Cutting through the hysteria: The facts about Nevada’s mostly mail election

By Daniel H. Stewart

The continuing arguments against Nevada’s pandemic-forced, vote-by-mail system lack merit. There are enough bad things in the world to worry about right now without manufactured terror. With plague and economic catastrophe pressing down on us all, it is hard to see a political challenge to our democratic foundations as the calming balm the doctor would order. We have real things to panic about, and our collective ticker is handling too much stress already; theoretical panic can wait.

Unfortunately, I have little to offer on the issues of jobs or health. But I would like to try to cool unnecessary electoral fears. 

I am, among other things, an election-law attorney who has mostly represented Republicans. And I understand the instinct behind the initial response. Pictures of unused ballots piling up in trash cans trigger kneejerk nausea. Voting is sacred; ballots are too. But there is more to the story, and even a superficial dive into relevant law and actual practice should comfort, not concern. Our elections are in good hands, run by good people, who know what they are doing.

The debate over the vote-by-mail system is (or should be) fundamentally a question of law. Legal disputes don’t rely on popular opinion to sift right from wrong, and sometimes the answers are inescapable. 

Nevada law says quite a bit about conducting elections even in times like this. Our election officials, led by Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, are following the rules, straight down the middle. They have implemented a system worthy of applause not criticism, one that uses legal tools already available, and does not stray outside existing legal boundaries even a little. Every Nevada voter now has an equal opportunity to vote without jeopardizing anyone’s health or safety. How is this cause for distress?

The issue sparking the most consternation—mailing ballots to inactive voters—does not lack for statutory guidance. On the contrary, the rules are plain and unambiguous. 

Nevada permits the secretary of state and local election officials to transform any and all election precincts into mailing precincts. See NRS 293.213(4). This is what Nevada’s officials did in every precinct for the primary election.

NRS 293.345 then mandates that election officials “cause to be mailed to each registered voter in each mailing precinct . . . an official mailing ballot.” Under my reading, each registered voter in each mailing precinct must receive a ballot. 

“Inactive” voters are still registered voters who can and do vote in every election. Only “cancelled” voters are no longer registered. We should not confuse those two voter categories. An inactive voter is like a player who is on the bench during a game. He or she can still play. A cancelled voter is like a former player kicked off the team who cannot play in an ongoing game even if both player and team wanted otherwise. Indeed, for the purposes of voting, NAC 293.412 explicitly erases any legal distinction between inactive and active voters for both in-person and absentee (mail) voters.

It may or may not be a bad idea to mail ballots to all inactive voters. But it appears to be the law. And our election officials do their sworn duty when they uphold it, regardless of personal feelings. 

Now, if my sterile legal arguments are not enough to persuade you that nothing foul is afoot, how about good old fashion common sense?

With same-day registration, voting centers, weeks of early voting, and an already robust vote-by-mail program, Nevada already has one of the most progressive elections systems in the nation. If Democrats wanted to scheme an illegitimate win in November, in what universe is this vote-by-mail system the one they would employ? What kind of backroom conspiracy by those already in power produces something worse than the status quo they could just enforce?   

I also understand that Democrats have sued for additional changes to the system, including changes to the signature verification process. But no election officials have assented to the Democrat’s added demands, and it is the odd conspiracy that needs court order to compel.  

Opponents have the right and obligation to challenge these proposed changes in court. That is not, however, all that leading opponents are doing.  They also contest the present system as it exists, making few distinctions between current law and changed law should a court intercede. 

Of course, I also understand and appreciate the need to work the election refs. I have been hired to do it myself. Sometimes officials must know that you are watching. But opponents are long past the point of sending the right message to the right people.

Ironically, stoking fear in the electoral process can also lead to self-inflicted wounds. I am aware of Republican voters who refuse to participate in the vote-by-mail primary because they think it a fraud. Local election officials in more Republican-friendly territory have also declined to mail ballots to inactive voters who are more likely inactive Republicans. Unsurprisingly, Democrats aren’t pressing the issue for the primary election. 

An electoral strategy based on a belief that the fewer voters the better is a dance with disaster, and certainly does not project confidence in a party’s policy platform or candidates. Widespread voting is a cause for celebration not worry. All actual and potential voters have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation. Policy set by even “low-information” voters trumps policy set by low-information elected officials. And massive voter participation is the surest way to inform our elected representatives.  

We will soon know whether something is out of the ordinary with the new voting arrangement. Voting irregularities don’t stay hidden for long. But I have little doubt that the system will work as intended. And with doom and gloom all around us, let’s find good news and confidence wherever we can. Nevadans are voting, and we have an election system and election officials we can be proud of. 

Daniel H. Stewart is a partner with Hutchison & Steffen, where he leads the firm’s Election, Campaign and Political Law practice.  He has practiced law in both the public and private sectors, representing elected officials, candidates, campaigns, social welfare organizations, and other political and policy-focused clients.

End of SNWA pipeline fight unifies us all

By Kyle Roerink

In the fight to stop the Las Vegas Pipeline there have been many strange alliances. 

There were farmers and ranchers working with big-city environmentalists, rural county governments mobilizing in lockstep with tribal officials, and faith groups working alongside scientists.  

But the chasm dividing the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the cohort of pipeline opponents was as expansive as the water grab itself. The original proposal from 1989 spanned across the Great Basin, demanded every unclaimed drop of water in the region, and cost astronomical sums.  

Shortly after his election to the Clark County Commission and appointment to the Southern Nevada Water Authority Board, Justin Jones and I spoke about the future prospects of the Las Vegas Pipeline. He didn’t mince words 

He wanted the pipeline dead.  

I was skeptical. 

For years, SNWA said it needed to tap rural aquifers and pipe the water hundreds of miles to Las Vegas in order to sustain life in the Mojave Desert. Rural Nevada proclaimed that –– in the nation’s driest state –– SNWA would take the water it needed to survive. 

