Nevada Democrats are promising the most expansive, accessible caucus. What does the past tell about the future?

Democratic supporters cheer at the the Nevada Democratic Party election night event at Caesars Palace

When Harry Reid secured Nevada its third in the nation and first in the West spot in the presidential nominating process a dozen years ago, his pitch was simple.

Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to participate, don’t look like the rest of the nation. Nevada does.

The Silver State has held three early nominating contests since Reid’s successful pitch, and will hold its fourth in less than a month. But the culture of caucusing in Nevada is still young, especially compared to Iowa, which has held its first in the nation caucus for nearly a half century. In Nevada, it can be difficult to get people to turn out to events. And unlike the barnstorms across Iowa, most of the campaigning here is limited to the state’s two metro areas.

The caucus process, at its ideal, is an apparatus for party-building. You bring together a bunch of enthusiastic Democrats in a room with their neighbors and let them fight and scream and laugh over who ought to be the presidential nominee. You let non-Democrats show up on the day of the caucus to register and participate as well. You make people feel like they truly had a say in the process.

The Democratic Party talks a lot about building a bigger tent. But its caucus process hasn’t always been met with enthusiasm. The process of showing up in a room to publicly declare your support for a candidate is unfamiliar to those accustomed to the privacy of a voting booth. Plus, you can't just show up at your convenience. You have to arrive at noon on a Saturday and commit a couple of hours to the process.

Only about 27 percent of Democrats, about 118,000 people, showed up to caucus in 2008, and even fewer — 17 percent, about 84,000 — showed up in 2016. For scale, there are a little under 1.6 million people registered to vote in Nevada.

Who are those caucusgoers, though? Ask people involved In voter engagement efforts here, and they'll typically shrug.

But a Democratic voter database obtained by The Nevada Independent from the Nevada State Democratic Party hints at who the state’s Democratic caucusgoers are. The data suggest that many of them are female, older and live in the suburbs, with a significant concentration of caucusgoers in Northern Nevada. But there’s a caveat: The database only includes current registered Democratic voters who have previously caucused and is missing past caucusgoers who have either moved or let their voter registrations go inactive.

The shorter, simpler answer to who historically caucuses in Nevada is those who have had the incentive and the means to show up to a neighborhood caucus site at noon on a Saturday — like party activists — something the party is trying to change this year with the addition of four days of early voting across the state that will give caucusgoers an experience more akin to what they’re used to on Election Day.

“I think, typically, when we look at previous caucuses this was a one-day event where people who had the time and the ability to show up and participate for hours would be the individuals who would show up and participate for hours,” said Alana Mounce, executive director of the state Democratic Party. ”That’s why we’ve made these important changes.”

A desk and chair with Democratic party signs sitting on top.
The Nevada State Democratic Party met in the morning of National Voter Registration Day to trade notes and get ready to start going door to door in neighborhoods and areas across Las Vegas on Sept. 24, 2019. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

Who caucuses

The first thing to note about the Democratic voter database obtained by the Independent is its scope. The database includes about 67,000 registered Democrats who caucused in 2016, or about 80 percent of the total caucusgoers that year, and about 41,000 who caucused in 2008, or about 35 percent.

On their own, those numbers reveal just how difficult it is to convince people to caucus in a transient state such as Nevada. About 20 percent of Democratic caucusgoers from just four years ago are no longer part of the database, likely because they either moved or their voter registration has gone inactive. It’s a difficulty Mounce acknowledges.

“We are a transient state. People are coming in and staying and leaving and moving and changing their phone number,” she said. “That’s why we prioritize as a state party doing robust voter registration efforts this cycle, and that’s why we’re proud to offer same day voter registration for every part of our caucus process.”

The database is also a snapshot in time of the present day, revealing details about where past caucusgoers currently live, their current age and their sex. That means someone who caucused in 2016 in Las Vegas but has since moved to Reno would show up in the dataset under their Northern Nevada address. (The dataset doesn’t include race or ethnicity because those details aren’t captured on voter registration forms.)

But the data offer some helpful perspective on where caucusgoers may have caucused in the past and other characteristics about them.

For instance, five of the nine Assembly Districts in the Reno-Sparks area rank among the top 10 in the state for the most caucusgoers from 2016. The other top ranking districts were all in the suburban parts of Southern Nevada, including Henderson, Summerlin and the Southwest. The Assembly Districts with the fewest number of caucusgoers from 2016, by contrast, were all either deep blue districts in Southern Nevada with significant communities of color, including East Las Vegas, the Historic West Side and Chinatown, or ruby-red districts in rural Nevada.

That there would be low turnout in the rural portions of the state makes sense. Fewer registered Democrats live there. What’s less expected is the lower turnout among districts that have long been Democratic strongholds.

There are a couple of ways to read the data out of those districts. It could reveal the challenges that campaigns historically have had in getting underrepresented communities out to caucus. Or, if even if the missing data disproportionately come from those Assembly Districts, it could indicate the challenges in ensuring Democrats in those communities remain actively registered and are re-registered as they move.

Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107, noted the difficulties the union had in getting low-propensity voters, particularly in communities of color, to engage in the caucus process four years ago.

“One of the first challenges we had was not just teaching people how to caucus, it was teaching people that the caucus was for them,” Shepherd said. "A lot of low-income and Latinx households, there was this belief that we ran into that caucusing was for people really active in the party. So we had to do a whole series of education with folks around ‘everybody gets to go caucus.’”

