Sen. Cortez Masto is well-positioned to do something about the trade war

The U.S. Capitol

By Juan Martinez

When it comes to dealing with import restrictions, Nevada has been down this road before. As a national leader in solar panel production, the imposition of new tariffs in 2018 imposed a needless burden on the state’s solar industry.

Among those most critical of the solar tariffs was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, she is in a position to do something concrete on the issue.

Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, has announced a plan to work across party lines to develop legislation  that would increase congressional accountability over tariff increases by giving Congress a vote when the president imposes or raises tariffs. Sen. Cortez Masto could lend some clout to a bipartisan effort by enthusiastically supporting this proposal and urging her colleagues to do the same.

When a 25 percent tariff on steel and aluminum imports was imposed last year under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the justification was that they would create jobs in the steel and aluminum industries. The reality has been quite different.

In 2015, steel production contributed $36 billion in economic value and employed almost 140,000 workers. But manufacturers who utilize steel in some capacity added more than $1 trillion to the economy and employed 6.5 million people. To put this number into perspective, those who use steel, rather than produce it, employed 46 times more people than steel mills. But even in the steel industry, promises of revival are coming up short.

In June, U.S. Steel Corp. cited “decreasing steel prices and softening end market demand” as the reasoning behind its decision to close down blast furnaces in Gary, Indiana, and Detroit. Just one month later, NLMK Pennsylvania announced that the tariffs had made it increasingly difficult to obtain enough steel slabs to maintain its regular capacity. The company laid off 80 workers.

The consequences of steel and other tariffs are felt across the economy. U.S. steel prices are now 32 percent higher than the world export price and currently stand at $629 per metric ton, which makes our steel-consuming manufacturers uncompetitive against imported products made with world-price steel.

Here in Nevada, we import roughly $12 billion in goods and services, and export around $11 billion, accounting for about 14 percent of our GDP. Our state also has about 3,400 exporters, 2,900 of whom are classified as small- to medium-size businesses. Every import that becomes more expensive because of a U.S. tariff and every export that can’t be sold because of another country’s retaliation harms these businesses and their workers. 

The principle is the same whether the target is solar panels or steel – tariffs are taxes, and Congress should have a voice in deciding how much the American people are taxed.

By ceding much of its control over tariff policy, Congress has been complicit in allowing the administration’s trade war to escalate. To date, billions of dollars of tariffs have been imposed on Americans who purchase products from abroad, not a dime of which has been approved by our elected representatives.

As the Senate Finance Committee develops its legislation, I urge Sen. Cortez Masto to unite across party lines, reclaim Congress’ constitutional authority and protect Nevada’s businesses, workers and consumers.

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

American small businesses need digital tools to compete

Digital internet and security graphic

By Paul Serra

The 21st century is the entrepreneur’s era. Digital technology, online media and data science are at the core of free and nearly free business tools that help small companies find and engage with new customers and streamline operations. But while many entrepreneurs are building successful businesses, elected officials in Washington and Nevada, such as Attorney General Aaron Ford, have set their sights on the digital platforms that provide these services for being “too big.” I am concerned that policymakers do not understand that the digital platforms provide foundational support and critical momentum to small businesses, and that if the platforms are forced to change many small businesses may become less successful.

Our business is not a tech business. We started out selling sweatbands because when I was in high school, I played guitar in a band and almost always mimicked my rock ‘n’ roll idols by wearing a sweatband on stage. I realized that sweatbands could be a cool way for bands to help build their brand. Today, we design and manufacture sweatbands, headbands and other sports apparel and accessories.  

Breaking into retail is not easy for new businesses. There is fierce competition from established brands such as Nike that have brand recognition and well-funded distribution channels. It is tough to get a small company’s product into big sporting goods stores.

Fortunately, the digital revolution gave small companies the ability to bypass traditional retail and reach customers directly. With e-commerce, social media advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and online advertising from Google, small businesses can tell their unique stories to the right audiences at the right time. Google Analytics helps us better understand our customers, what they are looking for and how they found us. This is all critical data.

Low-cost digital tools allow us to stay lean and nimble, and with only a few people on our team we are able to sell nationwide through sites like Amazon and Walmart, and to sell internationally. We are certainly not unique. A recent study found that 85 percent of small businesses attribute a significant portion of their success to effective deployment of digital business tools.

Small businesses work hard to use digital tools intelligently and carefully and to use sophisticated analytics that our platform partners provide – and that are way too complex for us to do by ourselves. Plus we don’t have the time for it. We use data to make smarter purchasing decisions and to develop new products. As a small company our biggest risk is expensive mistakes, so we make small investments and study the data carefully before making larger investments.

With all the benefits of large digital platforms, the negative narrative taking hold in the media and with some politicians is perplexing. I understand some of the platforms are very large and manage extraordinary amounts of data, and they have their faults for sure. But these companies are helping thousands of Nevada small businesses compete and succeed.

Everyone at our company works hard and contributes to our success. But without digital technology and platforms our brand would not be as innovative, as global or as successful. I hope Attorney General Ford and other elected officials will take the time to learn how these technologies and platforms work with small businesses — and before forcing technology companies to change, I hope they protect small businesses from becoming collateral damage.  

 Paul Serra is an entrepreneur and the cofounder of Suddora.com, a sporting goods accessory company headquartered in Las Vegas.

Early-onset Trump fatigue?

President Donald Trump waiving from the entrance door to Air Force One

By Jack Finn

A friend of mine recently visited from the political funhouse that is California so, of course, politics was part of our conversation. My friend is a conservative Republican, so she keeps a low profile at home. But in my company, she felt free to vent — and while Cali nuttiness was prominently featured, when President Trump’s name came up she put her face in her hands and said, “Oh my God, I am soooo sick of him.”

Does it feel to anyone else as if that is a growing sentiment? Even among Trump supporters? 

I was struck by the reaction to the President’s decision to remove our troops from Syria, where they had been stationed to aid and protect the Kurds. And it wasn’t even the reaction itself that surprised me – it was its swiftness. Almost immediately Trump was rebuked by the Pentagon and several Republican senators. 

