Sisolak announces COVID-19 vaccine incentive program with $1 million grand prize

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Thursday a new state-run incentive program that will award some $5 million in prizes —  including a $1 million grand prize — to Nevada residents who get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The announcement of the program, called “Vax Nevada Days,” comes as the state lags behind President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4 — as of June 16, the state has at least partially vaccinated 59.4 percent of the adult population, a mark that ranks 33rd among the 50 states. 

“We want to avoid ever going through what we went through COVID last year,” Sisolak said. “That's why today I want to provide Nevadans with an exciting update on one more way we're planning to encourage all Nevadans to get their vaccine, in addition to thanking those who've already gotten their shots.”

Sisolak unveiled the program at a kickoff press conference at Allegiant Stadium, where a vaccine clinic and stadium tours were simultaneously being held. Though winners will be announced each Thursday from July 8-Aug. 26, those who have already been vaccinated will be automatically entered in the drawings once their vaccinator has submitted that information to the state. 

Governor Steve Sisolak speaks during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Every Nevadan who is at least 12 years old and receives at least a first dose will be automatically entered to win one of nearly 2,000 prizes.

Other incentives up for grabs for people 18 and older include 149 cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $250,000 each. Specifically, 100 people will win $1,000 each, 32 will win $25,000, 11 will win $50,000, two will win $100,000, three will win $250,000 and one person will win the $1 million grand prize. Teens between the ages of 12 and 17 are eligible for 135 different college savings plan awards valued from $5,000 to $50,000.

People of all ages are eligible to win one of 500 Nevada state park annual passes or one of 1,250 state fishing licenses.

All $5 million worth of prizes will come from federal COVID-19 relief funds, and they will be distributed through Immunize Nevada. Sisolak said he expects winners to first be called as prizes are drawn, though the administration of the program will be fully carried out by Immunize Nevada.

Sisolak was also joined at the event by Scott Gunn, a senior vice president at the gaming company IGT Global Solutions Corporation. Gunn explained that other states are able to administer COVID-19 incentives through their state lotteries. Because Nevada does not have a state lottery, IGT will be helping pick winners through a certified random number generator, which is the process used by lotteries in other states. Gunn also noted that IGT will not have access to anyone’s personally identifiable information throughout the process.

Sisolak explained that the drawings are legal in the state because Nevadans are being entered into a raffle system rather than a lottery that someone would have to pay to enter.

“We got an opinion from my counsel, from the attorney general’s counsel, from the Gaming Control Board's counsel that this is something that we're allowed to do,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, a variety of other states have announced incentives meant to boost vaccination rates, after the number of doses being administered daily across the country significantly declined in late April and May. Some states have announced cash prizes, such as Ohio, which started the “Vax-a-Million” campaign to boost vaccination numbers by giving out five $1 million prizes to vaccinated adults. 

Governor Steve Sisolak answers questions during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Other states have offered different, non-cash prizes, such as free tickets to a Six Flags theme park, which Illinois offered to some of its vaccinated residents.

Update: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on June 17, 2021 to include more information about the incentive program.

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Sisolak signs bill making Nevada the second state to adopt a public health insurance option

Nevada became the second state in the nation to enact a state-managed public health insurance option on Wednesday, with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature transforming a bill that hadn’t even been made public until six weeks ago into law.

Though Sisolak voiced his intent to sign the bill last week, his signature formally ends a more than four-year-long quest to establish a public option in Nevada, though, in many ways, work on the public option is just beginning. Under the new law, Nevada’s public option plan won’t be available for purchase until 2026, giving state officials time to conduct an actuarial study of the proposal to determine whether it will accomplish proponents’ goals of increasing health care access and affordability and at what cost. It also provides time for state officials to transform the still relatively broad-strokes concept into a workable policy and return to the Legislature in 2023 with any changes that may need to be made to the law.

“I'm always looking for ways to expand health care opportunities in Nevada for Nevadans, and that's what this legislation does,” Sisolak said during a bill-signing ceremony in Las Vegas. “By leveraging the state's existing health care infrastructure and reducing costs, it is my hope that Nevadans will have improved access to comprehensive insurance.”

