Sisolak's Innovation Zone concept, repackaged as a study, gets first public hearing — without its original backer

Labor unions and blockchains advocates testified Tuesday in support of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s request that the Legislature form a joint special committee to study the idea of allowing private developers to effectively form new local governments, or Innovation Zones. Even initial skeptics of the highly-publicized concept signaled that they were open to the study. 

But there was a notable absence at the hearing: The concept’s original backer, Blockchains Inc., did not testify. In fact, the company’s name was rarely mentioned in the one-hour hearing.

After the hearing, Pete Ernaut, a lobbyist for Blockchains, said that the company did not testify because the study was about the Innovation Zone concept, rather than one specific project.

“The study is not a referendum on this specific project,” Ernaut said. “It’s an opportunity to vet the entire concept, so it was more appropriate to have the governor and the Legislature work on the details and create the committee. And we will have more than adequate time to make our case, because we very much believe in the project.”

Tuesday marked the first public hearing for the Innovation Zone proposal, a concept that was embraced by the governor and originally pushed by Blockchains. The company, which owns about 67,000 acres of land in Storey County, wanted to create a new local government. 

But after the concept received an icy reception from lawmakers, rural counties and progressives in his party, the Democratic governor, last month, scrapped plans to pass enabling legislation.

Instead, Sisolak proposed alternative legislation, SCR11, to study the Innovation Zone proposal. That concurrent resolution, heard before the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections Tuesday afternoon, would comprise six lawmakers appointed by legislative leadership. 

The committee would be tasked with recommending whether to take further legislative action on the idea, evaluating the effects of Innovation Zones on everything from economic development to affordable housing, local tax revenue and natural resources, including the availability of water.

Under the proposed language, the committee would submit a final report by the end of the year. 

“It became clear in recent weeks that a proposal of this magnitude was not going to fit into this particular session,” Scott Gilles, Sisolak’s senior advisor, said in a presentation for SCR11. “The governor believes this idea warrants and deserves a proper vetting, a proper analysis and time to work through the complex pieces of the proposed legislation.”

Any future Innovation Zone legislation that did pass, Gilles noted, would have general application.

“Yes, there obviously is a project, which everyone has read about, in Storey County that would be looking to take advantage of the legislation,” Gilles said in response to a question from a legislator. “But it would be general law legislation that could be taken advantage of anywhere throughout the state if the appropriate financial commitments and plans were in place.”

Sisolak first unveiled the Innovation Zone concept in his State of the State speech in January, but he offered few details. A few weeks later, Blockchains , a cryptocurrency startup with land in Storey County, began to circulate draft legislation for the Innovation Zone proposal. 

That draft bill would have allowed private developers, with large land holdings, to effectively form new county-like governments if they committed to invest more than $1 billion over 10 years and identified a new revenue source for the state. Yet the proposal raised numerous questions, and many were quick to draw comparisons between the proposal and former company towns.

Although early drafts of the Innovation Zone legislation were circulated, a final version has yet to be released to the public. Gilles said a final version is still being drafted, but Sisolak’s office is  hopeful that the Legislative Counsel Bureau will finish a final draft by the end of the session.

Once a final draft is released by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, Gilles said that a “joint special committee would have a draft piece of legislation to work off of through that committee process.” 

At the hearing Tuesday, business interests and representatives from labor unions in Southern and Northern Nevada came out strongly in favor of the Innovation Zone proposal and the study. 

“This issue represents the biggest opportunity in Nevada to diversify our economy, and probably the biggest opportunity to put Nevadans to work,” said Danny Thompson, representing IBEW 1245, IBEW 396, Operating Engineers Local 3 and Operating Engineers Local 12. 

Several advocates of Blockchains technology, including Brock Pierce, who co-founded the cryptocurrency Tether and starred in The Mighty Ducks, also spoke in favor of the study.

Despite public criticism of the draft Innovation Zone legislation, only one group criticized the study contemplated in SCR11. The opposition came from a progressive group, highlighting the political challenges that Sisolak would have likely faced if he had pushed the initial bill draft.

Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, said that when the state faces so many issues from unaffordable housing to health care access, “it is grievously inappropriate the amount of time and energy spent this session discussing the proposal to give a billionaire CEO and an unproven company their own autonomous form of government.”

Among the concerns with the draft bill was where Blockchains would get enough water to build out the Innovation Zone, which contemplated a development with about 36,000 residents.