For 31 years the pipeline fight has been a bare knuckle brawl. Litigation, state legislative battles, and congressional clashes have divided a state where we still label ourselves a la the American Civil War as the North and South. Ranchers like Dean Baker, activists like Abby Johnson, and tribal members like Delaine Spilsbury squared off against the likes of Harry Reid and Pat Mulroy.  People lost jobs, friendships ended, and the red line between project proponents and opponents was one not to be crossed.    

Lake Mead’s bathtub ring, climate change, and water sucking proposals from other states did not provide prospects of a congenial resolution. 

However, I wasn’t hopeless.  

All gubernatorial candidates in 2018 opposed the project. SNWA, led by General Manager John Entsminger, was nearing the completion of the Third Straw and incentivizing more conservation. Over the years SNWA pioneered policies like return-flow credits –– which almost double Nevada’s share of the Colorado River by efficiently recycling water –– along with turf removal and watering schedules.  SNWA had begun working to ensure the protection of groundwater resources near places like Coyote Springs. Adjustments to the Colorado River Compact in 2017 also gave Nevada a leg up and new negotiations to better govern the river were underway as part of a federal Drought Contingency Plan. 

In November 2019, oral arguments took place in Nevada’s Seventh Judicial District Court at the historic White Pine County Courthouse. A panoply of water grab opponents packed the century-old courtroom and watched GBWN counsel Simeon Herskovits square off against SNWA counsel Paul Taggart. The mise en scene in the tiny courthouse was cinematic. The outcome, however, would be all too real.  Water in the desert was on the line. 

Fast forward to March 2020. Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes issued a ruling that nullified the backbone of the project. Pipeline opponents expected an appeal to the Supreme Court. But it didn’t happen.

At the same time, a group of Las Vegas community leaders passed a strategic framework to invest more money in local conservation and Colorado River projects like desalination and other large-scale infrastructure initiatives in the Lower Basin.  COVID-19 has slowed that down a bit. But it is the future for Southern Nevada and will soon be considered by the SNWA board.  

Fittingly, on May 21, Jones asked the board to vote on a measure to the nail the coffin of the 31-year-old water grab. The board unanimously passed Jones’ motion.  

The decision is a victory for Las Vegas ratepayers – all of whom would’ve been on the hook for a $15.5 billion project – and for the plant, animal and human residents of the Great Basin.    

The news also puts an end to a regional battle that split apart two great areas of one great state. 

Uncanny allegiances were paramount in stopping this project. It’s fitting that the last opponent of the water grab was the one we never expected.

Kyle Roerink is Executive Director of the Great Basin Water Network.

Earthquake’s ‘aftershock’ a reminder that Yucca issue lies just beneath the surface

On May 15, the curios and keepsakes nearly shook off their shelves in the trailer Judy LaFountain shares with her mother in Luning. The largest earthquake to hit Nevada in 66 years announced itself before dawn in the tiny outpost in rural Mineral County.

With an epicenter 35 miles west of Tonopah, the 6.5 quake was felt from Reno to Boulder City, nearly the length of the state. Although no one was injured and it did relatively little property damage, it opened a dramatic crack across US 95 that closed the highway and diverted traffic through the vast space of rural western Nevada. 

“Mom’s cookie jar collection rattled and rolled,” LaFountain says. “It was quite an awakening. It was very scary. She was hanging onto her Roy Rogers cookie jar and Bob White dishes.”

With not so much as a plate chipped, LaFountain considers herself fortunate. Fact is, a lot of people got lucky even as the hits just keep coming with a dozen aftershocks rising to 4.5, 500 more at 2.5 or higher, and a 5.0 shaking the desert on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In response, Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency.

A lot more than a cookie jar collection is at stake for the Silver State. The vast midsection of the state might be sparsely populated, but the on-again, off-again proposed nuclear waste dumpsite at Yucca Mountain sits near the center of all that seismic activity. And with the Trump administration more volatile and unpredictable than any temblor, the specter of the zombie dump project returning to life remains an active concern in Nevada.

The news of the quake immediately caught the attention of venerated Yucca fighters former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who spent much of their careers in an uphill battle against it. Our seismic activity alone should have been a deal breaker, they say

“This is one of the major objections Nevada has made from the beginning in opposing the ill-considered decision to place high-level nuclear waste in the state,” Bryan says.

“When I and others talked of centuries of seismic activity in the vicinity of Yucca, pundits opined that this was but an excuse,” Reid says. “The last couple of weeks the earthquakes have caused damage, for example, the cleavage on highway 95, necessitating significant road repair. There will be other quakes clearly showing Yucca Mountain is not a safe site for nuclear waste storage.”

As the senior member of the current Congressional delegation, Rep. Dina Titus has watched the Department of Energy and pro-Yucca allies in Washington downplay the state’s scientific, transportation and safety concerns at every turn. She doesn’t expect the quake and aftershocks to shake up the opposition, but the seismic issue does provide another wakeup call for the majority of Nevadans opposed to the project.

“Not only does that seismic activity put the storage site itself in jeopardy,” Titus says, “but all those trucks on the road and railroad cars transporting the waste would be affected as well as the site itself.”

If the recent earthquake hadn’t already awakened former three-term Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa in her Reno home, the threat of transporting tons of high-level nuclear waste in an earthquake zone might have.

“This is one of the reasons that we should not be home to a high-level radioactive waste dump,” Del Papa says. “We’re the third most seismically active state. This was a huge earthquake, and there’s almost no national news about it.”

For Del Papa, who served as AG from 1991 to 2003, the Yucca battle was part of the state’s daily agenda. She was part of the constant legal battle that continues to pit Nevada against some of the most influential forces in Washington.

That David vs. Goliath mismatch is something Reid and Bryan fought from before the 1987 “Screw Nevada” bill singled out the state as the sole site for the dump. That was about the time Titus was first elected to the state Senate, where she’d serve for 20 years before embarking on a congressional career now in its 10th year – all the while punching back at a proposal once thought to be inevitable.