Almost immediately. Shouldn’t there have been a pause to consider possible backlash from Trump’s legion of MAGA Warriors, to whom a lack of fealty has derailed many Republican politicians’ careers? Or is there a sense that even among Trump’s people, there are many like my California friend who have finally become exhausted by the bombast, the bellicosity, the petulance, and the megalomania, all shoved into our faces by the media via Trump’s incessant Tweeting?

My take, shared by many, on the Ukraine scandal: it doesn’t even come close to the threshold of impeachment, and congressional Democrats are further embarrassing themselves with the façade that is does. But the President’s conversation with Ukraine’s President over the Biden’s business dealings…stinks. It just feels…uncomfortable. Untoward. Inappropriate and reckless and arrogant.

That view was expressed even on Fox News, where a popular show host and a respected analyst agreed the President was out of line and even may have acted illegally. These opinions were expressed adamantly, forcefully, even enthusiastically. On Fox News.

A tipping point? With Trump, who knows? As the 2016 election proved, he is impervious to polls, punditry, and media backlash. But Ukraine followed by a seemingly and relatively fearless negative reaction to the troop withdrawal feels as though almost three years of the Era of Trump is beginning to wear thin.

The brilliant political writer Victor Davis Hanson described Trump as chemotherapy for the nation, arguing that he has done the country a great service by vocally diminishing a mainstream media that has almost wholly given in to a leftist agenda and abandoned any semblance of credibility in its pursuit; a Democrat Party increasingly beholden to a leftist mindset bordering on the radical; and a D.C. swamp run by corrupt elites on both the left and right whose loyalty is solely rooted in its own survival. These elements, the argument goes, make up a national disease that Trump has exposed and attacked if not cured. 

But has the treatment become worse than the maladies? Does it seem that, collectively, the enthusiasm for the cure is running its course? 

Perhaps. But consider this, as anecdotal and unscientific as it is: my Republican California friend, who is “soooo sick” of Trump shared a parting thought: “I’ll tell you this, though: if the other side nominates Warren or Biden or Sanders, I will SPRINT to the polls to vote for Trump again.” 

Jack Finn is a communications strategist and media trainer. He served as the Southern Nevada Director for Sen. Dean Heller’s office from 2011 to 2017.

The rush to sell oil and gas leases

A land map of Nevada with highlights of oil and gas parcels

By Lou Christensen

It appears that the current administration in Washington thinks it’s the wild, wild West out here in Nevada, where land can be snapped up by outside speculators without regard to what local communities want. The speed at which this administration is trying to sell off our public lands to oil and gas interests is breathtaking. In back-to-back sales from September through December, the Bureau of Land Management will offer nearly 1.8 million acres of land in Nevada for oil and gas leasing. In fact, in just two and a half years, the Trump administration has doubled the amount of land that is leased for oil in our state. 

This mad rush to tear up our public lands is out of step with Nevadans who love to hike, hunt, fish and explore other things our public lands have to offer. I remember being at the University of Nevada 40 years ago and a professor who told us how lucky we were to have such easy access to land that belongs to all of us. Those words encouraged my desires as an avid hiker, camper and angler who enjoys nothing more than bagging a peak or hooking a fish. As I’ve gotten older and traveled to other states, my professor’s words come back to me often. We truly are lucky in this state to have so much access to glorious Great Basin places as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Ruby Mountains. And yet it is land near these cherished places that the Bureau of Land Management has targeted for leasing. This is an affront to all of us who want to make sure our beautiful lands are around for future generations to enjoy. It’s bad economics, it’s bad for our wildlife and it’s bad for our western identity.

Nearly 300,000 acres of oil and gas leasing in these next months is happening in big game priority habitat. Our state enjoys a $12 billion outdoor recreation economy. The U.S. Census reports that 788,000 people hunt, fish or enjoy wildlife watching in Nevada every year, contributing $917 million in spending. All that is in jeopardy if these lands are sold off to oil and gas interests.

More than 838,000 acres of this new leasing are in sage grouse habitat. The sage grouse – and 350 other plant and animal species – depend on the sagebrush steppe to survive. Westerners of all stripes came together four years ago to devise bipartisan plans to protect this imperiled bird while preventing an Endangered Species Act listing. This administration destroyed that historic agreement and is now doing its best to lease all over sage grouse lands. For the health of our wildlife, this practice must be stopped. 

The most astonishing thing about this lust for leasing is that it’s all happening in a place where energy development is at best marginally worth pursuing. Nevada ranks 26th nationally for oil production and 33rd for natural gas production. Many of these leases don’t get bid on at auction but then are swooped up after the fact by oil companies in a sneaky approach called noncompetitive leasing. It’s a way to avoid public scrutiny and makes it more difficult for the land to be used for recreation or conservation.

This is not what Nevadans want. Much of our Western identity is tied to our beautiful lands and our enjoyment of them. We don’t want these lands destroyed by purely profit driven interests. I urge our governor and Congressional leaders to speak out against this madcap leasing scheme before it’s too late. Washington’s thirst for energy dominance should not come at the expense of Nevada’s proud outdoor heritage.

Lou Christensen serves on the board of directors of the Nevada Wildlife Federation. Lou is an avid outdoor enthusiast, works as the Facilities Manager for the Department of Biology at the University of Nevada Reno and has lived in Nevada for more than 40 years

Sour grapes by dispensary applicants not given licenses delayed openings, cost taxpayers money

Cannabis plant ready for harvest

By Brandon Wiegand

In the most recent round of retail marijuana dispensary licenses issued by the State of Nevada, there were 116 applicants who submitted 461 applications vying for 61 licenses. The selection process was arduous and had the full support of the majority of companies applying for the licenses – until a handful of applicants with a sense of entitlement, including Nevada insiders, former politicians and real estate tycoons, were not chosen. When the process didn’t work in their favor, they cried sour grapes and have delayed the opening of new dispensaries by the companies that were granted licenses. Unfortunately, it is Nevada’s taxpayers that shoulder the costs of these delays in deferred jobs and lost tax revenues.