The Nevada Independent highlighted numerous concerns with supplying water to the Innovation Zone proposed by Blockchains. Blockchains had purchased faraway water in northern Washoe County, about 100 miles away from its property. Pumping and moving that water could be costly and negatively affect the hydrology around Pyramid Lake, the terminus of the Truckee River.

For decades, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has fought to bring more water to the lake as part of an effort to restore two imperiled species, the cui-ui and the Lahontan cutthroat throat, the state fish. In written testimony Tuesday, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairwoman Janet Davis said the tribe initially opposed the proposal “due to a lack of transparency and tribal inclusion.”

But Davis wrote that the tribe was neutral on the legislation to create the study, as it required the inclusion of tribal perspectives and an evaluation of how Innovation Zones might affect water. 

“In addition,” Davis wrote in testimony, “we would like to note that any analysis of the potential for the creation of new forms of governments, such as an innovation zone, should protect the tenets of adjudicated agreements, such as the Truckee River Operating Agreement, and must include the need for government-to-government consultation with Native American tribes.”

Rural counties had also raised serious concerns with the original proposal. In March, Storey County commissioners voted to oppose “separatist governing control” within their jurisdiction.

A Storey County water district that serves the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, where Blockchains owns most of its land, identified several issues with the proposal. The Tahoe Reno Industrial General Improvement District was primarily formed to serve businesses, not residences.

On Tuesday, Storey County Manager Austin Osborne said that the county was neutral on the interim study. But he said the county believed that the joint special committee, if it is empaneled, would find that “the separation from government is not necessary and is not appropriate.” 

Progressives, industry representatives debate health care affordability, access during high-profile public option hearing

Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital staff gather in the emergency room area in Elko

There is near-universal agreement that the state of health care in Nevada leaves something to be desired.

Nevada has one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation, with roughly 350,000 residents without health insurance. It ranks near the bottom on health care affordability, with nearly half of Nevadans saying health care is too costly. It also ranks at the bottom for overall health care system performance, including access, affordability, prevention and treatment.

Where there is less agreement, though, is what should be done about it.

Nowhere was that more clear than during a Tuesday hearing on a bill to establish a state-managed public health insurance option: Proponents, including progressive organizations and public health advocates, framed the bill as the next step in expanding affordable, quality health insurance that would reduce costs for Nevadans. Opponents, largely health industry representatives and chambers of commerce, said it would do the opposite.

Since its introduction last week, the bill, SB420, has attracted high-profile support at the national level, including from the nonprofit group United States of Care and the advocacy organization Committee to Protect Medicare, as well as opposition, primarily from a coalition called Nevada’s Health Care Future, an arm of the national organization Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, which is made up of some of the health industry’s heaviest hitters. In advance of the Tuesday hearing, advocates and opponents sent out press releases, polls and statements from doctors both in support of and against the legislation.

The polls, however, reveal just how long both sides have been gearing up for a fight over a public option in Nevada this legislative session: They were both taken in February.

At its core, the legislation, which is being debated with less than a month left in the session, would require insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan. While the plans would resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange in many ways, the legislation would require them to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs in the state by 15 percent over four years.

Because the public option plans would be offered on the state’s health insurance exchange, people who are eligible for federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act would be able to purchase a fully or partially subsidized public option plan. In addition to being offered both on and off exchange in the individual market, the plans would also be open to the state’s small group health insurance market.

Apart from its public option provisions, the bill also makes a number of changes to the state’s Medicaid program, including, notably, increasing eligibility for coverage for pregnant women in Nevada to up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The changes are expected to cost about $73 million, with an impact to the state’s general fund of about $24 million.

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who is spearheading the legislation, said during the hearing that the public option and Medicaid portions of the bill would, collectively, improve access to health care for Nevadans.

“We are more than a year into a global pandemic that has resulted in job loss, and, consequently, the loss of health insurance. People are struggling to ensure they will have access to health care if they get sick, and that is the plain and simple place that we are in reality,” Cannizzaro said. “Now is an opportune moment to take advantage of the state's considerable bargaining power to make health care more affordable and more accessible.”

Proponents testified on Tuesday that the legislation would expand health insurance options for individual Nevadans and small businesses while reducing costs.