Mounce acknowledged that there are “a lot of various reasons” that there could be fewer registered Democrats who caucused in 2016 in those districts.

“I think you have to remember that this data is more like a sample size,” Mounce said. “It’s just this one marker in time.”

The data also point at the strength the die-hard Democratic party activists may have in certain pockets of the state, such as in Northern Nevada, and how campaigns may have strategically allocated their resources to get them to turn out.

“Democrats in Washoe County, I think, are incredibly engaged. I think we have the same case in Southern Nevada, but I think it is a little less transient,” Mounce said. “Perhaps that has something to do with Democrats in Northern Nevada appearing to show up in higher numbers, but I think a lot of this is campaigns prioritizing and working on turning out caucusgoers for their candidates as well.”

The dataset also suggests that Democratic caucusgoers tend to be older — something that also is true in regular elections — though, again, the data reflect caucusgoers’ current age and not the age they were when they caucused and, therefore, is skewed older. Prior caucusgoers also tended to be overwhelmingly female — 61 percent female to 39 percent male in 2008 and 56 percent female to 42 percent male in 2016 — which is also generally true in traditional elections.

The addition of early voting

What none of the data do, though, is tell us who will turn out to caucus next month.

The party has taken steps in the past to try to make the caucus more accessible by offering presidential preference cards in Spanish and providing several at-large caucus precincts on the Strip to allow casino workers to easily caucus while on shift. But this year for the first time, the party is adding four days of early voting all across Nevada, from the East Las Vegas Community Center to the Eureka Opera House.

People who decide to vote early will cast their presidential preferences — ranking up to five candidates — and that information will be shared with their home precinct on Caucus Day. Bottom line: Their votes will be counted just as if they had been there to caucus in person.

“I’m excited about the early voting, I think for people like me it’s been really helpful because it gets more of our folks engaged. Our folks have full time jobs and could work on the weekends as well, I think just the nature of the state and the folks we have here,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “It makes it easier to participate when that function exists, always. We see that during regular voting.”

No one knows exactly how it might affect turnout, though, and party officials haven’t been willing to even give a rough estimate of how many people they think might show up to caucus this year. Early voting in traditional primary and general elections is by far the most popular method of voting here, with more than 550,000 people, or 57 percent, of voters casting ballots early in Nevada’s 2018 midterm election.

"Because we’ve never done it before, there’s no baseline,” Mounce said. “The goal for us is, are we providing as many options and locations for as many Nevadans to participate as possible to achieve our goal overall of an expansive, accessible and transparent process?”

Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said that people have long complained to her that the process isn’t democratic. Her response is that they haven’t been meant to be.

“It’s hard for people with disabilities who can’t stand. It’s hard for people with children. It’s a long afternoon. It’s hard for people who work a job that doesn’t have predictable scheduling, maybe at the last minute you’re scheduled for a shift. But it’s not meant to be democratic,” Martin said. “The parties control them. The caucuses were meant for the hardcore activists of the party to nominate someone to represent them. I think sometimes people need to recognize that. It’s not that I agree with that. I just recognize it’s the hard core activists who would skip work to pick a nominee.”

One area where the party believes early voting may help significantly with turnout is among young people. Mark Riffenburg, the state director of NextGen America, which focuses on outreach to young people, agrees.

NextGen, which is one of only a few groups in Nevada doing non-candidate specific voter engagement work ahead of the caucus, is planning to get at least 2,000 young people to pledge to participate in the caucus next month. And he’s optimistic about the addition of early voting this year.

“I think what probably goes without saying is the turnout in 2016 for the caucus was obviously smaller than what you’d expect from a more pure voting kind of thing. The caucus format, while certainly it is good for party building and other political elements, isn't necessarily the most straightforward,” Riffenburg said. “I think when most people and young people in general think about voting, they think about showing up to their polling place, casting a ballot and calling it a day.”

To that end, the party is offering early voting at all three College of Southern Nevada campuses and UNLV from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 18, and four days of early voting at UNR, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 15 through Feb. 18.

“The fact that there’s early voting on college campuses is a very good thing for the process,” Riffenburg said. “I think as progressives we’re always fired up about making voting as easy as possible for folks.”

He said that NextGen is still planning to put together a “barebones” training on how to caucus on Caucus Day. But so far, he said the younger voters engaged by his team seem to be leaning toward early voting.

“It’s the simplest option for young people, and it’s going to give them a better experience,” Riffenburg said. “I think if we have more folks there, better for us, better for them.”

Carlos Escoto with Mi Famila, tries to register shoppers outside Cardenas Market during the first day of early voting on Saturday, May 26, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Boosting diversity in the caucus

Other voter engagement organizations are looking forward to the addition of early voting as well, and eyeing how that could boost turnout among specific voter groups who have historically been underrepresented in elections. 

Alma Delia Romo, Nevada state coordinator for the Latino voter engagement nonprofit Mi Familia Vota, said that the organization’s canvassers have been highlighting early vote locations at a Cardenas Market, a Latino grocery store, in East Las Vegas and the East Las Vegas Community Center. 

“It is definitely accessible for the working class, for people who have two jobs, who have a family. It definitely helps for the early voting because you don’t have to go there and be there the entire day,” Romo said. “You can go in and out as simple as that.”

She added that Mi Familia Vota also plans to co-host a series of Spanish-language caucus trainings with the presidential campaigns over the next few weeks to boost Latino turnout. Nearly 30 percent of Nevada’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

“It can be complicated,” she said. “Getting rid of that language barrier really helps, and you can reach out to a lot of folks in a lot of different communities.”

The Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus has been engaging in similar work, recently hosting a mock caucus focused on young Asian American voters, and for the first time, the state Democratic Party will offer presidential preference cards in Tagalog. Organizers in the AAPI community, which represents about 10 percent of the population in Nevada, are hoping that AAPI voters will represent about 6 percent or 7 percent of Democratic caucusgoers this year; they made up about 3 percent of caucusgoers in 2008 and 5 percent in 2016.  

By contrast, Native American organizers in Nevada have been significantly ramping up their voter outreach efforts ahead of the caucus and, more generally, before the general election. Four Directions, a Native voter engagement organization, co-hosted a presidential candidate forum with Nevada’s tribes at UNLV earlier this month, and even hosted a Native-specific caucus training. Indigenous people make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population, with significant pockets living on reservations in rural Nevada.

Other groups are focused on other pockets of voters, including LGBTQ Nevadans, climate change voters and union members.

The Human Rights Campaign, which has a total of five staffers in the state, recently co-hosted two LGBTQ focused caucus trainings in Las Vegas and Reno in coordination with the state Democratic Party and is focusing on turning some of the 650,000 people in Nevada they have identified as so-called equality voters to turnout to caucus next month.

“Our biggest priorities are voter turnout, voter education and voter recruitment,” HRC state director Briana Escamilla said. “Making calls to members, supporters, equality voters about if they’re caucusing, when they’re caucusing, organizing around those issues more than any specific candidate.”

At the same time, the Nevada Conservation League and its Latino-engagement focused arm, Chispa, are hosting caucus trainings for their members as well in both English and Spanish for the first time ever this year, as the issue of climate change has grown in importance to voters over the last four years. According to the Nevada Conservation League, 37 percent of their members caucused in 2016, and they’re hoping even more of their 33,000 members will show up to caucus this year.

“I think it’s important that we create a space where Nevadans that care about climate can make their voice heard,” said Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “We can train them about how to caucus, but how to talk about climate change while you’re caucusing and how that’s impacting your decision on who you’re caucusing for as the next president.”

Some of Nevada’s unions, meanwhile, have hosted presidential candidates for roundtables and forums and are hosting caucus trainings for members, but have largely — with the exception of the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders this month — stayed on the sidelines in the race.

Shepherd, the chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107, did however acknowledge that the union’s efforts will likely ramp up significantly should the union endorse.

“There’s no doubt if we endorse it would sharpen our efforts on member turnout and participation,” Shepherd said. “Right now we’re doing general education on the process and around the presidential campaign.”

At the heart of these voter engagement efforts is a core belief, about the importance of diversity and ensuring that the group of people who picks the next Democratic presidential nominee is as representative as possible. That means both promoting Nevada as the first truly diverse state to participate in the presidential nominating process and making sure that the Nevadans who caucus are representative of their state's diversity.

“I do think that, as corny as it sounds, I do think the road to the White House does go down Las Vegas Boulevard. Our state represents as closely to the demographics of the rest of the country as any other primary state,” Martin said. “We have rural. We have urban. We have a strong Latino population, a growing Asian population, black communities, new immigrants, fourth generation Nevadans. We represent the entire cross section of the country.”

Update 1-26-19 at 8:32 p.m. to correct that the early voting site at UNR will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. all four days. The Nevada State Democratic Party's website previously incorrectly listed that the early voting site would be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the final day of early voting.

Climate change, conservation and development: Reshuffling the deck on the Las Vegas lands bill

What is the Clark County lands bill really about? It all depends who you ask.

For more than two years, Clark County officials have worked on crafting a proposal to expand the federal public land available for development, while meeting their responsibilities to protect imperiled species such as the Mojave desert tortoise. In 2018, the County Commission voted to send the proposal to Congress with buy-in from developers but criticism from environmental groups.

In recent weeks, that criticism — that the bill would subvert environmental laws and undermine climate change efforts — has reached an apex, most notably during a heated KNPR segment.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is working to change the conversation, especially as it relates to conservation. To do that, the senator’s staff began floating legislative language — known as a “discussion draft” — Tuesday that aims to resolve some of the most controversial aspects of the county’s plan. 

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Cortez Masto said that the purpose of the discussion draft was to foster a new round of discussions that moves groups toward finding common ground. 

“It should go toward a final product that really does allow Clark County to plan for the growth in a sustainable, predictable and responsible manner, while also protecting our pristine lands and environment,” she said. “At the end of the day, the county has to plan. We have a growing community and population there. We need to make sure they have the ability to plan for that [and] be flexible in a state where 85 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.”

The proposal attempts to strike a balance. It aims to satisfy Clark County’s concerns over limits on future growth while addressing concerns from a conservation community with split opinions.

Still, the process is far from over. Negotiations over the proposed bill are likely to continue. The proposal is just draft legislation. It has not been introduced in Congress. Cortez Masto said that she plans to continue working with the delegation, the county and groups to craft final legislation. 

Shaaron Netherton, executive director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, characterized the new draft as an improvement that protects more federal land, but she added that there is more work that needs to be done.

“It's complicated, and it takes time to work through all of the issues,” she said.

Although it could protect more than twice as much federal land from development, concerns remain over what the proposal might mean for growth and threatened species, namely the desert tortoise. The proposal also leaves room for Las Vegas to develop southward along I-15. Such a move, a new coalition of groups has argued, could amplify the effects of climate change. 

“While there are improvements from the county's disaster of a bill draft, this doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of allowing Las Vegas to sprawl outside the Las Vegas Valley," Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday evening. 