Thanks in large part to Reid’s relationship with President Barack Obama, the state enjoyed a lengthy political armistice. But a new administration has sent mixed messages that once again have Nevada preparing for a fight. As if President Trump’s erratic daily behavior weren’t enough, there’s something about budget proposals that include funds for Yucca Mountain and the DOE shipping plutonium to Nevada that ought to have us questioning his true motives.

Given what’s at stake for Nevada, the recent earthquake and its many aftershocks should have roused us all from slumber.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Gov. Sisolak and Republicans can make each other great (along with Nevada)

Photo of the front of the Nevada Legislature building.

There is a lot to complain about in a two party system – only two choices in major elections when we know there are so many better human beings in the district/city/county/state/nation. But the advantage is that, unlike in European-style parliamentary systems, governing coalitions must be built in advance, which means you know what coalition you’re voting for. Politicians who know they must please many masters to both obtain and keep power are generally less able to be too dogmatic, or too extreme. Thus fringe extremists like Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul may win a few legislative seats, but rarely obtain any real power, especially not executive power.

These cobbled together coalitions, though, cannot – and do not – last in the end. Sometimes it takes a while, during which time parties ossify and become mindlessly tribal, which is where we are today. But like all things that lose their flexibility, such parties become brittle, and when the various constituent parts of that party start demanding their due, they can shatter. This is distressing to the tribalists, but good for society as a whole. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak is a man of the left, but not of the far left, or even the ideological left. If he had landed in a more conservative part of the country instead of Southern Nevada with his political ambition intact, I don’t really doubt that he’d be a Republican, known as a dealmaker and castigated by extremists and purists on both sides of the political divide. I have been sharply critical of his handling of the COVID-19 shutdown crisis, but my complaints aren’t about his intentions or ideology. His errors have been in execution and inability to plan ahead or balance his responses to more than one threat at the same time.

Even when I don’t agree with them, I tend to like politicians who defy tidy political labels, or who are willing to break with party orthodoxy. It means they actually use their brains in the search for solutions to problems. So I was glad to see the governor announce on Friday that he was ruling out any tax increases in order to deal with the massive budget hole caused by our economic shutdown these past few months, and gladder still to hear him acknowledge that mandating things like masks would invite more pushback than compliance

I have heard various credible rumors that legislative Democrats – fully expecting to have supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly next session – are already drafting huge tax packages. This is simply insane – who would you tax? How much blood does anyone think they can squeeze from the unemployed, or from businesses who had to lay off hundreds of employees just to stay open? Or from businesses who didn’t stay open? The cost of our too-lengthy shutdown is not just the immediate loss of individual incomes, but also the loss or diminishment of government services for years to come.

It seems that Gov. Sisolak, at least, is finally doing that math. I have no doubt that this is a major part of his decision to have casinos operating again by June 4, which would be insane if COVID-19 was as virulent and deadly as scientists initially believed a few months ago (the states further along the road to recovery are showing us in real time that it is not, thank God). And it’s hard to imagine any business or social endeavor that logically cannot open or proceed if casinos are operating. I suspect that the governor will moot the pending church lawsuit against him on Tuesday during his announced press conference as well.

Republicans were pushing earlier to get the economy moving again, and with earlier, clearer, and more consistent guidance, and they were right. Imagine how much better off we’d be if the governor had listened to them, and co-opted that stance. Instead of having the worst unemployment in the nation, perhaps we’d be that much closer to economic recovery. Maybe the unemployment insurance program wouldn’t have been so disastrously overwhelmed. Maybe churches and gyms wouldn’t be suing the state, and maybe the pandemic would have helped heal our politics a little instead of making things worse. Maybe the Legislature would have already been called into a special session, to help in the recovery planning and emergency budgeting. Maybe rural Nevada – which was ready to open far sooner than more densely populated Clark County – would already be safely leading our economic recovery.

But while Nevadans would have been better off had he listened to his political adversaries, what reasons have Republicans given him for listening to them? They win too few elections, and have too little power. Too much political time, money, and energy is expended in hopeless wastes of time like gathering recall signatures instead of recruiting candidates who can both win and then govern well after they win. The Republican president threatening to withhold federal aid due to his disagreements with our voting methods certainly didn’t help (although the governor’s comments about using federal funds to help fill gaps without futilely raising local taxes showed me that he’s taking that “threat” for the un-serious trolling performance art that it was). And too many party activists would feel viscerally betrayed if they saw “their” elected official working constructively with “Sissylack” the alleged mustache-twirling Commie-Nazi.

The irony is that both the governor and Republicans around the state have a lot in common, and would both benefit from working together politically and in terms of delivering for Nevada. Good policy is good politics after all. At its best, there are plenty of win-win opportunities in politics. 

Further marginalizing Republicans may make short term political sense. But if the governor values his independence from the party machine – and he should – he will actively seek to engage lawmakers who will challenge him, make him think, and be his devil’s advocates. He’s not going to suddenly swallow a red pill, but it will diversify his options, push him out of his party’s ideological bubble, and let him consider solutions from multiple points of view. That’s what the best leaders do, and it’s how Nevada will get the best outcomes from this or any other crisis. 

Nevada Republicans can be assertive in defense of their philosophies and constituents and still work with a Democratic governor for the good of the state. Gov. Sisolak can do the same with Republicans. Not everyone who tells you what you want to hear is your friend, and not everyone who tells you you’re wrong is your enemy. It’s time for real, constructive engagement from both sides – we will all benefit in the end, both in getting through the plague, and for many years to come. 

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.

Forget business-friendly — Nevada needs to get self-employment friendly

Nevada state seal

There’s an old meme that floats around particularly anti-authoritarian circles from time to time about how 40 percent of police officers don’t beat their spouses — 40 percent of police officers are reported for beating their spouses. The implication (admittedly based on statistics from three decades ago, so please consume with a generous pinch of salt) is that the actual number is much higher. 