“I cannot wait for this plan to be available to us so we can have better and more affordable options for coverage,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “This plan is another piece of the puzzle in solving the insurance and health care crisis that Battle Born Progress has been working on for years.”

West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona highlighted the potential impact the legislation could have in expanding coverage in rural Nevada. Among its many provisions, the bill would require all insurers that offer a public option plan do so in every county and both on and off the exchange, preventing any counties from going without an exchange plan, as almost happened in 2017.

“For the first time ever, Nevadans in the most rural areas of our state will be guaranteed access to affordable coverage through a statewide public option,” Corona said.

Jim Sullivan, lobbyist for the Culinary Union, which runs a union health plan called the Culinary Health Fund, called the bill a “good first step” in making sure Nevadans can receive “quality and affordable health care.” A conceptual amendment Cannizzaro presented to the bill on Tuesday would allow the union to offer its health plan as a public option to members who lose health coverage.

“This is important to allow Culinary Union members and their dependents to continue to see their same doctor, not face a gap in must-needed treatments and have access to the same prescriptions and specialists instead of having to start over with a brand-new insurer if they were to lose coverage,” Sullivan said.

The Culinary Union, which sometimes aligns with private health insurance companies on legislation and also has close ties with Democratic lawmakers, was likely the best chance the insurance industry had in heading off the Democratic-backed proposal.

During the hearing, opponents, including doctors, hospitals and private insurance companies, painted a bleak picture of what the legislation would do to Nevada’s health insurance landscape. One of their key arguments against the bill was that requiring premium reductions and setting Medicare rates as a floor would not actually reduce costs but just lead to cost shifting elsewhere.

“When costs exceed the revenues, then adjustments will have to be made. It’s either passed on, typically, passed on through the commercial market — that is employers that are not eligible to participate — or it can impact into the workforce, with jobs,” said Jim Wadhams, lobbyist for the Nevada Hospital Association.

Proponents, however, argued that cost-shifting already happens when doctors and hospitals provide care to uninsured individuals and that care goes uncompensated.

“The question is really, when we talk about cost shifts, because that is a current reality of our system, there’s plenty of money that is being made in the health care space, so when we talk about cost shifts, what are we talking about?” Cannizzaro said. “Here, we are talking about people who are not accessing Medicare, because they don't have health insurance.”

Opponents also suggested during the hearing that instead of pursuing a public option 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.

“We are opposed to this bill. It's well-meaning but we need to figure out why people are not using the programs that we have now first and fix those,” said Susan Fisher, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Society of Anesthesiologists.

Cannizzaro, however, suggested it was contradictory for providers to be talking about enrolling more people in Medicaid when they have long lamented that Medicaid rates in the state are inadequate.

“If we're talking about implementing something where you're getting reimbursed at higher than Medicaid rates, why that's a reason to oppose this bill is just one that I have struggled to understand, in every sense of the word,” Cannizzaro said.

The statewide doctors’ association, meanwhile, voiced support generally for a public option but expressed concerns that setting Medicare rates as a floor would serve 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 and said the provision could actually lead to doctors backing away from providing care to people covered under those plans.

“We support physicians’ freedom of choice when it comes to health care plan participation, and therefore we oppose the effort to require physicians’ participation in the public option by tying it to the other state-based programs,” said Jaron Hildebrand, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association. “This mandatory participation provision overlooks the complexities of running a physician practice, the balance involved in determining the capacity and the ability to have a practice that serves a patient mix.”

The association also opposes a provision of the bill requiring payment parity between doctors and advanced practice registered nurses for Medicaid.

Several chambers of commerce also voiced opposition to the legislation, in part because they argued it would undermine the health insurance plans they offer, known as association health plans.

“That is a proven market driven solution based on no premium costs, and comprehensive benefits both buying power for small business,” said Scott Muelrath, executive director of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents also voiced frustration with being left out of the bill drafting process. While the health care industry is often successful at killing legislation it is united in opposing, industry representatives successfully worked together in the 2019 session to reach a compromise to address surprise emergency room billing at the direction of Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson. They suggested on Tuesday that a similar approach could have been taken with this proposal.

“I can tell you that when there are very challenging things that occur within health care, when you lock us all in a room, we tend to find solutions,” said Tom Clark, lobbyist for the Nevada Association of Health Plans.

Several industry representatives urged the committee not to pass the bill as is but amend it or continue to study the issue further.