Reshuffling the politics?

The new discussion draft, in many ways, is a response to nearly two years of criticism over the county’s original request, viewed by many groups as favoring development over conservation.

A map showing the boundaries of proposed conservation under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

To offset additional development, the draft language would protect about 308,110 acres of public land as wilderness. It also expands the border of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by 69,201 acres, preserving a popular recreation destination for climbers and hikers.

The bill would expand land for the Moapa Band of Paiutes by 41,228 acres. It floats the idea of creating a new national monument. And it conditionally protects another 353,716 acres of land.

It changed language around the Endangered Species Act that several groups, from the Center for Biological Diversity to The Nature Conservancy, were concerned could undermine the law. 

"It's an improvement, but we still have concerns," Donnelly said.

It removed language that concerned opponents of the Las Vegas pipeline, a proposal to pump groundwater from Eastern Nevada as a way to supplement the city’s Colorado River supply.

“What they have put together is really well-thought out and addresses many of the concerns that the conservationists raised with the draft,” said Justin Jones, a Clark County commissioner.

Map of public land.
A map showing the boundaries of federal public land available for development under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

But some groups remained concerned that the legislation does not go far enough to address climate change. In fact, they argue the legislation could hinder the ability to tackle warming.

In a statement on Tuesday, Brian Beffort, director of the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter, thanked the senator for working to achieve a balance, but said he was concerned about the potential growth. 

The bill would open up more than 42,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley to potential development, while it would reduce the amount open to development in other areas. 

Industry groups, including the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association and the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, see a growing population on the horizon. Las Vegas is expected to add about 600,000 people over the next four decades. And they see themselves as landlocked. 

Federal land managers, namely the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, control most of the land around the Las Vegas Valley. With a growing population, industry groups argue that there is a need to free up new land to lower land prices, and in turn, attract new business and housing.

“We're a growing community,” Amber Stidham, director of government affairs for the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday. “I understand the need for not becoming too much of a sprawled community. But the fact is that 85 percent of the state is public land. We are one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. And we're surrounded by federal public land.”

The legislation would direct growth around the I-15 corridor toward California. 

Yet land use is tied to addressing climate change. And some groups worry directing growth toward the outskirts of the valley, rather than directing growth up, could only make addressing climate change that much more difficult.

“Las Vegas is already one of the fastest-warming cities in the nation, our air quality is among the worst in the nation, and our water future is uncertain at best,” Beffort wrote in an email after the discussion draft was released. “This legislation could be a vehicle for meaningful climate action. But in what we've seen so far, it isn't. We're afraid it's only going to make things worse.”

This tension over growth has been present from the start.

Clark County Commissioners during a board meeting on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A delayed commission vote

In 2017, representatives from conservation and environmental organizations huddled in an office at Clark County’s Department of Air Quality. It’s an agency that has a misleading name. 

For years, it has done much more than help regulate emissions from vehicles and industry. One example of its breadth: It is responsible for ensuring compliance with endangered species rules. For this reason, it is looking to restructure as the Department of Environment and Sustainability.

At that meeting in 2017, representatives from the conservation community were briefed on a new project. For several attendees of the meeting, it was the first time that they were hearing about the proposal. The department was seeking congressional legislation that would secure more land for development by adjusting the boundaries of federal public land within the county. 

Immediately, there were environmental concerns. The county’s plan would direct the trajectory of Las Vegas’ growth for decades. How would it affect federal public land used for recreation and conservation? How would it affect imperiled species, namely the declining Mojave desert tortoise population? Did it comply with the Endangered Species Act? The proposal could protect more federal public land. But was it long-lasting enough to offset the effect of new development? 

The groups were told that the County Commission would weigh the proposal at its next meeting.

That didn’t end up happening.

The groups were successful in delaying the county’s process. It wasn’t until June 2018 that the commission voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal. Once the vote happened, the county continued tweaking the bill as the delegation started looking at crafting its own draft. 

But by the time that vote came around, environmental groups found themselves with differing opinions. Most of them were opposed to the bill or neutral. Other groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, were vehemently opposed. Save added conservation and a few provisions, the Sierra Club said it was “a terrible step forward” (emphasis taken from the group’s comment letter). 

Two groups — the Nevada Conservation League and the Conservation Lands Foundation — commented in support of the proposal, arguing it was only a first step; things could change.

After the vote, groups began directing their concerns toward the delegation, and their positions revealed a significant tension over what environmental goals the bill should accomplish.

Homes under construction about two miles north of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A more sprawling debate

Last week, a new coalition came to the table: the Nevada Climate Justice Coalition.

The coalition, comprising 350.org, Mi Familia Vota, Moms Clean Air Force, Ecomadres, PLAN, Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement, formed in response to the county’s initial proposal. The goal of the coalition was to bring more urgency to the justice and equity issues associated with sprawl. And on Monday, the coalition released a letter to the delegation telling it to slow down.

Former County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani also signed the letter. Giunchigliani, who ran for governor in 2018, originally voted for the county’s proposal but has withdrawn her support.

The coalition recommended the delegation “postpone passing legislation that has the potential to expand Las Vegas’ footprint — and the associated climate and equity impacts — until strong sustainability, climate-resiliency and equity policies are in place at the county level.”

Their ask offers an alternative approach to the course many groups have been taking. 