There are as many claims about how the process was flawed as there are plaintiffs in the lawsuits. This is evidenced by the five separate lawsuits in existence caused by the plaintiffs’ unwillingness to work together because they disagree on the issues, even amongst themselves. 

One of the major complaints espoused by plaintiffs is that the Department of Taxation (DoT) hired temporary employees to evaluate the applications submitted for the latest round of retail dispensary licenses (the same process that was used to evaluate the 2014 medical applications). Without this assistance, the volume of work required to grade and evaluate the 461 applications received would have ground the DoT’s primary responsibility of industry oversight to a complete halt. The state selected professionals that were not associated with the industry in any way and removed identifying information from the applications in order to ensure a fair and impartial evaluation. 

It has been revealed that some of the applicants, including select plaintiffs, put so little effort into their applications that they recycled their medical marijuana applications from five years ago, simply replacing the word “medical” with “retail.” Rather than accepting responsibility for their lack of preparation and poor execution, the plaintiffs are now focusing their attention outward and blaming other applicants, the government, and the process for their own abject failure to complete an application that met or exceeded the benchmarks needed to secure a license in the industry as it exists today.

The plaintiffs have argued that the state did not make any efforts to determine whether applicants were in compliance with state regulations and properly conduct background checks. On the contrary, the state required that all applicants be in good standing to even apply. The state conducted background checks on all officers and board members, including any owners with an interest of 5 percent or greater. This was consistent with all policies adopted under medical marijuana licensing. Like the regulators of other industries in Nevada, the DoT is allowed specific latitude to ensure that regulations grow with the industry. No one could have anticipated that we would have publicly traded companies when Question 2, the ballot initiative that legalized retail marijuana, was written. The fact is, publicly traded companies are beneficial to Nevada’s regulatory process in that they bring additional oversight, compliance, and scrutiny – rigor that we should welcome to the industry.

Plaintiffs claimed that the state improperly eliminated a location requirement from the application; however that is patently false. In order to pass a final state inspection and open for business, the state verifies that the applicant’s location meet all local jurisdiction and state requirements before issuing an operational license. The local jurisdictions are required by state law to uphold the minimum requirements of the state.

In almost every instance, the local jurisdictions have adopted more conservative policies that exceeded these benchmarks. This was a thoughtful and deliberate policy change that was discussed and considered far in advance of the applications. In fact, Gov. Brian Sandoval sponsored a task force to discuss retail marijuana policies in which this very topic was discussed – and at least two of the plaintiffs, John Ritter from The Grove and David Goldwater from Inyo, were a part of that task force

Much has been made of the preliminary injunction issued by Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzales. It must be noted however that this order was issued without the benefit of discovery having even been started. While the lawsuits and debates will continue, the real findings of fact are already evident – after failing to wield their influence on the licensing process, Nevada insiders, former politicians, and real estate tycoons are using political leverage in an attempt to call the entire process into question.

Brandon Wiegand is the Regional General Manager of Nevada Organic Remedies.

Nevada’s flawed marijuana legalization leads to corruption and lawsuits

Marijuana displayed inside Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary

By Geoffrey Lawrence

Nevada’s marijuana licensing agency “acted beyond the scope of its authority,” took actions that were “arbitrary and capricious,” and engaged in “conduct that is a serious issue,” according to a court order filed in late August by District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez.

The case is a blow to the marijuana legalization movement overall and shows how the licensing process can become subject to corruption when not set up correctly.

Nevada is one of 11 states to have legalized recreational marijuana and among five states that have placed statewide limits on the number of marijuana licenses that will be granted, although Nevada does so only at the retail level.  When the Legislature finally authorized a commercial system for medical marijuana in 2013—13 years after voters had approved a constitutional amendment approving its use—it allowed for a statewide maximum of 60 medical marijuana dispensaries.  No limitations were placed on the number of cultivation centers or processors.

Later, when advocates filed the initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes that passed in 2016, they allowed that number to roughly double to 130 dispensaries.

The original licensing process for medical marijuana was fraught with problems.  Clark County, the state’s most populous county and also home to Las Vegas’s lucrative tourist market, decided to award licenses using its own criteria before the state had chosen which applicants would be approved.  This resulted in some applicants being approved at the state level but denied licenses in Clark County, and vice versa. A series of lawsuits followed.  Complicating matters further, several Clark County commissioners were exposed as receiving large campaign donations from applicants immediately before voting on which dispensaries would receive county medical marijuana licenses.  

The initiative to legalize recreational marijuana then granted existing medical marijuana licensees the exclusive ability to apply for recreational licenses for the first 18 months after the state began to accept applications.  The Nevada Department of Taxation, which regulates the industry, allowed these businesses to apply to co-locate a recreational license with their existing medical marijuana businesses shortly before the recreational program went live in July 2017.  It would subsequently make all additional, statutorily authorized licenses available in a second application period that spanned a few weeks in September 2018. This would effectively ensure that businesses that didn’t already possess medical marijuana licenses in Nevada would never be able to apply for a recreational dispensary license, regardless of what clouds might hang over that original process.

At a February 2018 hearing where state lawmakers approved the department’s proposed regulations to govern the application process, I testified that the draft regulations ran afoul of statutory protections meant to ensure the process would be fair and objective.  The voter-approved initiative required the process to be “impartial and numerically scored.” However, the regulations contained scoring criteria that demonstrated bias toward some applicants. For example, total tax revenues already collected from each applicant was a criterion, although only existing dispensaries paid retail excise taxes and dispensaries sell inventory at marked up rates, which effectively guaranteed only existing dispensary licensees would score well. They also failed to clarify the scoring system being used and instead declared the Department of Taxation could, arbitrarily, assign different weights to each scoring criteria every time it opened an application period.

Lawmakers considered these concerns briefly, but were advised by legislative counsel they had no choice but to pass the regulations as written because the existing emergency regulations would expire later that week.