“We want to work with you and others to see if we can design a program that works for Nevada, without jeopardizing access to care or the current options for coverage as an integrated health care delivery system,” said Mike Hillerby, a lobbyist for Renown Health and its insurance arm, Hometown Health.

Cannizzaro, however, noted that the bill would allow several years for implementation of a public option, with coverage slated to begin Jan. 1, 2026, and also would allow an actuarial study that would assess impacts to the insurance market before such plans are approved. 

She also chafed at suggestions that the Legislature study the matter further, when it has been four years since a public option bill was first proposed in Nevada.

“The answer to why we should not support SB420 being that we should continue to look at this, or figure out who these people are, or figure out how we should study this a little bit more — we are past that point. We know who these people are. I've talked to them at the doors,” Cannizzaro said. “I would encourage you, go knock 10 doors in your neighborhood and let me know how many people talk to you about the cost of health care because I'm willing to bet it’s a fair number.”

The committee took no further action on the bill on Tuesday. After it passes out of the Senate Health and Human Services, it will need to go to the Senate Finance Committee to review the bill’s financial impact.

Indy Explains: What AJR10 would do to change Nevada’s minimum wage

The Assembly voted 26-16 on party lines Monday — with all Republicans opposed — to pass AJR10, a proposed constitutional amendment that would raise and restructure the minimum wage. But what’s the significance of the move, considering Nevada is already on track for minimum wage increases in the future?

Here are some key facts.

What is the minimum wage currently?

Nevada has a two-tier system for minimum wage rates that requires businesses to pay $9 an hour if they do not offer health insurance and $8 if they do. 

The last time that Nevada’s minimum wage laws changed was in 2019, when lawmakers passed AB456, which gradually raises the minimum wage each year until 2024. The bill specifies that:

  • By July 1, 2020, the minimum wage would be $9 an hour if the employer did not offer health insurance, and $8 an hour if they did.
  • By July 1, 2021, the minimum wage would be $9.75 an hour if the employer did not offer health insurance, and $8.75 an hour if they did.
  • By July 1, 2022, the minimum wage would be $10.50 an hour if the employer did not offer health insurance, and $9.50 an hour if they did.
  • By July 1, 2023, the minimum wage would be $11.25 an hour if the employer did not offer health insurance, and $10.25 an hour if they did.
  • By July 1, 2024, the minimum wage would be $12 an hour if the employer did not offer health insurance, and $11 an hour if they did.

What does AJR10 (of the 2019 session) do?

The main feature of the resolution is doing away with the two-level system in the state Constitution and creating a single minimum wage, even for employers that offer health insurance. Some employers who otherwise would be paying a minimum rate of $11 per hour by 2024 under the current plan in state law would have to pay $12 if the resolution passes.

The resolution:

  • Proposes to amend the Nevada Constitution to set the minimum wage at $12 per hour beginning July 1, 2024, regardless of health benefits.
  • Removes the annual adjustment to the minimum wage and instead stipulates that if at any time the federal minimum wage is greater than $12 per hour, the state wage would increase to match the higher federal minimum wage.
  • Allows the Legislature to establish a minimum wage greater than the hourly rate set forward in the Constitution.

If the measure passes both houses of the Legislature this session, it will head to a statewide vote in 2022. The Senate has not yet voted on the resolution.

Through language adopted by a ballot measure approved in 2006, the Nevada Constitution includes minimum wages of $5.15 per hour and $6.15 an hour based on insurance offerings, but prescribes a formula for reviewing and potentially adjusting the rate each year based on any increases in the federal minimum wage or the cost of living.

Before the increases prescribed by the Legislature in 2019, Nevada’s minimum wages had been $7.25 an hour and $8.25 an hour since 2011.

What are the arguments in favor of the resolution?

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), who presented the measure, argued that minimum wage jobs are often the basis for supporting a family and not simply entry-level positions for teenagers. He said the resolution allowed time for employers to adjust to a higher rate and was a compromise from the original proposal, which called for a minimum wage of $15.

On the bill’s health insurance provisions, Frierson said the quality of health insurance plans used to qualify for the lower rate varied widely, with some offering deductibles of $20 and others offering deductibles of $1,000.

Progressive groups say employers have abused the two-tiered minimum wage to take advantage of the lower of the two rates.