In related news, the reported unemployment rate is 28.2 percent

Especially on Memorial Day weekend, a weekend dedicated to honoring those who died in combat (even if they were fighting against us; I’ll let bygones be bygones when they do), it’s easy to get despondent right now. Yes, we can go outdoors, barbecue, and meet in groups of ten or fewer people now, but we don’t know for how long — in either direction. We can visit our families, but we probably shouldn’t unless we live with them. Those of you who go to church can go to church as long as you do so online. 

Before any of Nevada’s faithful scoffs, I’ll note that, while you’re probably reading this, I’ve been participating in a Zoom webinar with over 1,000 Libertarians and have been since Friday afternoon. It took us an hour to accept our list of credentialed delegates. It took us more than four hours to adopt an agenda. I know what Hell looks like. I’m already there. If we can do it without divine intervention, so can you. 

As easy as despondency might be under the circumstances, there is hope in catastrophe. It’s true that, per both Google’s and Facebook’s tracking data, people are traveling much less than they used to. If the situations in Europe and East Asia are any indication, this will undoubtedly last for quite some time. It’s also true that Nevada’s casinos are opening slowly, almost one at a time. It’s also true that tourism is roughly a third of Nevada’s economy. Put the two together and it’s clear that, whether we want to or not, we’re about to fix that — one way or another. 

Thinking facetiously, if most of our casinos refuse to reopen, tourism and its supporting industries will become much less than a third of Nevada’s economy by definition, in much the same way I would lose a third of my weight if I chopped my legs off. Less facetiously, however, Nevada has struggled under something of a resource curse. Due to our overreliance on tourism, Nevada has faced the same issues oil-rich and resource-rich countries struggle with — underinvestment in other industries, exposure to price swings (especially in housing), and concentrations of wealth that discourage the equitable application of the rule of law (just ask Elon Musk or the Raiders).

This isn’t an original observation. It’s an observation Nevadans have made about ourselves for decades. Even going to college in Reno at the turn of the last century, while Reno’s tourism economy was collapsing due to increased competition from new casinos in California, I had classmates who dropped out because they could make more money parking cars or dealing cards than they thought they would with a college degree — and they could make it right then, instead of waiting four or five years to get their bachelor’s. There’s nothing wrong with that; I’m certainly not the sort who would begrudge anyone from acting rationally in their economic self-interest. However, parking cars or dealing cards are very unique, nontransferable skills that don’t translate particularly well to other fields. 

The good news is a lot of Nevadans, whether motivated out of necessity or boredom, will find ways to bring value to those around them and get paid for it. Many Nevadans are sewing masks and selling homemade goods, for example. The bad news is few of those ways will be particularly steady or reliable, at least in the short run, especially since much of our workforce is specialized in fields that just vanished with barely a trace. The worst news of all is most of the ways Nevadans may ultimately find value for themselves will be ways that can be done just as easily anywhere else. That’s a problem since, due to our state’s unique revenue model, Nevada and its municipalities are frankly brutal to the self-employed.

This may come as a surprise given Nevada’s business-friendly reputation. Yes, Nevada doesn’t have an income tax. Nevada also enjoys relatively low property taxes. Nevada’s commerce tax, meanwhile, only applies to businesses with a gross revenue exceeding $4 million per year. 

What Nevada has instead is fees. Lots and lots of fees. 

For example, let’s say you’re unemployed and decide you want to start a small home business in Sparks (the details are a little different in Reno or Las Vegas, but the basic principles are still the same). If your side business earns less than $1,000 per year, you owe the City of Sparks $6 for an avocational permit; if it earns more than that, however, you’ll owe the city $80 plus an additional dollar for each $1,000 in gross receipts in excess of $10,000. If gross receipts exceed 66 ⅔ percent of the average annual wage in Nevada (or $32,500 in 2020, at least before COVID-19 undoubtedly reduced that), the state of Nevada also requires an additional $200 for a state business license. Note that this doesn’t include municipal licensing fees for specific industries, work permits, or other additional licenses — like, for example, the one Sparks requires to operate a teenage dance hall.

For larger companies, these licenses and fees extract a modest portion of their revenue. For self-employed contractors working gig to gig, however, fees rapidly consume a large portion of the money they earn. $80 paid from a side business grossing $1,001, for example, is a nearly 8 percent effective tax rate before even taking expenses into account. A contractor earning $33,000 in gross receipts, meanwhile, would pay $200 to the state and $83 to Sparks, for an effective tax rate of 0.8 percent. A business collecting $330,000 in gross receipts, on the other hand, would continue to pay only $200 to the state plus $112 to Sparks, for an effective tax rate of 0.09 percent. 

Bear in mind that gross receipts aren’t the same thing as profit; they only reflect money received, not whatever money was spent to make that possible. Also, the examples explored above aren’t comprehensive, especially for general contractors or other tradespeople. 

Nevada, it turns out, is business-friendly — big business-friendly. What we need to become if we’re going to get out of this, however, is self-employer friendly. That means simplifying our thicket of municipal, county and state licenses and permits so everyone can understand the rules, reducing the up-front costs for fees, and permanently clearing away any legal impediments that prevent Nevadans from working from home. If we pull that off, we won’t just get Nevadans back to work, wealth and prosperity — we might just break our tourism-induced resource curse once and for all.

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.

Creating the future

Interstate 11 during construction

By Norman Anderson

Nevada needs to think urgently about what the future should look like, and not in the kind of reactive way that a crisis tends to cause, but in a way that looks hungrily at working our way through the current crisis to the innovations that will bring us a bright future. How do we do that? To bring the state out of the worst economic challenge in its history, action has to be taken on infrastructure; it is the only option. 

Infrastructure investment does three things: it injects funds into the economy now, so that jobs can be created immediately; it creates the kinds of assets that symbolize a better future – these new assets attract high value investments, especially in innovative industries that require world-class infrastructure; and great infrastructure brings the state’s forgotten, the most fragile or the most at risk, into our opportunity economy. It’s this work of our imaginations, creating public goods (water, broadband, health clinics, transit and highways) that makes all the difference. 