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who’s expecting her first child this summer and sponsored SB420, nodded to the effect it could have on the state’s youngest residents.

"This bill will help to open up some more doors in critical investments in prenatal and maternal care and Medicaid for Nevada moms and babies right here in our Silver State,” she said Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) smiles after Gov. Steve Sisolak signed SB420 in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Heather Korbulic, who as head of the state’s health insurance exchange will have a key role in the development of the public option, said in a statement that she plans to “bring all stakeholders together to outline the actuarial study and conduct a meaningful analysis of the public option as it relates to every aspect of health care throughout the state.”

“In the meantime I'm going to continue to focus on getting Nevadans connected to Nevada Health Link where we have an open enrollment period that runs through August 15th and — thanks to the Biden administration — almost everyone eligible is getting financial assistance,” she said, in a nod to the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of exchange subsidies.

Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview last week said the public option isn’t “a single solution” but “does definitely enhance the opportunity for individuals to gain access to health care.”

“I think that as an option for coverage, it definitely enhances that overall framework,” Whitley said. 

Under the new law, insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population will also be required to bid to offer a public option plan, with ultimate decision-making authority left to the state to decide how many plans to approve. The plans would resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the legislation would require the public option plan or plans to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs of the plans by 15 percent over four years.

The public option concept first surfaced during the 2017 legislative session, when former Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle (D-Sparks), introduced a bill to allow Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program, nicknamed Medicaid-for-all. While an amended version of that proposal, instead establishing a Medicaid-like plan, cleared the Legislature, former Gov. Brian Sandoval ultimately vetoed it. 

Sandoval, a health care advocate who earned plaudits from Democrats for being the first Republican governor in the nation to opt into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and fought to protect the federal health care law in 2017, said at the time of his veto that the public option proposal was “moving too soon, without factual foundation or adequate understanding of the possible consequences.”

Sprinkle proposed a narrower version of his vetoed bill during the 2019 legislative session, nicknamed Medicaid-for-some, that failed to advance after he resigned from the Legislature facing allegations of sexual harassment. Cannizzaro revived the proposal in the waning days of that session in the form of an interim study of yet another public option proposal — this time to allow Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program rather than Medicaid.

That study, which was carried out by the health policy firm Manatt Health, was released with little fanfare in January as lawmakers geared up for the legislative session during some of the pandemic’s darkest days. 

The study — which looked at both a PEBP buy-in proposal and a state-sponsored qualified health plan proposal — found that a 10 percent reduction in insurance plan premiums would translate to between zero and 1,500 uninsured individuals gaining coverage in the first year of the plan’s existence, while a 20 percent reduction would reduce the state’s uninsured population between 300 and 4,800 people. There are about 350,000 uninsured Nevadans.

“These enrollment figures highlight that a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in premiums may not be enough to substantially encourage the currently uninsured to enroll in coverage for the first time,” the study concluded.

For the next couple of months, the public option remained in the background as lawmakers tackled other health care policies. But the public option resurfaced in mid-April when Cannizzaro confirmed she was working on legislation behind the scenes and started meeting with health care industry representatives to present the concept.

In late April, the proposal was introduced as SB420, this time with the goal of leveraging the state’s purchasing power with Medicaid managed care contracts with insurers to compel insurance companies to provide affordable public option plans, too. Unlike some previous iterations of the proposal, the plan would not be offered by a public insurer — such as Medicaid or PEBP — but by private insurers.

Proponents, including progressive groups like Battle Born Progress, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, threw their weight behind the bill, arguing that the proposal would make health care more affordable and accessible. Opponents, including the Nevada Hospital Association, the Nevada State Medical Association and the Nevada Association of Health Plans, countered that it would do just the opposite, going so far as to destabilize Nevada’s already-fragile health care system.

Specifically, health care providers argued that a provision in the bill setting the floor for rates for the public option plans at Medicare rates — which providers say are better than Medicaid rates but not as good as those paid by private insurance plans — would act as an effective cap. They also pushed back on a section of the bill requiring doctors who contract with Medicaid, the Public Employees Benefits Program and workers’ compensation to participate in at least one public option plan.