“We have heard story after story where businesses are able to pay $1 less than the current minimum wage in the state simply because they offer unaffordable garbage health care plans that employees rarely opt into because of cost,” Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, testified earlier this month. “No one should be paid a dollar less because their employer is taking advantage of a loophole to save a dollar an hour especially when people are struggling.”

What are the arguments against the resolution?

Opponents argued that raising the minimum wage would eliminate entry-level jobs and hurt teenage workers trying to get their foot in the door of the job market. Janine Hansen, president of Nevada Families for Freedom, referenced a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis from when Congress was considering a $15 minimum wage — a change more dramatic than the one in AJR10.

The CBO’s research indicated that raising the minimum wage would increase earnings and family incomes for most low-wage workers and pull some families out of poverty. Still, the analysis noted that some low-wage workers would become jobless, and their family income would fall, possibly below the poverty threshold.

Specifically, the February 2021 report said that, based on median estimates, in an average week in 2025, a $15 federal minimum wage would increase wages for about 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than that amount. Another 10 million workers who earn slightly more than $15 an hour would also likely be affected, as employers seek to keep their wages higher than the lowest earners, and about 1.4 million workers would be out of a job. 

The report also estimated that about 900,000 fewer Americans would be living in poverty.

The Las Vegas Chamber opposed AJR10 in a committee hearing last week. Spokeswoman Cara Clarke said that was “because of a variety of concerns including the increased costs to employers, and the potential negative impact on job creation, as well as job losses.”

The Nevada Republican Party criticized the Assembly passage of the resolution in a tweet on Monday.

“Nevada's economy has been put in jeopardy due to the @GovSisolak shutdown,” the post said. “Instead of focusing on opening up our state and restoring jobs, @nvdems in the assembly have passed AJR 10 ** which looks to increase the minimum wage and regress Nevada's economy even more!”

What’s happening with the minimum wage at the federal level?

The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour.

President Joe Biden called for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage in January. Later that month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sponsored the “Raise the Wage Act,” which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025.

Support for raising the minimum wage tends to fall along party lines, with Democrats generally in favor and Republicans mainly in opposition. 

Though the “Raise the Wage Act” has not advanced since Sanders introduced it, efforts to increase the minimum wage through an amendment to the COVID relief package in the Senate in March failed by a vote of 58 to 42.

The eight Senate Democrats who joined 50 Republicans in voting against the amendment cited a need for a separate discussion around raising the minimum wage, not a measure slapped onto a COVID relief package.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) voted for the amendment to the COVID aid package and Rosen is also listed as a co-sponsor on the “Raise the Wage Act.”

“I’ve long supported action that raises the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour,” Rosen told The Nevada Independent in March. “I am a proud co-sponsor of the Raise the Wage Act, legislation that builds to 15 dollars an hour over a 5 year time period, in order to both meet the concerns and needs of small businesses and employees.” 

Some Republican members of the Senate have indicated willingness to consider a federal minimum wage increase; Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced a measure in mid-February to increase the minimum wage to $10 over the span of four years and to index it for inflation. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) also proposed a plan in early March to raise the minimum wage to $15, but only for businesses with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

The last time the federal minimum wage increased was in 2009 when it rose from $6.55 to $7.25 as part of a three-step plan approved by Congress in 2007 under the Bush administration. Before implementing the 2007 measure, the minimum wage remained at $5.15 an hour for a period of 10 years.

Lawmakers debate expanding automatic voter registration, implementing top-down registration system

On the heels of a transition to automatic voter registration (AVR) at the DMV and same-day voter registration, lawmakers are considering bills that proponents say further streamline civic participation and bring more Nevadans into the process.

One bill, AB422, would centralize voter registration record keeping that is currently distributed among the 17 counties. Another, AB432 — which faced more resistance from clerks worried about whether they would have the time and resources to implement it — would involve new agencies to help Nevadans register to vote or update their records.

Here are highlights from the hearings the bills received on Tuesday in the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. The committee did not immediately vote on the measures.

Clerks concerned about expanding AVR

After Nevada voters approved the automatic voter registration system at the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2018, more than 142,000 new voters were registered — and more than 300,000 voter registrations were updated during transactions at the DMV since the law took effect in 2020.

A bill from Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) would bring more agencies into the process — enlisting the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange and Medicaid program into the work of transmitting personal information updates to the secretary of state to get a person registered for the first time or update the voter rolls.