Added to this mix is the fact that we need to take action, with unprecedented urgency. Fortunately Nevada – along with 30 other states – has an institution that is designed for that task, the new state infrastructure bank. First, let’s get one thing out of the way — this question of ‘what is infrastructure?’ We define infrastructure as strategic to economic growth and opportunities that include everyone in these areas: transportation; energy; water/waste treatment; broadband, and all digital innovation; and, finally, we include social infrastructure, both health and educational facilities. An infrastructure bank is an innovator, perfectly positioned to act strategically, bringing all of the various sectors into alignment with the state’s strategy – and to do so right now, urgently. 

Infrastructure creates jobs, generates economic productivity (critical to attracting investment) and creates fulfilling and leisure opportunities for a state’s citizens. It fills the gaps, and it can turbocharge action. An infrastructure bank is the right place to organize these discussions about the future. And now, during a crisis, is the right time to move as swiftly as possible. For example, consider Gov. Sisolak’s remarks during his first State of the State address in January of last year, highlighting that Nevada has “become ground zero for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Tesla, Blockchains LLC and other high-tech neighbors in Northern Nevada became part of what is now known as Innovation Park—a place to bring visionary thinkers and developers together to create our future.

An infrastructure bank does three things:

  1. Strategic Infrastructure Laboratory. It is where big, strategic, infrastructure decisions are made, as infrastructure leaders (including CEOs of infrastructure firms, technology visionaries, academics, elected officials and users) look at the immediate investments that will be useful for the next 30-40 years. Traditional and innovative funding decisions are also made here (state contributions, pension funds, federal funds, retail investors, etc. are brought into the bank, to finance projects). And most critically this is where innovation happens, because it is here that leadership creates a vision for the future, and decisions drive that vision. 
  1. Funding Critical Projects. In a crisis, an infrastructure bank is a tool for the state to put the pedal to the metal. The bank identifies high priority projects, can absorb funding from non-traditional sources, and gets that money quickly into strategic projects. For Nevada this would mean rapid investments in projects that produce the maximum number of jobs in the shortest period of time, while at the same time creating long-term value for the state. Think about an Inland Ports project tying Innovation Park and APEX Industrial Park, as envisioned by state leaders such as former Assembly Speaker and current Chair of the Clark County Commission, Marilyn Kirkpatrick. An infrastructure bank would take this vision and turn it into reality. 

With an unemployment rate above 20 percent, imagine if Nevada could get key projects up and running immediately, including: Projects to deal with the present crisis – broadband for rural residents (schools, telemedicine); investments to create growth – a high tech rail project, freight and passenger, to knit the state together from north to south; and visionary investments – like an intermodal facility to seize and shape the benefits of the upcoming reshoring revolution in food, critical minerals, health supplies, and industrial goods (all enabled, by the way, as highlighted in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, by blockchain). 

  1. Creating a Pipeline of Projects. Even more critical to the long-run, but not urgent now, is the need to create a pipeline of ready to go projects, both public and private, so that when a crisis happens the future can be brought forward. Nowhere is this being done now, and it is a critical function of good governance. 

Institutions are critical for bringing people together to shape their future. They give people a forum, and they give people a voice. Even more importantly, if possible, institutions enable action – and action is what is needed right now. 

Nevada should see the timely advent of the infrastructure bank as an extraordinary gift, one that – with the right leadership – will organize funds, enable innovation around necessary and critical projects, and put large numbers of people to work. As Churchill said, in the teeth of another crisis, “I never worry about action, only inaction.” Nevada’s state infrastructure bank gives the people of the state of Nevada the chance to take swift and decisive action to create results now, and to do so inside a strategic envelope of a long-term vision for the future. 

Norman Anderson is chairman and CEO of a firm focused on global infrastructure project development, driving productivity across countries. He is a regular contributor to CNBC, Bloomberg, CBC and Fox Business News, discussing the U.S. and global infrastructure markets.

A deficit of imagination

The U.S. Capitol

By Daniel H. Stewart

Our federal representatives are currently debating another COVID-19 relief package. One of the major points of disagreement with this bill is whether (and at what price) the federal government should bailout state and local governments. Many congressional Republicans oppose such aid, but their resistance is both misplaced and outdated.

I understand good, old-fashion conservative caution, but I am flummoxed by blanket Republican push back.  For Nevadans, a federal bailout of our state and local governments is not only absolutely necessary, it is obviously necessary.

Before the pandemic, the arguments against the relief would have far more strength. Now, they seem stale – archaic even.  We are in extraordinary times. We simply cannot expect unprecedented challenges to separate nicely (and naturally) along our preexisting ideological fault lines. Translating our troubles into our usual partisan tongues won’t cut it.

This is no time to retreat to a quaint fiscal conservatism we seem to forget as soon as the dark clouds of crisis dissipate. Our federal government already owes over $25 trillion dollars in debt. That number will likely keep growing without pause during both feast and famine.

But we trade one error for another if we let our prior financial imprudence scare us away from what needs to be done. If armed forces invaded our shores, the deficit would not hold us back; no fiscal worries would compel surrender. Can you imagine telling soldiers in Fresno foxholes that they have to ration bullets for fear of the debt? Not a chance. We’d marshal every single resource we had to win, and worry about the accounting later.  World War II basically bankrupted the United Kingdom, but does anyone doubt the cost was worth it?  How is the current battle against the pandemic anything less than a fight for national survival?

Interest rates are at historic lows, below even the expected rate of inflation. There has never been a better time for the government to take out another loan. What will our deficit look like if we fail to act, and the economy falls further into the abyss, and more immediate resources are siphoned into funding state and local governments, which, unlike the federal government, usually require balanced budgets?

If our massive deficits haunt us later, it won’t be because we had to borrow during bad times, but because we could not stop borrowing in good times. We backed ourselves into this mess with bipartisan support, so let’s not pretend that there is some principled place to draw a line in the sand. There is no comprehensible, meaningful difference between $25 and $35 trillion in debt based on the rules we have chosen to live by. If we can, without care, run trillion-dollar deficits during historic economic booms, we can certainly run them during historic catastrophes.