Instead, opponents of the bill argued that the state should focus on targeting people who are uninsured but either eligible for Medicaid or for subsidies through the state’s health insurance exchange. Together, those two groups represent more than half of uninsured Nevadans. To that end, they proposed an amendment in the final days of the session to scale back the bill to just an actuarial study of the public concept proposal and to look further into how to get Nevadans already eligible for Medicaid or exchange plans insured. But that amendment that was never seriously entertained by Cannizzaro.

While many of the groups that testified in support of and against SB420 were Nevada-based organizations, the bill also attracted significant national attention, including support from the Committee to Protect Health Care, the Center for Health & Democracy and United States of Care and opposition from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of some of the health care industry’s biggest names — including the American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — as well as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and LIBRE Initiative. Many of those organizations devoted dollars toward their efforts, sending mailers and running ads in support of or against the proposal. 

Sisolak’s signature on the public option bill comes as interest in establishing a national public option, as President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail, appears to be dwindling. Individual states, however, have continued to pursue their own public option proposals. Washington, the first state in the nation to enact public option legislation, has started to offer plans for sale this year and a bill creating the “Colorado Option” passed out of the Colorado legislature on Monday.

Supporters hope caregiver board can establish consistency in personal care industry

State Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) opened her bill presentation on Thursday recalling her experience with how the hiring of a caregiver to help take care of her ill father for several hours a day had helped support her family.

“When I came into session, I realized that SB340 was going to give a voice to the women that I encountered and all the other workers – men and women – who do this work,” Neal said – her father, former Sen. Joe Neal, passed away last December. “It became a bill that became personal for me, because I understood the level of work that they do and the level of impact that they have upon families.”

Neal’s bill, SB340, would establish the Home Care Employment Standards Board to set wage and working conditions for the nonmedical home caregiving industry. Neal said the board would allow the workers a “seat at the table” to discuss the issues with their employers.

An assessment of the Nevada personal care workforce published in September 2020 by the Guinn Center, a nonpartisan research center, found that one in two workers leaves the job within a year of taking it, and that the median hourly wage of a personal care aide is $11.07.

Neal said she was offered the option to pay her aide between $15 and $22 an hour. 

“I selected to pay $22 an hour to have a woman come in, roughly three hours a day… because I wanted someone with more skill and I wanted someone who was going to come in and really assist,” Neal said. “I wanted to make sure they were paid well for the 15 hours a week that they were coming, and that it was enough for them to be able to take care of themselves.”

The board would also be responsible for conducting investigations on whether employers are complying with the established standards — setting penalties for violations at a fine of not more than $1,000. Although the Department of Health and Human Services already regulates the industry under Nevada law, supporters of the bill say it would create a more consistent practice between employees and agencies. 

“There are some compliance [regulations] in place; they are implemented sporadically. There is no consistency across the board,” said Marlene Lockard, a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents 19,000 health care and public workers across the state. “Enforcement is a piece that we also need to bring together for those compliance directives already in statute.”

Opposition to the bill mainly came from workers and member agencies of the Personal Care Association of Nevada (PCAN). Most argued that it is redundant as Nevada law already has certain regulations governing the industry, and feared the board would overregulate them instead of reprimanding actual bad actors.

“PCAN is opposed to SB340 because it gives wide-reaching authority to a volunteer, unpaid Home Care Employment Standards Board … allows for investigation regarding wages, hours, working conditions beyond what is found in [Nevada Revised Statutes],” said Connie McMullen of PCAN. “SB340 is not the answer over statutes currently in place and does not address the care of our most vulnerable population. The state needs to work with the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to assure regulations in place are reinforced, not revise the entire chapter.”

The measure was also amended to include appropriations to cover the costs submitted by the Office of the Labor Commissioner and the Department of Health and Human Services. The OLC said it would cost $176,938 in the biennium to hire a new staff member that would conduct the investigations for the Home Care Employment Standards Board. The DHHS said it would cost $220,240 in the biennium to hire an analyst to manage the board’s findings and generate reports.

The Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor passed the measure on Friday, with Republican members voting against it. The bill previously received a party-line 12-9 vote in the Senate.

Bill setting guidelines for spending $2.7 billion from feds prioritizes backfilling lost revenue, paying unemployment loan

State Senator Chris Brooks notifies the Assembly that the Senate has convened the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature on Friday, July 31, 2020 in Carson City.

A bill introduced in the Senate on Saturday would set the guidelines for how Nevada should spend $2.7 billion in federal aid coming through the American Rescue Plan, including compensating for lost revenue by backfilling the general fund and paying back money borrowed to keep unemployment benefits flowing.

The measure, SB461, first calls on the state to determine how much revenue the state lost because of the pandemic and putting that amount into the general fund. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said guidance from the U.S. Treasury provides a formula for determining that amount, but the final figure has not yet been calculated, and he said it’s not necessary to know that before the session ends.

“It's quite a big number,” Brooks said. “Our revenue folks are putting all the different streams of revenue that we had losses in, putting that together now, to try to get through that calculation.”

Next, the bill calls for spending $335 million to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits. Heading into the pandemic, Nevada had nearly $2 billion in its unemployment trust fund, but burned through the money when hundreds of thousands of Nevada tapped into the benefits.

Traditionally, such borrowing would be paid back through a tax increase on employers.

The bill then sets aside nearly $21 million for public health expenditures such as mental health treatment and enhancements to public health data systems, and another $7.6 million to address food security.

“Those are two priorities that we have during the pandemic that are needs and still need to be met for Nevadans,” Brooks said. “And so that shows where our priorities lie.”

From there, the bill sets a variety of broad spending categories that align with a framework the governor and Democratic leaders released earlier this spring, but no specific expenditures. Those categories include increasing access to health care, strengthening public education and investing in infrastructure.

Brooks said it’s still not clear that lawmakers would be finishing the work of disbursing the federal funding through a special session; disbursement can also be accomplished through work programs coming through the Interim Finance Committee.

“I don't think it's guaranteed by any means,” Brooks said about a special session. “I think this gives us the authority to work on it in the interim.”

The bill, which is sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

IndieTalks: The Rise of the Nonpartisans in Nevada

The dramatic rise in non-major party voters will affect Nevada elections starting this cycle, and the party that figures out how to talk to and mobilize them will have a significant advantage.

That was the consensus of a panel that gathered at the Silver Legacy in Reno on Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by The Nevada Independent. The panel was: Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, a longtime nonpartisan; Don Carlson, a retired professor/pollster; Cecia Alvarado, Nevada state director of Mi Familia Vota; and Yindra Dixon of Blackbox Consulting Group.

The video and some photos are below.

Mixed signals from governor, election considerations blamed for failure of death penalty repeal effort

After more than 20 years of trying to ban the state’s death penalty, and following former death penalty stronghold Virginia's repeal of capital punishment in mid-March, activists hoped that the 2021 legislative session would finally be the time for Nevada to end capital punishment. 

But in spite of the state's Democratic trifecta, those efforts culminated in one of the biggest heartbreaks of the session for criminal justice reform advocates when the bill was spiked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democratic leaders earlier this month. 

Though no one has been executed in the state since 2006, the Clark County district attorney's office is now pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Advocates said the move made passing a repeal even more urgent this session.

So why did repeal fail?

No single cause of death is named on the legislative coroner's report, but interviews with involved parties suggest a combination of factors — ranging from personal belief, mixed gubernatorial signals, potential election-related considerations and the fact that the two senators responsible for hearing the bill work for the Clark County district attorney — helped kill the measure and keep Nevada as one of 24 states with the death penalty.

The entire debate takes place against the backdrop of a state still closely divided in party registration, with some top senators — including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — winning election by a single percentage point. Republicans flipped several legislative seats in the 2020 election, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s expected re-election challenger in 2022 is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — a candidate likely to highlight a message of law and order. 