Once the Department of Taxation announced it would accept applications in September 2018, it notified applicants they would be eligible to receive only one dispensary license in each jurisdiction where they applied.  This was a last-ditch effort to ensure fairness in execution, if not in written law.

This is where things really went haywire. Despite its written guidance, the Department of Taxation awarded several entities multiple dispensary licenses within the same jurisdiction.  Only 17 of 127 companies that applied received any of the 61 licenses made available and more than half of those licenses went to just four companies.  The winners were heavily associated with a group of insiders at the Nevada Cannabis Coalition and court records show that group’s attorney, Amanda Connor, enjoyed privileged access to department staff despite written warnings from the state against such activity.  

Nevada Department of Taxation Deputy Executive Director Jorge Pupo was wined and dined by applicants and acknowledged that he changed the application in ways favorable to these applicants.  For instance, he allowed applicants to be considered separate companies simply by altering their name slightly or setting up shell entities.  The department also circulated different versions of the application to different applicants—some required a specific street address and others did not, which is important because securing an address adds up-front costs to an applicant that may be lost if they don’t get a license.

After applicants who were denied licenses filed suit against the department, even more discrepancies came to light. According to court records, the department hired temporary workers to score the applications without providing significant training or oversight to those workers.  Points awarded for gender and racial diversity among ownership groups invited gamesmanship from applicants, who hired or promoted frontmen to boost their scores. Ultimately, though, what led Judge Gonzalez to issue an injunction against the state’s licensing decisions was the Department of Taxation’s decision to not require background checks on owners with less than a five percent stake in licensed businesses.  That ran afoul of a statutory requirement that all owners the state’s marijuana industry submit to background checks.

Nevada’s mishandling of marijuana licensing is sadly the predictable result of a flawed regulatory structure and is likely to be repeated elsewhere.  First, states contemplating marijuana legalization should take caution not to place arbitrary limits on the number of licenses. This only invites the types of political gamesmanship and corruption seen in Nevada. Nevada should move quickly to open up its licensing process and allow the market to balance supply naturally against demand.

The Reason Foundation’s conceptual framework for marijuana regulation cautions against these limits.  It also recommends specific agency structures and basic licensing criteria that would help states avoid the types of problems seen in Nevada.  We’ve found warm reception for many of those recommendations in places like Michigan, but forecast looming difficulties in places like Illinois.  

Nevada’s experience now offers a cautionary tale that other states should seek to avoid.

Geoffrey Lawrence is a senior policy fellow at the Reason Foundation.

Despite perennial service shortages, Las Vegas gets tougher on stubborn homeless

The city government that’s rarely been accused of doing too much for its homeless population has decided to get tough with a proposed ban on unauthorized street “camping.”

Camping?

Living on the Las Vegas streets is to camping what Dante’s journey through Hell was to hiking. For the homeless, it’s a city of woe.

For now, let’s just call it a poor choice of words, albeit one that echoes previous attempts at city hall to clear the down-and-out from public view. Even one of the ordinance’s proponents admits the city’s efforts over the last two decades have resulted in “little or no success.”

But look on the bright side, which is something Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman does on a regular basis. She told KNPR’s “State of Nevada” this past week that it isn’t the city’s intention to punish, but “to encourage people to seek the many opportunities that we offer to break the cycle of homelessness to come into our courtyard and the resources of other nonprofit social services to help them.”

It makes sense in theory. If you build the services, they will come — even if it takes a police escort, and presuming there are sufficient services available.

In reality, the issues that keep the recalcitrant homeless on the street are more complex. When you’re willing to sleep under bridges, in alleys, or amid human waste in a sidewalk encampment, you’re unlikely to be scared straight by a city citation or an arm-twist from the coppers. In fact, there’s as good a chance a tough-on-crime ordinance will only add to the burden of the hard-core homeless by making them easier to roust and burying them further still in bureaucratic paper.

Possible fines for said proposal will range from $5 to $1,000. The latter figure should come with its own laugh track. A grand? Hey, why not make it a million and really encourage them to come in and partake of the plethora of available services. Maybe they’ll write you a check.

In fairness, the city’s ordinance echoes the efforts of jurisdictions across the country that struggle for answers to problems of the human condition. The ideas ebb and flow from greater understanding to increased incarceration. In the end, the drug and alcohol addled and mentally troubled are still there, living out in the open, creating a nuisance and worse in business districts and neighborhoods and exercising their constitutional right to assemble and even occupy that sacred public space, the sidewalk.

There’s no simple solution, but getting tough is unlikely to work and has already drawn opposition from homeless advocates, the ACLU, and Democratic Party presidential candidate and former Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. During an Oct 2 stop in Las Vegas, Castro joined a group of protestors outside City Hall in an effort to draw attention to what he called an ordinance that would “criminalize homelessness.”

“I know Las Vegas can do better than this” Castro said, alluding to its “functional zero” status in getting homeless veterans off the street. “… This ordinance that the City Council is considering is a mistake. Some people, if they see that you can get homeless folks out of sight, and perhaps out of mind, that it’s an improvement. But that’s a lie. It’s not true.”

Part of what makes the ordinance built on a false premise is the lack of sophisticated social services available in Southern Nevada. There aren’t enough detox and recovery facilities to serve the needs of the haves, much less the have-nots. The same goes for bed space for those with crushing mental health issues.

From transitional beds to affordable housing, demand far outstrips supply. And it all feeds a variety of issues that we still pay for, only in the form of police and first responder hours, emergency room visits, and a clogged court and jail system.

If it goes on the books as it stands, the proposed ordinance figures to be challenged by the ACLU and other civil liberties advocates. That was the inference easily drawn from the recent protest. Local activist Joe Sacco reminded those present of the years-long legal battle with the city over its “don’t-feed-the-homeless” ordinance. Wesley Juhl of the ACLU of Nevada questioned the morality of criminalizing “life-sustaining activities” such as those practiced by the so-called campers.

“It’s a problem,” Juhl said. “So everyone that cares about human dignity and compassion needs to join this fight. We need to make sure that the city understands we need to put housing first, not jail first.”