Bailout opponents also claim the moral high-ground, and they do have certain rhetorical advantages. The very term “bailout” has baggage. With “bailouts” we tend to think of saving people from their only folly. But when a town is devastated by a natural disaster, we don’t deride the relief effort as a bailout. How is this pandemic any different than the many other unexpected, mostly unpreventable catastrophes we rally to recover from?  Rescuing and defending state and local governments from the COVID onslaught is not the same thing as a Wall Street bailout. Not even close.

Sure, some states and cities have been fiscally irresponsible, and the current crisis has exacerbated budget problems that were already in play. But there is no mystery as to why Nevada’s tax revenues are plunging, and it has nothing to do with prior budget priorities. We can limit the amount of the aid to compensate for only those budgetary damages the pandemic caused. There are enough wounds to heal right now; we can leave the self-inflicted ones for later.

I have also heard that bailing out governments is supposedly unfair, as if it spares the public sector from sharing in the private sector’s pain. There is plenty of pain to go around, and this is not a zero-sum game. We can and should help both the public sector and the private sector at the same time.

Moreover, a federal bailout will help avoid hurting the private sector even more. For better or worse, there is a baseline level of government we cannot and will not live without. At some point, we will cut no more. Without a bailout, then, we will have no choice but to raise taxes on struggling Nevadans. How is that inherently fairer than taking aid from the federal government and possibly raising taxes on all Americans later?

I realize the national mood is not one of conciliation and compromise. It seems like we wake up each day looking for new ways to hate each other, then process life through an all-encompassing us-versus-them filter, where what is good for “them” must be bad for “us.” But this outdated thinking misses the most important lesson the pandemic has taught.  Try as we might to wish and act otherwise, we are all in this together. All we have is “us;” there is no “them.”

The virus respects no borders; and plays no favorites. It does not care where you live, where you work, or who you vote for. There is no fortress that cannot be breached.   

Economic hurt sweeps through the whole community too. One less job means one less customer; one less customer may mean one less business; and one less business means more lost jobs. And so it goes.

Widespread government cuts will leave us with reduced public services during a pandemic and more Nevadans out of work during an economic crash. Both outcomes will only increase our combined community agony, and significantly delay the return to better days.

Nevada will never recover unless we adopt an all-of-Nevada approach to recovery. All of Nevada needs a federal rescue of our state and local governments. Survive today, and there will be time enough tomorrow to settle into the comfort of our old partisan fights.  But not now. Yesterday’s debate, on yesterday’s terms, will not do. 

Daniel H. Stewart is a partner with Hutchison & Steffen, where he leads the firm’s Election, Campaign and Political Law practice.  He has practiced law in both the public and private sectors, representing elected officials, candidates, campaigns, social welfare organizations, and other political and policy-focused clients.

At bucolic Tule Springs, events center project pits neighbors against Fiore

Like many Las Vegas natives of a certain age, Karen Livingston can remember where the pavement once ended and the dirt roads began. When she talks about shopping at Vegas Village and the Penney’s on Fremont Street, her voice fills with a sense of nostalgia.

And when the subject turns to Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, the 68-year-old retired school counselor conjures memories of bucolic picnics in the shade of cottonwoods near spring-fed ponds.

It’s that way for many locals. Whether born and raised or newcomers, the 680-acre park and surrounding conservation area represent something special in the increasingly populated Las Vegas Valley. Livingston grew up near what then was the edge of Las Vegas — Vegas Drive and Decatur Boulevard.

And Tule Springs?

“When I was a kid, I thought it was way out in the country,” she says. “Now I live right near it.”

In fact, it’s right out her back door. That should be a good thing, but now it’s getting complicated. As Livingston and concerned neighbors see it, the park’s idyllic environment is being threatened.

A blend of nostalgia and close proximity have motivated them to engage in an underdog’s battle with the city as it moves forward with a plan spearheaded by Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiore to repurpose Tule Springs’ iconic hay barn — a reminder of a time when the park was a working ranch and later offered horseback riding — into a special events venue capable of holding 500 people for birthdays, weddings, and more. Maximum occupancy for its previous zoning designation: 15. Other interested parties have joined Livingston and her neighbors as they attempt to have some input into the project.

It’s getting late in the game.

Updates in the progress of the hay barn conversion have been noted several times during Las Vegas City Council meetings, where it’s been one of Ward 6 Councilwoman Fiore’s pet projects. But if she imagined the hay barn renovation would be completed without raising the ire of nearby neighborhoods, she was mistaken.

Fiore did not respond to my interview request, but instead issued a statement saying in part, “We are so proud to champion the Floyd Lamb Haybarn Restoration Project with the City of Las Vegas Parks & Recreation Department.  A collaborative project to restore our historic city park, the barn renovation will allow all Las Vegans to enjoy the history and beauty of our local treasure.”

Fiore’s pride hasn’t extended to holding meetings with neighbors who purchased homes on the edge of Tule Springs at least in part for the feeling of quiet evenings far from the city lights. And that, Livingston and many others say, is part of the problem.  Livingston says she only became aware of the project in April after large piles of earth began to be moved.

The communication problem began before the rise of the coronavirus pandemic-related social distancing. After neighbors said they made numerous attempts to contact Fiore, they spoke with her special assistant, Chance Bonaventura, who held a late-April teleconference with approximately 30 residents. Many hundreds have commented on social media and on a Tule Springs neighborhood website, Livingston says.

Their concern appears to transcend petty politics or protecting their own investments and quality of life. It’s the park itself they fear will change permanently with the recasting of the barn and the addition of a 3,000-square-foot building complete with a kitchen, restrooms and dressing areas for brides and grooms holding weddings there.  Not to mention an 80,000-square foot paved and lighted parking lot.

A spokesperson for Fiore assured me the impacts on the neighborhood will be minimal compared to the benefit to park-goers, and all parties who use the facility will have to receive city permits before going to the altar or cutting the cake.