Those political dynamics make public opinion a key consideration, but the data has been somewhat inconclusive. A 2017 poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent indicated that most Nevadans support the death penalty, but advocates have long questioned whether the solid tilt toward capital punishment had to do with the way the poll question was phrased.

Anti-death penalty activists commissioned a new survey released earlier this year that showed much closer results — and even a slight lean toward abolition — when questions were phrased differently.

Past legislative sessions have often seen a small group of progressive Democrats introduce capital punishment repeal bills, but the measures never advanced far, with leadership hesitant to push a politically dicey issue through the process in the face of a likely veto. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled opposition to a repeal bill, and after getting one committee hearing it was never brought up for a vote.

So, when Assembly members this session voted on party lines to abolish the death penalty, with Republicans opposed, activists celebrated the measure’s move out of committee to a floor vote, the furthest the concept had ever traveled in the Legislative Building. They said the bill was essential to doing away with an "eye for an eye" mentality and a practice they say does not help hurting families move on from violence, disproportionately affects people of color and is an expensive endeavor that could lead to killing innocent people.

Opponents, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and individuals who have lost loved ones to violence, however, pushed back against the repeal, saying the death penalty is necessary as a prosecutorial tool and should be an option for individuals who committed atrocities such as the October 1 shooting. 

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

During a hearing on the measure in late March, lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, received a death sentence in 2017.

"He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?,” Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that."

The measure had faced an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate — which is helmed by Cannizzaro, a prosecuting attorney for the Clark County district attorney. Cannizzaro was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether she would allow the bill to get a hearing if it passed the Assembly, including in a Nevada Independent forum ahead of the session in January, and maintained that noncommittal stance for months.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), a fellow prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and the key gatekeeper on the decision to give the bill a hearing, had appeared willing to give the bill a chance. Prior to the session, she had indicated her support for efforts to abolish the death penalty, and said just two weeks before the bill died that she would be willing to hear it if an amendment was brought forward addressing the concerns expressed by Sisolak.

During a brief interview with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Scheible said she would have considered an amendment with a broad base of support, but that nothing came to fruition. 

Schedules are constantly moving, she said, adding that she tries to make sure there is always time to hear a bill, but "it takes a lot of people in this government to make such a sweeping change and so without full consensus, we weren't able to."

Scott Coffee, a public defender, said a proposed amendment that had been drafted but never released publicly tracked closely with what the governor said was palatable — making exceptions for mass shootings and terrorism. The organization Gun Violence Archive has set a definition of mass shooting as four people shot but not necessarily killed in a single event.

That’s partly why an abrupt announcement — memorialized in a series of synchronized press releases from the governor and legislative leaders — that Nevada leaders were scrapping the bill came as a shock to those working on the cause. 

Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU speaks during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in front of the Legislative Building on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Branden Cunningham and Mark Bettencourt, leaders of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that there were ongoing conversations surrounding an amendment to the bill prior to its demise. 

"From everything we heard, [Scheible] was willing to work and hear the bill," Cunningham said. "We had heard that she had set time aside to hear the bill … the calendar was open … and instead of a hearing we got the three statements that came out."

Coffee said the press releases announcing that the bill would not advance were a surprise to him. Up to that point, advocates were actively working on the issue, hoping to connect lawmakers with the pollster commissioned by the coalition to assuage concerns.

"I have to believe the concern was over losing Senate seats," Coffee said. "There's always another election. There's always another excuse."

He said he wishes the governor would have shown more initiative on the matter but ultimately blamed senators for not hearing the bill.

“The Senate got accommodated on everything they asked for,” Coffee said. “It's laughable to talk about how good we did on criminal justice reform when we can't get a vote on a platform issue.”

Shortly after the announcement that the bill was dead, Cannizzaro defended the progress the Legislature had made on bail reform and police use of force, challenging people who say the Legislature was not doing enough. Asked whether she was personally in favor of a bill with a carveout for crimes such as mass shootings, Cannizzaro demurred.

“I don't think that I am opposed to having conversations on this topic. That has been happening,” Cannizzaro said. “Obviously Chair Yeager worked to try to come up with some compromise, and we're just not going to be able to get there.”