If the bill is going to allow for the potential southward expansion of the Las Vegas Valley toward the California border, they want assurances in advance that the county will take climate change effects into account. How will more development increase the urban heat island? What will it mean to have more vehicles on the road? Will the county prioritize and incentivize infill first?

The proposed legislation expands the federal land available for purchase by developers. But it does not guarantee that all of that land — about 32,000 acres — will be sold to developers. 

“If this public lands bill moves forward, that does not mean the lands are going to be [sold],” said Stidham, with the chamber. “It means that we are providing more authority to the municipalities."

Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said that it will be up to policymakers to ensure that climate change is taken into account. He added that “there is nothing in here that says the historic trends of Southern Nevada have to continue.”

But others believe that simply expanding the land available to developers, will squeeze natural ecosystems in an area where there is already increased development pressure on public land. 

Shaun Gonzales, who writes the Mojave Desert Blog and is on the board of Basin and Range Watch, said that environmentalists should not rely on politicians to check desert development.

“They can't guarantee who is going to be on that commission down the road,” he said. “Once the land is made available to developers, that begets its own political and economic pressures.”

Most groups agree that climate change should be part of the equation as the Las Vegas Valley looks at a growing population, but they ask whether the legislation is the right place to do that. 

Jocelyn Torres, Nevada director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, noted that jurisdiction is multi-layered when it comes to creating policy for an issue as systemic as climate change.

“I'm not sure all the answers are in this legislation,” Torres said. 

How the bill moves forward

None of this is happening in a vacuum. 

Across the state, counties from Pershing to Washoe are working on bills that would change the status of federal land within their boundaries. Those processes could lead to more conserved federal land for recreation and wildlife. They could also open more public land to development. 

At the same time, the military is proposing significant expansions of two testing ranges — one in Southern Nevada and one in Northern Nevada — that are used to train for modern air combat. 

In an interview with reporters last week, Rep. Mark Amodei proposed combining some of the legislation to make passage before Congress more likely. Amodei, in the interview, also warned that it would be more difficult to pass legislation after July 4th as attention shifted to the election.

When asked how the Clark County legislation could move through Congress, Cortez Masto said she was not sure how the legislation would proceed. Her focus, she said, is drafting a final bill.

“I don’t know how it’s going to move,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s important that we work with the county and local government and the stakeholders who are interested in working together to find common ground to come up with a final product. And then I will work with our delegation in finding a vehicle and figuring out how we pass it through Congress.”

Humberto Sanchez contributed reporting to this article.

Multimillion-dollar marketing contract with Raiders draws scrutiny at water authority's advisory committee

A photo rendering of the Las Vegas Stadium

A contentious $30 million, 10-year marketing deal between the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Raiders is still on the table after two months of delay, but several members of an advisory panel that was tasked to review the agreement have raised questions about how cost-effective it is.

The deal — a multi-year contract for digital and physical advertising and other outreach perks involving Raiders branding and team members — was discussed Wednesday during a two-hour presentation on the agency’s conservation efforts to date. Business and conservation voices on the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee brought up several concerns about the contract, including its target audience and unpredictable outcomes in customer behavior.

“Looking at where that advertising is happening … Is it the people in the Las Vegas Valley who need to hear it or is it a stadium full of people from out of state?” asked Andy Maggi, a committee member and executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “I think differentiating where the targeting is happening, with that amount of money, is very important.”

Two committee members, Nevada Resort Association chief Virginia Valentine and economist John Restrepo, agreed that the proposed outreach and marketing efforts do not guarantee that customers will conserve more water.

“I don’t know how you tease out, with the Raiders sponsorship, enhanced compliance,” Valentine said. “If enhanced compliance means getting people to not water on Sunday, and all the stuff in the campaign is geared toward the [Vegas Golden] Knights or Raiders telling you not to water on Sunday, it seems like a really difficult thing to measure.”

Valentine also expressed concern about the length of the contract, saying that changes in technology might provide more efficient conservation means that would have more predictable returns on investment than the Raiders outreach effort might have.

Officials have said that the marketing campaign would allow the water authority to reach an estimated 169 million impressions and would yield an annual average estimated water savings of 900 million gallons.

General Manager John Entsminger said that outreach efforts cannot be quantified in terms of gallons per capita per day (GPCD) customers use, but that outreach efforts provide a needed boost to achieve the water authority’s 105 GPCD benchmark goal. In 2018, the GPCD was hovering around that, at 113.

The contract, which the water authority board and the Raiders have been negotiating since July, had not been presented to the committee for consideration prior to Wednesday’s meeting, according to water authority public services senior manager Scott Huntley. It was initially scheduled for approval during the November meeting of the full SNWA board, but was re-scheduled for the advisory board’s meeting in January.

Huntley said the decision on the Raiders deal, which was presented to the advisory committee as part of the conservation package presented on Wednesday, was deferred so that the board could “take the temperature” of the committee before proceeding. 

The advisory committee is expected to produce a recommendation report on all conservation strategies proposed to the committee by March. Depending on those recommendations, the board may choose to act on the Raiders deal as a separate item, or group the multi-million dollar contract in with the larger conservation package that was presented to the committee on Wednesday — similar to marketing deals between the authority and the Vegas Golden Knights and the Aviators minor league baseball team. 

Disclosure: Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson's media consulting firm, E Thompson Media, helps produce "the Stat Pack" and "Fact Pack," a business and economic website and newsletter co-published by John Restrepo.

'Expanded solar access' bill would expand renewable footprint, but limits community solar aspect

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

For a state that prides itself on an abundance of solar energy, a significant number of Nevadans who don’t live in the right homes or have adequate finances remain unable to tap into the state’s lucrative programs for installing rooftop solar.