Actually, he’s onto something. Cities such as Salt Lake City are those trying a housing-first approach that provides respectful shelter without the many demands required by traditional spaces.

Some will argue that such niceties would hang out the Welcome sign to the unstable and unwashed throughout the region, but that’s simplistic. What’s certain is the fact the current system is expensive and only marginally effective.

The entrenched homeless need services, but what they can really use is a safe place to be and rules that enable them to exist with their belongings, partners, pets and, yes, even addictions. Such spaces are costly, especially in jurisdictions in which land is at a premium, but they’re a bargain compared to building an ever-more-confused apparatus that finds them seeking refuge in tarp-covered clusters across the valley.

The fact is, we have a society that talks a lot about having caring for the addicted and mentally wounded, but manages to appease its collective conscience with band aids and bromides. In the end, we’ll be measured not by their contrition, but by our compassion.

Without a safe separate space big enough for the hundreds who survive on the street on a given day here — making consistent gains may be impossible in their city of woe.

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

Solving the homeless problem

Homeless people on the sidewalk

Why are there people on the streets and what is preventing us from getting everyone stuck without a home in and around Southern Nevada into suitable, permanent housing? Surely it is time to do something… new? Different? Helpful, even? It’s admittedly a challenge even for the professionals, let alone sofa-cushion, social justice warriors armed only with Twitter indignation and meaningful YouTube links. (We discuss homelessness so much and yet, how often is a currently homeless person at the discussion table?)

The stakes are real. During another inevitable summer of mercury popping past 100 degrees on most days, we saw hundreds of blistered, dazed individuals sleeping on sidewalks and wandering alongside the broiling asphalt lanes of traffic in the streets of Las Vegas. We saw local businesses and homeowners struggling between their compassionate natures and ire over the acute disruption that comes from unkempt, often boisterous people dragging bags or carts full of what appears to be garbage (but isn’t garbage to the owners) onto their private property. Sometimes it’s in a very aggressive way; other times there’s a clear desire to want to be invisible and left alone even as they can’t possibly be ignored by their mere presence.

I have traversed the land of modest proposals in order to come up with a few perhaps immodest resolutions. I am going to write a series of columns about them. And I will start by suggesting that we should stop calling people who find themselves without indoor shelter “the homeless” and stop collectively referring to the wide range of issues causing and keeping people in the streets as “a problem.”

Before you deride my “solve” as a mere game of semantics solely focused on fostering respect for the complexity of human existence and the de-stigmatization of calamitous events, let me expand on it — and how we can make our world, or at least our streets, a better place.

The problem with calling it the “homeless problem” is that it effectively lumps all people in the street into one group. We then seek the one solution that covers as many people as it can for the smallest amount of money. That’s how government works in the realm of community safety nets. Then, when we don’t see big results, we point out a few verifiable “successes” to “prove” that we really are fixing things and lump most everyone else into the “unreachable.”

Families, children and teens, and veterans, have a pretty straightforward onramp to services because there are typically more niche services available, and also higher rates of “motivated” (read: compliant) individuals in these groups — and most people in the “square” (read: not living life on a tenuous edge) community will get behind and talk about these folks because it feels better to help kids, veterans and families than, say, the other sub-categories (listed over and again in conversations): crazy people, street criminals and drug addicts. 

The fact that some of the categories of less-easy-to-figure-out people on our streets are a mix of humans with mental disorders/challenges, hustlers looking for opportunities to steal or con, and users looking for a hit of the steady downtown flow of drugs that temporarily tempers the sadness of existence (until a monkey on ones back becomes a monster) does not stop us from generally lumping all people on the streets we can’t “fix” together. It’s easy to lump.

And when “square society” finds itself forced to interact with the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy people in the streets, there is inevitably a demand for government to do better, and then government also winds up mostly (but not exclusively) celebrating tiny victories centered on the people who are easiest to get off the streets (at least temporarily) — and calls the rest “service-resistant.” They may even develop a mindset that leads to figuring out ways to criminalize the subcategories (more on that later).

And herein lies the core of the failed approach our community has been mired in for the better part of two decades. We focus on helping those who want help, and we ostracize — by way of arrest, shooing, indiscriminate clearing of makeshift camps, and generally throwing up hands in frustration when individuals who should be wanting to better their own situations — those who don’t gladly take advantage of the limited, sometimes high-barrier services and assistance the government assumes people should be clamoring for.

The Metropolitan Police Department and the City of Las Vegas (where many people who are unhoused in the Las Vegas valley tend to congregate in more visible numbers) have both been criticized for being unkind and even mean to people on our streets. Both have launched initiatives to show they are doing… something. Clark County is doing stuff, too! And Henderson and North Las Vegas. And state government! Everyone dutifully doing their part because it touches all parts of our state. Too often, however, each jurisdiction seems to be going at it alone. They seemingly act without really consulting each other, finding consensus, giving up weird jurisdictional mind-palaces or crafting a comprehensive, step-by-step master plan with accountability, funding or guidance (though a regional plan of sorts does exist on a website and a new State law yet to be fully activated suggests more communication is planned but really to what end in the current crisis)? 

What we do have is millions of dollars pouring into all these go-at-it systems that do not provide us with sufficient data or trackable results to elevate the public conversation (nor engage the vital business community financial commitment). Nor do they do the one thing that everyone generally agrees is the best answer: get people into permanent, suitable housing with access to wraparound services. As it is, people are suffering; governments are looking to help; but the help is simply not helping.

So where does that put me in the conversation? Am I an unappreciative crank who is always mad that not enough is being done? The person who seems to demand “the perfect” while ignoring the good of various benevolent endeavors? I’m not trying to be. I’m just saying that right now the mess is too big and complex and involves too many interactions of too many unconnected systems with not enough tracking of information that would help us do better. Is it hard? Yes. If it wasn’t hard, we wouldn’t be seeing our sidewalks turn from places of walking into those of merely surviving.

