than one quota and the excess is transferred to the next party candidate and so on. The real fight in this system usually comes down to the final seat. Would it go to a high profile independent with name recognition (someone like former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman or, say, magician Penn Gillette), the next major party candidate on the ticket or could it be won by a minor party candidate? 

In Australia, the last seat is often won by a Greens Party candidate but extreme right-wing candidates have also won the last seat in more rural states.

In Nevada, it would create space for a host of parties to get candidates on the ballot. Teachers might decide that neither party was truly supporting public education and so create their own party promising it would drastically increase school budgets. They would likely give their next choice to Democrats but it would also pressure Democrats to steal their thunder by promising additional funding for education. A member of the Bundy family might run on a platform of obstructing the Bureau of Land Management. Actually getting elected might be a tall order but it would put pressure on Republicans to make concessions to ranchers and propose restrictions on the BLM to neutralize Bundy’s appeal. 

If the new system is operating in 2024, Democrats and Republicans will elect more equal numbers to the state Senate. Eleven Democrats and nine Republicans is a plausible outcome. The alternative scenario is that a handful of minor parties or independents could hold the balance of power. Say the last of five seats in a couple of districts went to independents or one of the imaginary parties I mentioned above. The Senate could then be, say, nine Democrats, eight Republicans and three others. Those three would be in a key position to extract support for their projects in return for co-operating with one of the major parties. So whether candidates outside the major parties are elected or not, the new system would give them new levers to pressure the two major parties.

One other wrinkle: This new system would also make it much less likely that tax increases could ever occur because it would be difficult to meet the two-thirds level required because the numbers would be so evenly balanced. 

Australians often talk about their electoral system as if it’s a work of genius. But that’s because they’ve forgotten that these reforms were designed to fix problems for the major parties. (Preferential voting was legislated in 1918 because of an emerging split in the conservative forces. With this system, both parties could both run candidates and not elect their common enemy – the Labor Party – with a plurality of the vote.) So when you’re asked to sign the petition or vote on this proposal, remember how it’s really going to work.

Ian Mylchreest is a freelance journalist who worked in Las Vegas for many years. He also grew up in Australia and has regularly voted in that country’s elections.

Air medical services are critical to Nevada

REACH Air Ambulance.

By Stacey Ingram

The critical need to maintain access to air medical services for residents of Nevada’s rural communities is undeniable. Each year, thousands of patients are flown from frontier towns to cities that have the facilities to treat the most seriously ill and gravely injured. By and large, Nevadans haven’t noticed this lack of easy access to Tier I and II trauma centers because air medical services have stepped up to fill the gap. 

However, if legislation currently being discussed in Congress is enacted as written, health insurers will have unprecedented power to determine how much they will pay for air medical services, regardless of the actual cost. This will put significant economic pressure on providers and may cause the closure of air medical bases in Nevada and nationally. 

Historically, health insurers have looked at air medical services simply as fast transport services called when patients need to be delivered somewhere as quickly as possible. They don’t seem to recognize these services as critical components of our national, rural health care system. They willfully ignore several important points, including:

First, to call air medical services “air ambulances” is really a disservice to the full range of care services offered during emergency transport. Unlike an ambulance, all medevac crews contain a trauma trained nurse, a trauma trained flight paramedic and, of course, a highly trained pilot. Their aircraft, whether a helicopter or plane, is the equivalent of a flying intensive care unit with significantly more advanced equipment than a ground ambulance, all of which has been miniaturized and made to fit in a tight space. Because of their trauma training, the crew is able to do significantly more in-depth medical interventions, if necessary, to assist the patient. 

Second, the costs associated with establishing a base of operations are significant. Not only the initial cost of the aircraft itself, but the land, buildings, ongoing maintenance, fuel and other daily costs incurred. What’s more, added to the team’s clinical abilities and equipment of the aircraft are critical safety components including ongoing pilot training, night vision capabilities and specialized radar.

Third, when called, air ambulances must respond. Unlike a physician who can ask what kind of insurance you have or decline to take a new patient, air medical services protecting Nevada’s rural residents must answer when called by a physician or first responder. They are only allowed to decline a flight for a limited number of safety reasons. Regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, air medical services will deliver care and hope the patient, their insurance or a government program will pay.