Although finding a way for the more than 500,000 renters and others unable to access traditional rooftop solar programs hasn’t drawn the same public attention as the much-publicized 2016 battle over net metering, state lawmakers are considering a bill this legislative session creating a pilot program for expanded solar access aimed at helping low-income and other individuals unable to access rooftop solar. The bill also contains limited provisions allowing for community solar gardens — which allow multiple individuals or businesses to subscribe and receive benefits from a smaller-scale solar project on a centrally-located property.

AB465, scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure on Tuesday, represents the last, best chance for renewable energy advocates to leave the 2019 legislative session with a bill that would directly expand direct solar access and likely lower electric prices for thousands of Nevadans priced out of traditional rooftop solar systems.

But it also represents a significant departure from efforts in other states and in prior legislative sessions to create a community solar model, instead granting multiple benefits and running the program through the state’s incumbent utility (and previous foe of community solar) NV Energy.

“We'd like to see community solar in Nevada and I think it's sort of perplexing how we found ourselves in this situation,” said Jeffery Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “On one hand, it's a great thing to lower energy bills for 45,000 potential families in need. That's a great thing to do, but it's not community solar.”

Still, renewable advocates say that regardless of the form, the need for expanded access to solar is abundantly clear, especially as other bills creating a more traditional community solar program and a “tenant solar” program for apartment-dwellers have failed to advance past legislative deadlines.

“When we talk about access, it's not like everyone needs a rooftop solar panel on their house. It's access to those benefits,” Nevada Conservation League president Andy Maggi said. “All those benefits that we talk about with rooftop solar and clean energy shouldn't just be for a handful of Nevadans. They should be for everyone.”

The bill creates a pilot program dubbed “expanded solar access,” requiring NV Energy to submit a plan to the Public Utilities Commission with implementation details and a capacity of 23,000 customers in Southern Nevada and 19,000 in Northern Nevada. It requires half of the program enrollment be reserved for retail customers who cannot install solar at their home, and a quarter each reserved for low-income customers and for disadvantaged businesses plus nonprofit organizations.

The bill requires any such solar access plan to include a “reasonable” mix of utility-scale and community solar projects, as well as community involvement as to where community solar sites are placed and a workforce development component such as apprenticeships. It also requires the program to offer a fixed rate, including bill savings for any low-income customers, but only a requirement for “stability and predictability and the opportunity for bill savings” for other program enrollees.

Notably, the bill will allow electric production for the program to come from the six planned utility-scale solar projects with more than 1,001 megawatts of generating capacity approved in late 2018 by the PUC. Although it requires a mix of those projects and “community” solar resources, the bill restricts construction of between three to 10 “community solar” projects, which must have a capacity of less than 1 megawatt and must be owned and operated by NV Energy — meaning the vast majority of electricity in the program will come from under-construction power plants.

Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, the primary backer of the bill, said the 3 to 10 limit on community solar projects was because it was unrealistic to expect more than 10 projects be constructed over the next two years, but said that the 1 megawatt capacity — amended down from 20 megawatts in the original bill — was the product of compromise.

“We just went with what the group collectively felt was the best number for this bill,” she said.

That structure marks a change from how community solar projects operate in some other states, where third-party operators such as nonprofits or independent businesses run and operate the community solar projects independent of the incumbent utility (some states run community solar programs through utilities).

Cramer said that language would allow the utility to leverage the existing planned solar plants without requiring any new development, whereas an actual community solar model would incentivize new construction and development of solar plants throughout the state.

“I think there are a few smaller facilities thrown in, but it's not even clear whether there'll be a direct tie to a facility, and the further confounding piece is that none of these projects have to be new projects through the bill,” he said. “They're allowed to sort of co-opt existing utility scale projects into this program, so it's really driving the development of zero new solar projects.”

But Monroe-Moreno said she was wary of allowing independent businesses to provide electric services without being subject to the same regulations and rules that the incumbent utility, NV Energy, has to follow. She also cited concerns raised by her constituents about scam or fraudulent rooftop solar companies, and fears that similar situations could occur with private “community solar” businesses.

“My job here is to protect them, not a business entity that wants to come into our state,” she said. “If I can provide them with their needs that they want, and a business makes money, then that's great. That's a win-win for us all. But I couldn't see getting to both of them in this bill.”

Although Monroe-Moreno said NV Energy didn’t draw a “line in the sand” over excluding third-party operators from running community solar projects, she said it quickly became clear in behind-the-scenes meetings that the concept was untenable.

“We have 120 days to get a job done, and we had numerous stakeholder meetings where getting that part in would have bogged down the bill,” Monroe-Moreno said. “And if the most important aspects of that bill were to help low-income families and, that was a number one (priority), then let's do that now.”

In a statement, utility spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said the company was “pleased” to support the bill.

“It will provide an opportunity for those who are unable to participate in NV Energy’s existing solar programs to go green, while ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of building smaller scale solar projects within urban areas of Nevada bring value to all our customers and communities,” she said in an emailed statement.

Still, renewable energy groups say they’re cognizant that just because a specific community solar bill isn’t proceeding through the legislative process, the larger conversation about distributed generation — including storage, net metering and other programs that affect the historic operating model of electric utilities — will likely still continue into future legislative sessions.

“No one's done talking about distributed (generation) for quite a while,” Maggi said.