Though she supports the abolition of the death penalty, Scheible said the decision to not hear the bill was part of a broader discussion.

"I do work in a team and part of my job as the chair of a committee is to ensure that I am making good policy decisions, not pushing my own personal agenda," she said. "Sometimes I get to do the things that I personally want, sometimes I do the things that we need as a state, the things that my body supports, that our coalition supports, and so it's a group effort."

That group effort started and ended with Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades after his election in 2018, but who also was chair of the Clark County Commission when the worst mass shooting in American history took place in his jurisdiction. Sisolak was at the forefront of the response to the 1 October massacre and has talked about the effect the incident had on him personally and on his views of capital punishment during his 2018 campaign and beyond.

Sisolak had previously affirmed without qualification that he opposed the death penalty, but he never formally endorsed the legislation. Asked about the bill as the session progressed, Sisolak stuck tightly to talking points — even reading from a prepared statement when asked an impromptu question about the Assembly passing the bill — to emphasize that he opposed capital punishment but believed the measure is necessary for specific situations, such as mass shootings.

Sisolak’s hesitation over the legislation was likely heightened by the coming entrance of Lombardo into the 2022 governor’s race, where Democrats — with Joe Biden in the White House — are generally expected to suffer some midterm losses. Republicans in state and nationwide have used a pro-police campaign message in recent election cycles, so a death penalty repeal may have added more fuel to that campaign fire.

Past governors — such as Brian Sandoval in 2015 and Kenny Guinn in 2003 — opted to wait until their second term in office, post-midterms, to tackle high-profile policy goals.

A protester holds a candle in front of the Legislative Building during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Activists and advocates criticized lawmakers for not giving the bill a public hearing, though, calling the decision "undemocratic" during a protest and vigil last Monday.

"You have to answer to the people," Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project said during the protest. "It doesn't make sense that the death penalty bill is dead now, with no explanation, no checking in with the community."

Cunningham said those pushing for the abolition of the death penalty spoke with various senators and that it seemed as though most of them were open to considering the legislation.

At least one Republican lawmaker was a likely supporter of the bill — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).

"Generally I'm in favor of repealing it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think it makes a lot of fiscal sense, I think it makes a lot of moral sense."

Though she was disappointed and frustrated by the death of the bill, Monique Normand, an anti-death penalty activist whose uncle was murdered in 2017, told reporters after the vigil and protest that the death penalty would not have brought her uncle back and the fight is far from over.

“People's lives are on the line,” she said. “We do have to hold [lawmakers] accountable and we can't just let them get away with, ‘you're gonna vote for us.’ No, we don't have to vote for anyone, we can withhold our votes, our votes matter. Our lives matter.”

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee announces run for governor as Republican, weeks after switching parties

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee launched his campaign for governor on Monday, framing himself as a candidate who will fight socialism and cancel culture in Nevada.

His announcement featured an 80-second video that showed Lee riding a bicycle through the desert and included images that accompany his narration about his life. In the short “ride,” Lee tells his story — from starting up a plumbing business to being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer to running and being elected mayor of North Las Vegas to recently switching from Democrat to Republican.

“I’m running for Governor of Nevada because I want to stop our state’s tightening embrace of socialism and make Nevada the best state in the nation to work, raise a family, and visit,” Lee said in a tweet announcing his run for governor

In a press release, Lee said that Gov. Steve Sisolak has “mismanaged” the economy of Nevada, while he as mayor has “turned around” North Las Vegas from an “economically broken city” to one with a better environment for investors and new businesses, and said he plans to apply that philosophy with the rest of the state.

“I’ve always made my own path. Socialism is a cancer, and if we don’t fight back … it’ll kill us,” Lee narrates in the video. “By the grace of God, I beat cancer, and together as Republicans, we’ll beat this, too.”

In April, Lee announced that he was switching parties because of the state Democratic Party’s recent leadership takeover by members of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Lee was first elected as mayor of North Las Vegas in 2013. Prior to becoming mayor, he served as a Democratic member of the Legislature for 15 years – two terms in the Assembly from 1996 to 2000, and two terms in the state Senate from 2004 to 2012. Lee lost a state Senate re-election bid in 2012 in the primary to Democrat and current office-holder, Sen. Pat Spearman, whose campaign was supported by party members and advocates who believed Lee was too conservative.