I bring some experience to the subject. I served as a Municipal Court judge where people deemed chronically homeless appeared daily; in fact they comprised the majority of cases on any docket for most of my tenure. I regularly attended and spoke at a prior version of the State Interagency Council on Homelessness representing the Fremont Street Experience beseeching a call-to-action that died with the disbanding of that committee. I’ve also worked on developing programs to quash warrants for minor offenses associated with people who are homeless — and getting them to services. I volunteer on the regular for legal clinics at the Las Vegas Mission and have been active over the years in the annual Homeless Connect program. I serve on the Pro Bono Project Advisory Council for Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. And I’ve been in the trenches of the criminal justice system where people who are homeless often find themselves.

My desire is to inspire effective action on what I hope we all want in Southern Nevada and really all of Nevada: a fair, kind place where humans can live indoors no matter their economic or personal situation with minimal government interference and a maximum of magnanimity.

On that note, I do not want to see the City of Las Vegas’s remarkably short-sighted, troublesome and generally cruel proposed initiative see the light of day. It is wrought with unintended consequences and the sort of thinking that got us to present-day “critical” mode. I am glad to see that many people in the Southern Nevada community are very upset about this new ordinance dubbed “an act to criminalize homelessness.”  

Without getting too deep into the specific language, the proposed ordinance essentially makes it unlawful to “camp out” on the sidewalks in designated parts of (mostly) downtown Las Vegas when there is shelter space of some sort available, mostly meaning the “Homeless Courtyard.” The last part of that is in supposed compliance with the perceived guideline telegraphed from an important Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that stopped the City of Boise, Idaho from basically doing the same thing. Our city attorneys obviously looked at that decision, and tried to figure out what they could do that would not run afoul of the ban on this sort of government conduct. (They’re reading that decision far too narrowly and will invariably lose in every court they enter if they try to enforce it.)

The “good” news is that the City of Las Vegas (and more importantly the Metropolitan Police Department) have no serious interest (or ability) in enforcing this mostly unworkable law, but obviously are posturing to once again show the angry business community and fed up residents of the area that they are doing “something” to stop the unappealing, unhealthy and sometimes dangerous existence of humans doing sometimes gross (sometimes vital) human things in the public eye. 

The “bad” news is that this distracting, short-sighted, illegal new “law” is going to cost a ton in litigation, make the City look even worse, have no net effect on reducing homelessness, and cloud the needed introspection on the shortcomings of the dysfunctional “Homeless Courtyard.” Dysfunctional in that — based on my conversations with people who have tried to use it — it provides some good services and resources for some of the people, but does so inconsistently and without all the measures really needed. Those measures being coordination with county social services to provide people with reliable transportation, medical care and pharmaceuticals, steady showers and covered shelter.

There are other issues that deserve attention from the groups deriding the City’s latest move. For one, homelessness is already criminalized in the City of Las Vegas. Anyone working in the criminal justice system knows this and presumably so does City Council. Indeed, encampments of people who are homeless have routinely (and often under the radar) been raided and dismantled with the threat of arrest to anyone who resists for many decades. There are permissible arrests for a dozen violations already in effect from obstructing a sidewalk to unlawful possession of a shopping cart.

Once the camps are displaced, and arrests made, the high-power water hose crew comes in and washes away the evidence (and sometimes the hastily left behind possessions including personal items like identification cards that would be useful to the person later). The Municipal Court then swells with an influx of cases which either get dismissed out of hand, credited with time served upon a guilty conviction, or (for serial offenders) a stretch of taxpayer-funded jail time. 

Metro police already were and are patrolling the streets, advising people they should get out of the never-ending cross-hairs of the City by checking in at the Courtyard or any other available shelter services. But not constantly, because Metro recognizes the impossibility of arresting every person who is homeless, and has better things to do than participate in the cycle of arrest, disrupt, jail, release, repeat. Indeed, only the Las Vegas Marshals are likely to step up the number of arrests (to do the bidding of the Council) if this new “law” is passed, but more than likely the calls will continue to go to Metro as the Marshals have limited jurisdiction.

Either way, the new “law” is simply another set of words and ordinance numbers to write down on the paperwork when there is an arrest. It’s not going to result in significantly more arrests than before. And even if there is an arrest under the new ordinance, it’s going to be declared invalid because even if Metro can verify that there are appropriate open spaces in shelters at any given moment, the new “law” doesn’t provide for exigencies that may make a specific shelter impracticable to certain person. 

If a person, say, has been bullied or beaten up before at the recommended shelter, or has had their stuff stolen (which happens all the time if you ask those who go there), does the City really think the Ninth Circuit is going to uphold their silly little “law”? Or what if the person has a dog? Or needs or wants privacy for health reasons? There are literally hundreds of reasons why a person who is homeless might not prefer a Las Vegas shelter situation to a sidewalk — and as I said, the spirit of the Boise decision is going to haunt the City as they litigate their way to flames (and legal fees to the ACLU, or whomever, again).

Floating all this “tough love” (and that’s what people like Mayor Carolyn Goodman likely think) to incentivize people to use the Courtyard or move their camps to other jurisdictions like the County or nearby North Las Vegas or more likely residential neighborhoods not covered by the new business-minded law is part of a we-want-to-help-them so we’re-going-to-threaten-them mentality because that’s how you incentivize people to change their behavior, right?

Wrong. Just what do these elected officials think happens to the people who wind up getting arrested? How do arrests, jail time, fines, disrupting living patterns, and taking people away from their support routines (and maybe meds) help end homelessness? People who have never been in jail for a day are usually quite cavalier about creating situations that put people in jail, but even the most together person’s life is going to be negatively affected by going to jail. 

I will say this, though: the City of Las Vegas is a municipality in much larger and richer Clark County. The City has a Department of Public Safety and an Office of Community Services with limited resources and reach. Clark County has its own much bigger and more far-reaching divisions to administer social services for its residents. Because of a joint agreement in effect for many years, both are served by (and have oversight of) the very independent-minded Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department run by an elected sheriff, but generally speaking, Clark County controls Metro’s budget. Indeed, Clark County controls quite a lot. Virtually all funding for direct and indirect services to the population for housing insecure individuals passes through the County — and it is therefore in the best position to do something effective for all parts of the Vegas valley.