For their part, Fiore’s family knows something about events planning. As The Indy reported in January, her Future for Nevadans PAC paid at least $109,000 in the past two years to her daughter Sheena Siegel’s company Hamlet Events. It’s something the neighbors around Tule Springs have noticed, too. And it makes them wonder how the city could ramrod a facility that appears to be in competition with a nearby private wedding events center, The Grove.

Those neighbors have also noticed that the construction costs are being covered by a blend of public dollars and private donations, ostensibly through Laborers Local 872 and Business Manager Tommy White, Fiore’s political ally. So perhaps it’s all a little more political than it appears on the surface.

Fiore’s office claims that revamping the hay barn violates no code or agreement the city made when it took possession of Tule Springs from the state more than a decade ago. But others argue that the size of the event center violates at least the intent of what legislators, conservationists and concerned citizens had in mind when they sought to ensure that any substantive changes would have to qualify as “passive recreation” activities that didn’t disrupt the natural feel of the place.

“I just don’t see how this events center is compatible with the rural character of Floyd Lamb Park,” Livingston says. “I guess that’s part of the concern. The city is moving all around us. We want this wonderful little oasis to remain a sanctuary where people can escape and experience nature.”

Some will want to write this off to changing times or typical City Hall politics.

But if Tule Springs isn’t worth preserving for future generations of Southern Nevadans, then what is?

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Shutting down was easy. Reopening will be hard.

Turns out shutting everything down was the easy part. 

Events in East Asia are demonstrating that effective testing and tracing is better than doing nothing, both in terms of keeping economies open and keeping people out of the hospital, but it’s still no substitute for a cure or a vaccine. Hong Kong, South Korea and China are all experiencing their second wave, and they’re having less success tracing and quarantining than they had after the first wave. Singapore, meanwhile, has been struggling with its second wave since late April and plans to increase its testing capacity from 8,000 to 40,000 tests per day to tamp it back down. In the meantime, though Singapore is arguably less locked down than Nevada right now, only 20 percent of Singapore’s workplaces are authorized to be open. 

Nevada, to be clear, does not have an effective testing program, at least not by East Asian standards. If we wanted to run as many tests per Nevadan as Singapore is currently running, we would need to increase our testing capacity fourfold.

What East Asia’s experience demonstrates, however, is that even if Nevada did everything as right as anyone’s done anything about this pandemic, both in terms of lives saved and economic devastation forestalled — and, to be clear, we haven’t — we’d still be looking at a status quo that looks awfully similar to what we’re living right now. 

That’s why Nevada, like every other state and several countries, now finds itself in an impossible conundrum. How do we get things back to normal without getting a lot of people very sick when we don’t have a cure, we don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have enough tests, we’re tracing by hand, and there’s a small but vocal portion of the population who thinks masks are a symbol of obsequious obedience and we should boycott businesses that refuse to open as soon as possible?

We don’t. 

We won’t get back to normal even if we do everything right. Even if we test, even if we trace, even if we eat our vegetables and leave the poor governor’s lawn alone, there is no path — not one — that puts most of Nevada’s unemployed back to work, reopens our casinos, our restaurants, the rest of our service industries, and our schools.

To understand why, let’s talk about our schools.

One of these weeks, I’m going to have to write about all of the welfare programs we provide under “education” spending because it’s politically easier to provide assistance to children through a school bureaucracy than a welfare bureaucracy. For now, however, we need to focus on daycare. Working parents who aren’t working from home need a place to put their children while they’re at work. Schools, it turns out, are the cheapest form of daycare (at the point of service for the parents, anyway) that most working parents have. Additionally, since most schools in Nevada are run directly by a government — 

Not the government, a government. There is no singular “the” government in this country. There are local, county, state, and federal governments, as well as countless regulatory divisions, departments and agencies, and that doesn’t even touch on school districts, regional water boards, television districts, or the separation of powers between distinct branches of each government. Anyone who treats “the government” as a singular entity doesn’t know what they’re talking about and should be swiftly dismissed as an ignorant crank. Having said that, governments do have stronger, more clearly delineated avenues of control over each other than they do against any of us or any company individually. For example, Eureka County can order its employees to go back to the office but it can’t order the local molybdenum mine down the street to send its employees back into the office. Which is why…

— they’re easier to apply various controls and regulations to, bureaucratically speaking, than a day care center run out of somebody’s house. Consequently, until we figure out how to host several hundred students with uneven personal hygiene practices in a government-run school without inadvertently creating a hotspot (how’s our classroom overcrowding problem again?), most of Nevada’s workers (except those living in multigenerational families) aren’t going to have access to day care at any price because day care centers won’t be authorized to reopen.

Consequently, a lot of Nevadans who are currently working from home will have to continue to work from home for a while, and a lot of Nevadans who aren’t working from home are watching their children instead of going to work. That means, in turn, that a lot of Nevadans are buying less fuel for their cars than they used to, are eating out less during workdays than they used to, and, oh yes, are spending less on afterschool day care than they used to. The people who worked to provide those services to commuting Nevadans aren’t getting those jobs back because, until Nevadans start commuting again, those services aren’t going to be needed for a while. 

How long of a while? 

Governor Sisolak’s Nevada United: Roadmap to Recovery saves “returning to normalcy,” including education, for Phase 4 (we’re currently less than a week through Phase 1, remember). The American Enterprise Institute’s National Coronavirus Response: A Roadmap to Reopening, which is referenced frequently in the Nevada United plan, suggests schools might be able to reopen in Phase 2, albeit with significant social distancing controls. The National Governor’s Association’s Roadmap to Recovery: A Public Health Guide for Governors, which is also referenced frequently in the Nevada United plan, saves reopening the economy in general for Step 9 (out of 10). 