In 2011, Lee said he was going to run for Congress but later dropped out, citing support for his colleague, Rep. Steven Horsford, as the reason.

Lee also said in the press release that he will stand up for Nevadans’ constitutional rights and focus on embracing small government, as well as defending free speech, protecting unborn life and supporting the right to bear arms.

Lee is the only announced candidate against Sisolak, who is seeking re-election in 2022. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, Rep. Mark Amodei and former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, all Republicans, have also said they are considering running for governor.

In 2020, Sisolak reported raising upwards of $2.4 million for his re-election bid.  

Nevada’s gubernatorial election candidate filing period is not until next March.

Contentious bill expanding whistleblower protections passes in spite of business pushback

Senate chambers

A bill codifying whistleblower protections in state law passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Friday, but still faces opposition from Republican lawmakers and business groups. 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), AB222 aims to expand existing protections for “whistleblower” employees from retaliation by their employer in cases of reporting illegal or unsafe workplace conditions to a supervisor or employer, instead of solely having those protections when they report to a government entity such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

On Friday, committee members voted 4-3 to pass the measure with the promise that another amendment will be filed prior to a floor vote. The bill previously passed out of the Assembly on a party-line 26-16 vote in April.

Torres said the bill would resolve the issue of employees being too afraid to talk to a supervisor if something doesn’t seem right, and encourage employees and employers to have open conversations. 

As it currently stands, if an employee feels unsafe at work and reports the issue to an external authority such as OSHA or the state Labor Commissioner's Office, they are guaranteed whistleblower protections — but the protection is not guaranteed to employees who report issues to a supervisor or other authority within their place of employment. 

“I just want to make it abundantly clear that this piece of legislation is aimed at targeting bad actors. So this is not going to just impact your business who lets go of somebody because they have proof that the individual has been taking extended lunches or something like that. It doesn't prevent that,” Torres said at an earlier committee hearing in May. 

The bill would codify whistleblower protections for employees as interpreted by the Nevada Supreme Court and established after the 1989 Wiltsie v. Baby Grand Corp. case. The Supreme Court determined that an employer violates the protections of a “whistleblower” if the employer terminates them because the employee reported to an external authority, but ruled that the protections do not extend to a whistleblower who reports such conduct only to a supervisor or other person within the employer’s organization.

But those in opposition say the bill would create an incentive for unhappy employees to create problems and file lawsuits against their employers. Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) also said the bill goes against the “interests of private industry.”

“I'd be perfectly okay with this bill, but this goes so much farther ... in the mind of those that I spoke to, it creates a definite incentive for disgruntled employees to really create havoc in business,” Pickard said during the bill’s committee vote on Friday. “Although they may be relatively small in number, it's going to affect whatever the prices are that that business has to charge … If that amendment comes through and softens the harshness of this, I might vote yes on the floor.”

In previous hearings, Clark County, the Vegas Chamber, the Henderson Chamber, the Nevada Resort Association, the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Nevada and the Associated General Contractors Nevada Chapter all testified in opposition of the bill,  arguing that the measure is too broad and current law is sufficient.

Since it was introduced in March, the bill has been amended several times, including to remove a section that would have allowed courts to award costs and attorney’s fees to an employee involved in a lawsuit. 

Another amendment removes language authorizing an employee who experienced “unlawful employment practices” and brought a civil action against the employer to obtain damages equal to the amount of the lost wages and benefits. However, the employee is still able to bring the suit for any future compensatory damages, which would have to be shown in court.

The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it will have to pass before the May 21 deadline for second house passage. Torres said she would continue to work on an amendment with interested parties to resolve any lingering issues. 

“While the amendment is not ready today, I know that we are close to finding some type of agreement between ourselves and other key stakeholders and I'm confident that we will be able to get many of our stakeholders to neutral with that language,” she said. “This really empowers the employer to have conversations with their team about safety and deal with issues in house, it prevents accidents since employees feel confident talking to employers about unsafe working environments.”