For her part, Monroe-Moreno said she would be willing to revisit the concept of other models of community solar down the road, but called the current proposal in AB465 a “great start.”

“We're not saying that this is the only community solar program the state would have,” she said. “It's a place for us to start and then grow from it and see what happens. Because what I've learned in the last hundred days, things are ever changing in the clean energy arena.”

The concept was not born in a vacuum, and instead comes from the ashes of Democratic Sen. Mo Denis’s community solar bill SB392 from the 2017 session. Although it passed out of the Legislature with most Democrats and a few Republicans in support, it was opposed by labor unions (who feared new plants could be built without unionized labor) and NV Energy, which cited concerns with transmission and distribution costs plus the pending Energy Choice Initiative ballot question, which failed on the 2018 ballot.

Ultimately, the bill was vetoed by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, who commended the general concept of community solar but raised concerns with the timing and framework, stating that the bill would give community solar operators an “unfair competitive advantage” by allowing them to operate like small utilities without the normal regulatory oversight.

“If passed, SB 392 could further disrupt Nevada’s energy markets at a time when those markets face uncertainty, and are already in the process of fundamental change,” he wrote in the veto message. “This disruption brings with it unnecessary risks, and likely unintended consequences, that could harm both Nevada’s ratepayers and its broader clean energy economy.”

Cramer said that his organization was disappointed by the veto yet excited heading into the session, and believed Monroe-Moreno would continue to work with his group ahead of the next legislative session on the concept. But he said the state is continuing to lose out on benefits of community solar, and that the small projects allowed under the bill wouldn’t give the full benefits of any actual “community solar” program.

“I think they probably would've been better off to just offer direct payment bill savings to a number of customers and take up community solar next time, because they were already going to build all the solar that will be dealt anyhow regardless of this program being created,” he said. “So it's doing nothing novel.”

Including hydropower in RPS will give NV Energy, others leg up in meeting higher renewable standard

In Nevada, there are few words more synonymous with the term renewable energy than “solar,” a given in a state called the “Saudi Arabia of solar.”

That connection and subsequent imagery of massive solar fields blanketing the Nevada desert dominated messaging around a 2018 ballot question and a bill approved by the 2019 Legislature raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030.

Gov. Steve Sisolak — who during the 2018 campaign cut an ad in which he appeared in the midst of a solar field touting his support for raising the RPS — signed the bill, SB358, on Earth Day surrounded by appreciative lawmakers from both parties, who applauded the Democratic governor’s pronouncement of the bill as a “major milestone” in driving renewable energy growth in the state.

In fact, the bill will increase compliance with the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard overnight — but in a much less-publicized way.

A seemingly minor change in the legal definition of hydropower could have potentially significant implications by allowing entities, including NV Energy, to leverage existing large hydropower facilities toward meeting the RPS, thereby giving them a leg up toward meeting an increased standard without requiring any new spending to expand renewable energy.

Had the bill been in effect last year, NV Energy would have been able to meet around 12 percent of its mandated RPS goal just with electricity generated by the Hoover Dam.

The 2019 bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, said in an interview that the change was in part meant to give more leeway to entities now required to meet the standard, as well as to rural electric cooperatives locked into long-term hydropower contracts. He said past concerns that favoring hydropower would push other renewable energy sources to the wayside were outdated, and that the bill was an attempt to have the RPS accurately reflect the actual renewable generation in the state.

“The thinking has evolved,” he said. “The market is moving on new and emerging renewables, and we’re looking at this from not just a bill to create opportunities for new and emerging industries, we’re looking at it as an overall, more holistic view of how we get to a zero-carbon electricity sector.”

RPS and hydropower

That change marks the end of a longstanding state policy of not including hydropower in the RPS formula — a deliberate omission intended to spur development in nascent renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Rose McKinney James, a lobbyist and energy consultant credited with helping the state pass its first RPS in 1997, said the initial portfolio standard was set up to focus on “traditional” renewable energy sources and that including hydropower would have made it “very challenging to get any momentum from solar.”

“Hydro is obviously an important part of the overall mix, but it doesn’t get to the essence, to the heart of what we’re trying to do in this state, which is to drive development using our indigenous resources,” she said in an interview.

Electricity produced by waterpower was added to the state’s definition of “renewable energy” in 2003, where lawmakers added a limited exemption for hydropower projects used exclusively for agriculture or projects with less than 30 megawatts of generating capacity.

But concern was still evident even in 2003; former Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley raised concerns during a hearing that the bill would “gut everything we are trying to do” in developing new electric resources.

But the bill approved unanimously by lawmakers and signed into law by Sisolak last month removes many of those exemptions, meaning renewable energy created by large hydropower producers — namely the Hoover Dam — can now be credited toward meeting the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

How it affects NV Energy

The measure could have a sizable impact for NV Energy, which receives a large percentage of the state’s share of electricity annually produced by the dam — providing enough power to serve 1.3 million people in the Southwest.

According to 2017 data from the Colorado River Commission, NV Energy receives more than 497,700 megawatt hours of electric generation from the Hoover Dam. Under the state’s RPS system, that production means it will generate the same number of “Portfolio Energy Credits,” which are required for yearly compliance with the standard.

A Renewable Portfolio Standard works by setting up an artificial marketplace where renewable power plants gain “PECs” (Portfolio Energy Credits) for producing renewable energy. The state runs a marketplace where PECs can be bought and sold, and requires NV Energy and other applicable entities to meet a certain percentage standard by turning in enough credits as compared to their total electricity generation.