Put more concretely, the Nevada Department of Education created a Path Forward Plan to provide support to Nevada’s schools during the pandemic. As part of that plan, a Re-Opening of Schools Committee was formed. The timeline in NDE’s announcement of the Plan indicated the committee would start meeting in May. As I write this, the Re-Opening of Schools Committee is not listed on NDE’s online list of committees and the committee has no meetings listed on NDE’s calendar of public meetings

That’s the state bureaucracy’s passive-aggressive way of telling you that it’s going to take a while

One essay that’s been passed around certain Libertarian circles is I, Pencil, which tells the complicated and detailed story behind making a single graphite pencil from the perspective of an individual pencil. The end of Max Brooks’ World War Z, meanwhile, tells a similar story but upside-down. The first bottle of root beer since zombies first swarmed the Earth at the beginning of the book can’t be produced until a laundry list of ingredients — molasses from the United States, vanilla from Madagascar, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, and so on — can be safely produced and distributed again. Both tell the story of how the mundane is made possible through loosely coordinated individual action organized in a web of interconnected dependencies. Remove a single dependency, make it impossible to fulfill, and that otherwise mundane product ceases to exist.

Schools and daycares are obvious dependencies, but they’re certainly not the only ones we’ll find. There will be more.

Shutting down the economy was easy — all we had to do was tear the web down. Now we have to build it back up, one strand at a time with no blueprint of how to do so, all while a disease that’s lethal enough and debilitating enough to terrify anyone who actually faces it directly slices at the web at random.

It’s going to take a while. 

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.

The fight to worship freely is the fight for all civil liberties

The state seal of Nevada shown on a glass window or door

I have never been a particularly religious person. Back when I was young and knew everything, I considered myself anti-religious, confusing the churches themselves with the politicians who merely used the rhetoric of religion to hector or control or even just win elections. I grew up in a place with a much more robust religious tradition in Nevada, and in many ways that my teenage know-it-all-self could not even comprehend, I took it for granted.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate and understand the crucial role organized religion plays in keeping a free society free. Winston Churchill spoke for me when he said, “I could hardly be called a pillar of the Church. I am more in the nature of a buttress, for I support it from the outside.”

There is a reason that evil and brutally oppressive governments, such as China’s communist regime, seek to so thoroughly limit and oppress independent religious communities and the right to freely exercise their faiths. Religious institutions serve as a source of autonomous authority from government bureaucrats, and tyrants hate competition. Their charitable efforts provide safety nets independent of the state, with fewer (or of a different nature) strings attached. (Given the government’s total faceplant in its ability to provide financial assistance to the jobless, I’m happy not to give them a monopoly on assisting the needy.)  

The more independent sources of authority exist, the less powerful any single one of them can become – the American tradition of checks and balances against too much power consolidated in any one person or institution is not limited only to federalism or competing branches of government. In this way, churches and synagogues and mosques are a blessing to me, even if I don’t attend services. 

Brutal repression is not the only threat churches – and therefore all free people – face. Certainly there are plenty of self-inflicted wounds religious organizations have suffered from over the millennia, which are collectively why I wouldn’t want any given religion to be the sole source of moral or legal authority in my society, either. But government regulation, even if not overtly or intentionally hostile to religion, can be just as destructive and pernicious. (And it’s worth remembering that if you want religion out of government, it’s best to keep government out of religion, too.)

Indeed, sometimes the most well-meaning rules can be the most dangerous. As noted ponderer of religiosity C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “[T]hose who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

***

Fortunately, American religious institutions recognize this, and have the fortitude to fight back against undue infringement upon their rights. This week, nearly two hundred Nevada religious leaders signed on to a letter “asking” Gov. Sisolak to “allow” them to open their houses of worship again, at least giving them the same deference as is currently being offered to restaurants. 

When asked about the letter on Friday afternoon during his press conference (an event where he said little and communicated even less), the governor claimed not to have read it, although he admitted being aware of it. That’s too bad, because if he had, he may have recognized the missive for the politely veiled legal demand letter that it was. The churches weren’t asking to reopen, they were informing the governor that his directives aimed at religious institutions were illegal (because they are), and that he could either modify his order or be sued. And after Mr. Sisolak’s very wrong answer Friday, where he merely shrugged off the letter and said nothing would change in the foreseeable, expect to see a filed lawsuit in federal court this week, and sooner rather than later.

I understand they are trying to be respectful, and are still hoping Mr. Sisolak sees the light, but I thought the various pastors and rabbis should have been more blunt. They could have simply announced they were opening under the same guidelines as grocery stores or restaurants, and dared the governor to reap the political and legal whirlwind that would come from arresting or even citing throngs of parishioners and clergy. 

The First Amendment does not grant permission for Americans to freely exercise their religions; it protects a right we already have. Constitutionally speaking, a government official cannot abridge this right unless the regulation is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, is neutral to the religion being affected, and is the least restrictive means for accomplishing that objective. It is no defense that the over-regulator means well, or would personally like to attend church with his mother. 

If Mr. Sisolak could actually prove that more than 10 people in ANY building would cause a disease to spiral out of control, killing thousands, and if such a rule were uniformly applied and enforced, churches would be on the same footing as everyone else. But he cannot prove that (the more data we get, the more evidence we seem to have to the contrary), and he is not uniformly applying such a rule even if he could. If restaurants and retail outfits can open at half-capacity, surely people can just as safely feed their souls once a week with masks and elbow room in the pews. And for all the mask-shamers out there who are upset that people aren’t taking mitigation measures seriously, remember that there is nothing more likely to make people ignore government suggestions or even mandates than that same government acting incoherently and self-contradictory in its emergency orders.

***

I don’t usually attend church services. Nevertheless, their current arbitrary and capricious prohibition hurts me, and hurts you as well. If this governor can so carelessly and so needlessly hobble the free exercise of this fundamental rights, even as he doubtlessly doesn’t like doing so, the next governor can do the same with any other constitutionally protected right – and that guy/gal may not be so well-intentioned in the abridgement. 

By challenging the government on religious liberty grounds, these pastors are working to protect all of the rights enjoyed by all of the people. Whether you’re a believer in God or not, any believer in American civil liberties cannot help but feel blessed by the fight for freedom being politely but firmly waged by this diverse coalition of religious community leaders.

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.