Because of this requirement, insurers have been taking advantage of air medical providers, and by extension, Nevadans. According to a recent YouGov Survey of 1,240 American adults, 90 percent consider air ambulances a critical service in health care, with 95 percent agreeing that that these services help save lives. Yet insurers immediately reject more than half of air transport claims, despite the service having been ordered by a doctor or first responder — exposing patients to bill balances of thousands of dollars. Or worse, insurers refuse to put air medical services in-network.

To address surprise billing, some policymakers propose tying reimbursement rates to “a median in-network rate,” but with insurers currently refusing to negotiate rates with air ambulances, there are often no fair rates to benchmark a median rate against.

Today, 85 million Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans in rural areas rely on air ambulance services to access a Level I or Level II trauma center within 60 minutes. This so-called “Golden Hour” can often make the difference between complete recovery and a lifetime of long-term disabilities or even death. If hospitals keep closing and air ambulances aren’t there to fill the gap, people will die when they should have survived.

Surprise billing needs to be addressed, but we need to be sure the solution won’t make the crisis in rural care worse. With careful consideration, Congress should be able to protect patients and access to air medical services.

Stacey Ingram is the Program Director for REACH Air Medical Services. 

The ethics of Nevada’s new law on dementia and advance medical directives

Photo of the Nevada Legislature building

By Jacob Appel

Nevada entered brave and controversial territory in medical ethics this fall after the enactment of pioneering legislation that permits early-stage dementia patients to commit themselves to rejecting all future nutrition and hydration—natural and artificial—during the course of their illnesses. The law, which passed both houses of the 2019 Legislature unanimously with minimal public notice and took effect on October 1, specifically allows these patients to complete a binding document stating they do not want “to get food and water” if they become “very sick” and lose decision-making abilities, even if this commitment results in their deaths. 

Statutes that allow for the rejection of artificial nutrition and hydration, such as through feeding tubes, are already widespread.  For several years, patients in other states, including New York, have been asking to reject natural nutrition and hydration in the future—but it remains unclear whether such directives will prove legally enforceable. Several European nations already honor such requests. Nevada has now become the first American state to do so.

In the field of medical ethics, such directives are often known as Ulysses pacts or contracts, after the hero of the Ancient Greek epic. In Homer’s Odyssey, Captain Ulysses wants to hear the music of mythical singers called sirens, whose songs drive sailors mad and lures them to their deaths. To protect himself, Ulysses has his crew bind him to the ship’s mast and put wax in their own ears, warning them not to untie him no matter how much he gestures for them to do so as they sail past the sirens. In essence, he is binding himself against his future desires. “Honor my current wishes,” he is commanding, “not my future ones.” 

Dementia patients who sign documents refusing future food and water once they lose cognitive capacity are agreeing to similar contracts. Whether to respect such instructions is a challenging ethical dilemma. It will likely be rendered even more fraught when legal cases begin to arise in which patients who signed such documents in the past and have since become significantly impaired vocally demand food and drink—forcing loved ones and physicians to choose between following the advance directive law or honoring the patient’s current pleas. No enviable choice.

The issue is complicated further by a well-known phenomena called “bargaining down,” in which patients who say they would never want to continue living if they ever found themselves in a particular condition in the future, such as quadriplegia, change their minds once they actually find themselves in such a condition, and then voice a desire to continue living. 

In addition, Nevada’s guardianship system has endured considerable recent scandal, including a 2017 expose by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker and the high-profile jailing of private guardian April Parks. If the current law is to prove effective, safeguards must be imposed to ensure that the genuine wishes of vulnerable patients are in fact honored. How the law operates in practice, and with what frequency, will only become clear with time, careful monitoring and gathering of empirical data.   

One possibility is that—as with states that permit aid-in-dying—the majority of beneficiaries of this new law will not be patients who end their own lives. Rather, individuals who do not complete such a document will find comfort in knowing that they could make such a choice if they so wished. Offering an “escape hatch” can prove deeply reassuring to many patients who would never choose to access it.

Jacob M. Appel, M.D., J.D., is the director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and the author of “Who Says You’re Dead: Medical and Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious and Concerned.