In NV Energy’s 2018 RPS compliance report, the utility reported nearly 20.5 million megawatt hours of electric sales over the year, with a 20 percent RPS requirement of around 4.1 million PECs. If the hydropower credited to the utility was applied to the RPS in 2018, it would make up about 12 percent of the credits needed to meet the 20 percent RPS target — boosting the utility's reported renewable production numbers by about a tenth without having to spend a penny more on renewable energy programs.

Although the addition of hydropower will help the utility meet required renewable standards, the company has already taken steps to meet a higher RPS. NV Energy has held steadfast since announcing in 2018 the company’s support of raising the standard to 50 percent by 2030, and won approval last year from state energy regulators to construct six new large-scale photovoltaic solar power plants, more than doubling renewable energy production in the state by 2023.

It exceeded its RPS compliance target in 2018, the ninth straight year of doing so, and a utility spokeswoman said in an email that the company will comply with the new RPS “as it aligns with our long-term goal of 100 percent renewable energy at low costs for customers.”

Other impacts

But NV Energy isn’t the only entity receiving power from the dam — several rural cooperatives and power districts, including Boulder City, Valley Electric Association, Overton Power District and Lincoln County Power District all draw significant amounts of electric power from the dam.

Andy Maggi, the head of the Nevada Conservation League, said that although his organization typically opposes new hydropower development given negative effects to the environment through disruption of stream flow and local ecosystems, his organization was fine with including more hydropower into the RPS formula given that rural cooperatives and power districts had signed multi-decade hydropower contracts and would be relying on that power source for years to come.

“We understand that for a lot of municipal utilities and co-ops, their system was baked decades ago when the rural electrification programs were going on and the BLM reclamation projects,” he said. “And so a lot of that energy has been in existence, and they haven't gone beyond that that need and demand too much.”

Maggi said that building “a big dam just doesn't make sense anymore,” and supported the provision in the bill exempting any new hydropower facilities from being included in the definition of “renewable energy.” He said the inclusion of hydropower only makes up a small percentage of future RPS compliance and wouldn’t preclude NV Energy and other entities from having to meet the higher renewable standards.

“It's not peanuts; it's not a de minimis amount that we can just sort of ignore,” Maggi said. “But I think it's not enough to where the utility is not going to have to go out and build new, clean energy resources.”

The addition of hydropower will also likely be a boon to state agencies — such as the Colorado River Commission, which manages the state’s allocation of Colorado River water and hydropower created by the Hoover Dam. Eric Witkoski, the commission’s executive director, said the inclusion of hydropower would likely help the commission meet its newly required RPS target, but said he was still reviewing how the agency would be affected by having to meet the new renewable targets.

“We haven't really thought through how all of this is going to work, and it's not something we’ve had to deal with in the past, so it’s still something we’re reviewing,” he said.

Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Bronson Mack said the public agency — also now required to meet the RPS bill — was supportive of the higher RPS and that it had already been working prior to bill passage to voluntarily comply with the renewable standard.

“It’s a little early to determine how exactly how we’re going to be able to comply with the 50 percent by 2030, but we are evaluating the strategies to do that,” he said. “Certainly the inclusion of hydro does provide a little more ability for us to be able to comply with that standard.”

Brooks, the bill sponsor, said the inclusion of public agencies and hydropower was meant to give them the opportunity to sell or trade excess PECs to other energy users out of compliance with the RPS.

“This just kind of broadens that market that’s available,” he said.

Other states

Only about 3.3 percent of Nevada’s electric generation comes from hydropower, but existing limitations on what kinds of hydro generation counts towards the RPS means just under 1 percent of renewable generation comes from “small” hydro production, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy’s 2018 annual report.

Other states have varied in the amount of hydropower they allow as part of their RPS; according to a 2014 analysis by the Hydropower Reform Coalition, 37 states allow hydropower to count towards the RPS with various restrictions depending on size, technology, or if the hydropower facilities consider environmental impacts such as stream flow, fish passage or water quality.

Kelly Catlett, a director at the Hydropower Reform Coalition, said California opted to severely limit hydropower when it first adopted renewable standards, excluding any project with more than 30 megawatts of capacity and requiring any smaller-scale projects demonstrate that they don’t adversely affect river flow. She said the limitations also came from a desire to spur development of other renewable energy production.

“Simply grandfathering in existing large hydropower does nothing to incentivize the creation of new renewable energy sources,” she said.

Although the coalition's website recommends against including hydropower towards an RPS except in limited cases, Catlett said the language was slightly outdated and that electricity produced by waterpower — which is typically more reliable and not as intermittent as solar or wind energy — was an important component as states move to reduce their use of fossil fuels. She pointed toward the state’s recently passed legislation requiring 100 percent of fuel used in the state to come from “carbon-free” energy sources — something currently undefined but likely to include large-scale hydropower projects.

“I think there is a realization now that if the goal is to reduce emissions and spur new development of renewables, while we can define renewables (to exclude hydropower), maybe after a certain point it doesn’t really matter what exactly the technology is,” she said. “If it can cause reduced emissions, then that’s good.”

That sense of having the state’s RPS reflect actual renewable energy production is something that doesn’t currently happen in Nevada, where the actual fuel mix in the state typically runs behind the RPS goal. It’s why Brooks, the sponsor of the 2019 bill, said he wanted to remove “multiplier” and energy efficiency credits from the RPS to make sure that it was a more accurate reflection of renewable production.

“By the time we get to 50 by (2030), it will be 50 percent of the energy in the state coming from renewables,” he said.