When forced to act on the basic issue of shelter, the city chose to go it alone in creating a “fix.” They created a very expensive resource center that wound up being a mostly outdoors, mostly safe, low-barrier clubhouse that is underfunded, understaffed, lacking in comprehensive trackable results and which more people who are homeless choose to avoid than use. And it required money that would have been better used for actual housing and more desirable services. What the City should have done and now needs to do is work within a regional coordinated effort to come up with a popular, results-oriented, system of flexible, individualized services to help the most vulnerable. The time for postering and heartless “tough love” is long past. 
So what should they do? What can anyone do with such a complex set of challenges? Well, at the risk of being overly exhaustive and wordy, stay tuned over the next few weeks as I endeavor to throw a host of topics into the mix. Some are expensive (though possibly a net cost-saving); some might be controversial. They discuss homelessness as a mental health and/or a health care crisis; the overlap and differences with the affordable housing discourse; the role of the business community and technology; the need for a new philosophy at the police department and a better understanding the hustler-life in our weird city. All of which are coming from real world approaches that are hopefully suitable for our unique, transient resort town that possibly grew up too fast, but which has to take adult responsibility for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Dayvid Figler is a private criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.

Why are educated people so clueless about free speech?

Protestors interrupt Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, during his speech at the University of Nevada, Reno

To hear some tell it, the University of Nevada campus might as well be Berlin circa 1932, a “right wing” hotbed of racism and anti-semitism on the very precipice of some sort of Kristalnacht conflagration. The latest proof?  The University has (gasp!) allowed a conservative student group to host a conservative speaker who says bad things about socialism and doesn’t hate Donald Trump, and even worse, invites people who disagree with him to ask him questions.

In a letter to University President Marc Johnson attempting to get the speaker, Charlie Kirk, uninvited, hundreds of lefties blamed Johnson for being “complicit” in these dark times for not cracking down on the free speech of people they disagree with, or violating due process, or other things that actual Nazis are known for. The target of the protests is a campus-focused conservative political operation called “Turning Point USA” which is led by Kirk and which has committed the crime of being politically active in a place where lefties feel entitled to hold a monopoly. TPUSA is accused of being a “white nationalist” organization because previous employees of that group were fired for saying racist things, which is weird, but these are the times we live in.

(Those doing the accusing, by the way, have their own history of fraud, defamation, and apparently widespread misconduct against women, but they’re part of the correct tribe so no biggie.)

Here’s what these signatories, which include hundreds of people with no apparent affiliation to UNR at all, are upset about in their own words, along with some helpful annotations.

–The retraction of the Anti-Racist Student Coalition’s permission to post sandwich boards displaying, in their words, “positive messages for those who have been affected by racism.” 

Who is the “their” in “their own words”? What was the actual message? Where was the display?  Why was permission retracted, or if you are going to accuse UNR of stifling student speech, what was the excuse? Why is there not more detail provided about this incident that would let us make up our own mind about the University’s behavior? It’s almost as if further detail would not fit the narrative here…

–The arrests of a UNR student who brought a sign reading “Abolish ICE” to the UNR stadium, and who argued with campus TPUSA members and knocked over their display table. Both arrests were carried out by the Reno Police Department with no apparent attempt to resolve conflict through campus resources, and no communication with the campus community.

Yes – when you physically attack the property of others engaged in their own free speech, or heckle in an attempt to shut down the speaker, you’re committing a crime as well as attempting to violate other peoples’ civil rights, and your behavior should be stopped by the authorities.   Police have no obligation to “resolve conflicts” between criminal and victim in such a scenario, except to remove the disturbance from an otherwise peaceable assembly.

No apparent consequences for TPUSA members tearing down anti-racist artwork and signage and verbally intimidating students of color, as occurred on October 4, 2019 in The Center

The irony here is intense. If “progressives” are allowed to kick over tables or shout down speakers without consequence, isn’t tearing down artwork a legitimate political tactic? If such a thing happened, it’s reprehensible, but the lack of detail in this statement makes me think the word “intimidating” is used here to mean “said something I disagree with.” If the conduct was really that bad, this letter wouldn’t have to be so tellingly vague on the details.

No apparent consequences for those responsible for racist vandalism on campus, including swastikas, items with Ku Klux Klan insignia, and anti-black messages

Do you have a suspect? Didn’t think so. If there was one, do you really think such a person would not have been charged by now, if not at least shamed on social media? Without an actual perpetrator to punish, what should Johnson do? Collective punishment until the graffiti artist is found? Prison-esque tosses of dorm rooms to look for spray paint or white hoods?  

How horrifying that the left’s disdain for due process is so widespread that it extends from the President himself to judicial nominees to college students at large. Whatever harm a graffitied swastika may cause, even assuming it’s not a hoax like so many other manufactured racist incidents lately, it’s nothing compared to politically motivated mobs who insist on “doing something” to abridge civil rights in the name of a little temporary public safety. 

What’s especially disgusting is the attempt to link a standard issue right-of-center political student group with bigoted vandalism. There is zero evidence to make that connection. None. To the extent virulent anti-Semitism finds any purchase in American politics, it always seems to be found on the left

No apparent consequences for those responsible for racist and anti-LGBTQ speech online, including video apparently showing UNR students burning a LGBTQ pride flag.

As anyone with a high school level education on American government would know, it would be illegal to mete out consequences for such conduct. As someone who supported gay marriage when Sen. Barrack Obama was still insisting that marriage was between a man and a woman, I think it takes a special kind of POS to burn a pride flag, which as a veteran is also how I feel about losers and ingrates who burn American flags. And yet as a lover of freedom, I will fight to the end to protect an individual’s right to be that POS because the consequences of censorship are always worse than whatever “wrong” idea was being censored in the first place.