Governor’s office not considering early end for federal unemployment benefits

Gov. Steve Sisolak is not considering ending federal unemployment benefits early, even though several states are declining the help amid concerns that businesses are having trouble finding willing workers, a spokeswoman said on Friday.

As of Thursday, at least 16 states — all with Republican governors — had announced plans to turn down benefits, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming. Many of the governors have said programs such as the $300-per-week add-on to base benefits is harming the workforce by discouraging people from getting a job, but Sisolak’s office is taking a different tack.

“At this time, there are no conversations taking place on ending this benefit early,” his spokeswoman, Meghin Delaney, told The Nevada Independent on Friday.

The programs were extended through early September. Effective this month, however, Nevada claimants are once again required to certify they are searching for work in order to receive benefits.

The latest week’s statistics show that there are about 230,180 people in Nevada filing for unemployment benefits through available programs. That’s down from 237,749 continued claims from the week earlier, but still accounts for about 15 percent of the civilian labor force.

More than $133 million was paid out in unemployment benefits in the most recent week in Nevada, with nearly 80 percent coming from federally funded programs that were not available before the pandemic and are being retired early by some other states.

Observers in Nevada say a variety of factors are at play for businesses having a hard time filling certain positions. While some blame the attractiveness of more-generous-than-normal unemployment benefits, others say families are staying on the benefits because they lack reliable child care, and others say it’s on businesses to pay workers a more competitive wage.

Overall, however, statistics show an improving employment picture in Nevada. For the most recent week, the number of initial claims for regular unemployment is the lowest it has been during the pandemic, falling below the number of claims filed the week before the pandemic.

Sisolak pushes effort to fund, restructure state infrastructure bank

In 2017, the Legislature voted to create the state infrastructure bank, but lawmakers have never allocated funds to get the bank off of the ground. Gov. Steve Sisolak is looking to change that. 

On Monday, the Democratic governor traveled from his office to the Legislature to give in-person testimony about his plans to re-energize the bank, which was created with bipartisan support and would give the state the ability to offer loans and financing for infrastructure projects. 

“Launching the state's infrastructure bank will play a major role in helping to immediately create pathways for good paying jobs in Nevada, while helping to build projects for communities who need it,” Sisolak said during a committee hearing. “We know that our state needs better roads, better schools, more affordable housing and more sustainable forms of energy.”

The hearing focused on SB430, the governor’s proposal to restructure the bank. The proposal expands eligibility for financing to projects that seek to tackle several pressing issues, including renewable energy, access to health care, affordable housing, food insecurity and water. It would also add a representative from the Governor’s Office of Energy to the bank’s board. 

But SB430 is meant to complement Sisolak’s $75 million budget proposal to fund the bank. That appropriation, Treasurer Zach Conine said at the hearing, would be enough seed funding to get the long-sought infrastructure bank going. Yet the bank will need more funding in the future. 

The initial $75 million in funding would come through a general obligation bond through the Treasury. But Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he was “alarmed at the small number,” noting that other states have faltered in establishing infrastructure banks because they were undercapitalized. Conine acknowledged that the $75 million is only a starting point for the bank.

He said federal recovery and infrastructure funding could be layered onto the seed money, and there might be opportunities for private investment once the bank was operational. He said there are “billions of dollars in capital” from pension funds and investors seeking a high return without making a riskier bet on the stock market. 

“We think, based on all of our conversations and talking to these funds, that there's an opportunity for that money to come to Nevada,” he said. “This is the tool that helps us get it.”

Lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee also wanted to ensure that the bank was filling gaps in the current system and reaching out to communities that could most benefit from the financing. Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) stressed the importance of reaching out to underserved communities, especially as it related to entrepreneurship in the new energy economy. 

During the hearing, Conine said “the focus of the infrastructure bank is on helping underserved and unserved communities.” That mission, he suggested, could be incorporated into the bank’s rubric for identifying projects. Lawmakers voted SB430 out of committee on Wednesday.

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