Racist speech is similarly protected, which is fortunate for all my far-left friends who want to dictate what people are allowed to say, sing, dress, watch, behave, vote, or otherwise conduct themselves on the basis of race (all in the name of preventing cultural appropriation, and all for the noblest reasons, but racist nevertheless). If disgusting and offensive speech isn’t protected, no expression is protected. It’s especially ironic seeing academics, whose often absurdly privileged careers only exist because others fought so hard for these principles, failing so miserably to think through the potential consequences of getting what they say they want. 

Failure to monitor or otherwise counter harassment of individual faculty, including attempts to infringe faculty speech and academic freedom.

“Failure to monitor?” What are we, communist China where everyone’s social media is constantly surveilled by government minders for various thoughtcrimes?  

University faculty are entitled to say what they want, even as the government employees they are. But when they say stupid things, be it in a classroom or on Twitter, any other citizen is allowed to criticize, respond to, or even mock them. If those faculty members defame others, or as agents of the government attempt to regulate the content of student speech they disagree with, then they are subject to legal action. This isn’t “harassment,” it’s an organization or individual standing up for its rights and ideas. I would love to see a single example of a university professor who has been silenced because of a right-leaning political action group. I know it hasn’t happened, because if it did, we’d have details to go with all this scare-mongering.

So far, UNR has resisted the totalitarian impulses of their more radical students and staff, such as when the school refused to illegally expel their token white nationalist loser, Peter Cvjetanovic, after he became the face of the Charlottesville, Virginia rally two years ago. I hope once again President Johnson will continue to do the right thing, and stand strong for freedom and liberty for all.

And if TPUSA is the dangerous monster its critics contend? Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Every one of us has the same free speech rights – use them to full effect. Expose what you don’t like and counter it with your own ideas. That’s how America has always worked best. In fact, I would love to get every single member of our  congressional delegation on record as to how they feel about this effort to stifle free expression at UNR, and what they plan to do to protect the rights of the conservative students there. 

***

It’s low hanging fruit to make fun of the overwrought lefties every university in the country seems to be saddled with these days. I kind of feel sorry for them, honestly – you would think that academics chose their careers based on a desire to engage in a free exchange of diverse ideas. Testing your own thoughts in the crucible of open debate is exhilarating and fun and rewarding for the intellectually honest and the open-minded. A professor unwilling to hear ideas he or she disagrees with is like a sailor in a world without oceans. What a meaningless, empty life it must be.

But this attitude is spreading throughout the political left, and has real consequences to our nation and the world at large. For example, I wonder how many people condemning TPUSA or President Trump or any other Republican leaning figure are equal in their protestations about American companies assisting China in silencing its critics or oppressing its people?  China is a communist nation which, like all communist nations, exists on the same moral plane as Nazi Germany. It’s currently cracking down on its last free conclave because Hong Kongers are insisting on keeping their God-given civil rights. And yet Americans are being kicked out of NBA games in American cities because they wore shirts or held signs supporting Hong Kong freedom activists – all in the name of either profits or not “offending” a trade partner. Nike – “Stand for something, even if it costs you everything” itself – has pulled merchandise associated with Hong Kong supporting athletes from Chinese store shelves. If you care about repression rather than partisan hackery, there are plenty of more legitimate targets for your protests than Charlie Kirk.

Spoiled UNR academics are a long way from the oppression of communist dictatorships. But why take even a single step in that direction?  Without a commitment to free speech, starting at the local level, we cannot commit to freedom in general, here or abroad. Every single American who values our extraordinary way of life must loudly and unequivocally condemn such attempts to restrict any speaker, idea, or political organization, even while we embrace their right to be heard. 

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.

Everybody benefits from new and improved public records law

Front of the Nevada Legislature building

By Patrick File

Among the Nevada Press Association’s six “First Amendment Champions”—announced at their annual convention on Sept. 21—were several whose bipartisan work drawing together a diverse group of stakeholders helped improve the state’s public records law. The fruit of their labors, SB 287, went into effect Oct. 1, and while journalists will certainly benefit from a better Nevada Public Records Act, we should all be thankful for a law that makes access to public information cheaper, more user-friendly, and more accountable. 

The awardees included Tod Story, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, who helped launch the grassroots effort that drew from across the ideological and issue-oriented spectrum, as well as state Sens. David Parks, Melanie Scheible, and Ben Kieckhefer, who bridged party lines and worked with various constituencies to find solutions amid a contentious legislative process. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Gov. Steve Sisolak were also honored for their part in making sure the bill crossed the finish line.

From the sidelines of the process (I testified in support of the original bill but played no role its crafting), it was heartening to see good faith efforts from all sides—citizens, government administrators, legislators, public interest groups, and journalists—acknowledging the challenges facing government agencies as well as all kinds of regular folks seeking access to information about their government. A symbol of this successful process was the city of Reno quietly dropping its opposition to the bill after coming out strongly against it in an initial hearing

Of course, all of these laudable efforts—and associations’ kind words and awards—will be pointless if people don’t give life to the new law. Public records laws are for the public, after all, and the reforms of SB 287 will make it easier for you and me to get the information we need to access government services and assess the effectiveness of their administration. 

For example, in addition to providing helpful information about records requests on their websites, many government agencies pride themselves on being open and communicative in helping requesters clarify their needs. Now that practice is legally required, as government agencies must be expeditious in explaining records’ availability or lack thereof, and must “make a reasonable effort to assist the requester … in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood” they will have prompt access to records. To cut against large fees that can turn requesters away, the law clarifies that the government can only charge for the “actual cost” of its response–things like ink, paper, and postage. And if a record is in a digital format, and requesters ask that it be sent to them electronically, agencies must do that. Excessive fees or delays can now be the basis for a legal appeal over a records request, beyond the typical suit filed when a request is denied. And if a government agency “willfully” violates the public records act, it can trigger escalating fines from $1,000 to $10,000.

We all win when our government is able to be more responsive to our needs, which is really what open government laws are all about. A more functional, user-friendly Nevada Public Records Act, which offers the means to prod the odd official who prizes secrecy over transparency, can empower us all with the ability to inform ourselves and our neighbors, make government more effective and efficient and transform any of us into “First Amendment Champions.”

Patrick File is assistant professor of media law at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.