Agencies that don’t have enough information to confirm a person’s eligibility to vote would be prohibited from transferring the information to the secretary of state. Individuals could opt out of having their information transferred during an interaction with one of those agencies.

Supporter Annette Magnus of Battle Born Progress said the measure would increase election security by offering more opportunities for updates, leading to cleaner voter rolls. And backer Rev. Leonard Jackson of Faith Organizing Alliance said it would further expand opportunities for people of color to vote — he said more than half of Medicaid beneficiaries are Black or brown Nevadans.

But the bill drew concerns from election administrators and other government personnel who  warned the implementation of such programs often takes years, and the bill becomes effective Jan. 1, 2022.

“When you increase our administrative need for resources and our staff, with everything else that's going on and implementation, and also with redistricting coming up, we are concerned about the ability to support these new programs,” said Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria.

Carson City Clerk-Recorder Aubrey Rowlatt asked that agencies send registrars complete information rather than requiring county staff to track missing information down through correspondence that may or may not be returned.

Watts said he heard election officials’ concerns and was committed to making technical adjustments, including to the timeline. He framed the bill as a way to “deliver a better experience for everybody in our state.”

“We moved from only registering people on paper forms, within the span of a decade, to now offering online voter registration and further digitizing the way that our voter registration is conducted — again, reducing errors streamlining the process, making it more convenient for everyone,” he said. “The purpose of AB432 is to build on that progress.”

Top down voter registration gets a warm reception

Members of the committee also heard details on AB422, a proposal that would shift Nevada from a county-led, bottom-up voter registration system to a state-led, top-down system. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson presented the bill and said the current system of having 17 county clerks maintain their own systems and transmit voter registration information to the secretary of state’s office “inherently makes the process slower.”

“This delayed information sharing is cumbersome and inefficient,” Frierson said. “With our 21st century voting policies that include automatic voter registration and same day voter registration, it's time that we modernize our system to match that innovation.”

Frierson said the legislation, once passed, would immediately allow the secretary of state’s office to begin working on implementation of a top-down system, with an anticipated implementation date before the 2024 election. 

Progressive groups said the bill would create a more efficient election process in the state and make it easier to identify and prevent duplicate registrations.

“It's important to acknowledge that Nevada is a transient state, and being able to see information across the board will streamline the process for county clerks, and ensure that there is a more secure way of managing the voting process at all polling locations,” Silver State Voices Executive Director Emily Zamora said.

The secretary of state’s office, which favors the proposal, is requesting $1.5 million from lawmakers this budget cycle to start the process of upgrading to a top-down voter registration system.

No one testified against the bill.

Bill would eliminate need for doctor’s appointment to receive birth control pills

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) is seeking to lower barriers to birth control in a state ranked the third-worst for access to primary care doctors and with an above-average rate of unintended pregnancies.

SB190, discussed Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, would allow women to receive birth control through a pharmacy and bypass a doctor’s visit. Cannizzaro introduced a similar bill in 2019, but that bill never made it out of its final committee.

"It is so essential that we open up access for women to get what we know to be safe forms of birth control," Cannizzaro said during the bill hearing. "Whether it be to finish our education, attain a career goal, or simply to wait to have a family for when we are ready, birth control empowers women to make decisions that are right for our own bodies."

To receive birth control, women in Nevada must make an appointment with a health care provider who can prescribe up to 12 months of birth control at a time. Patients can get up to a three month supply of a first-time contraception prescription. After that, the time period can extend to nine months or the remainder of the plan year.

Lack of access to primary care doctors, prohibitive costs related to primary care visits and insufficient time to visit a doctor's office contributes to about 30 percent of women across the country reporting barriers to obtaining birth control

Inability to obtain birth control can lead to unplanned pregnancies when, for example, women travel and forget to bring along their birth control. Primary care “deserts” in rural parts of the state also hinder the ability of women in rural communities to access safe, usable contraceptives, Cannizzaro said.

If the bill passes, Nevada will become the 13th state to legalize pharmacist-prescribed hormonal contraceptives.

The bill requires the State Board of Health to design a risk assessment questionnaire that women could opt to take before receiving a prescription, and stipulates that pharmacists provide patients with written documents and other contraception information. The State Board of Pharmacy and Division of Public and Behavioral Health would also be required to post an online list of pharmacies offering the service.

Public and private insurance policies would be required to cover pharmacist-prescribed contraception in the same way as physician-prescribed birth control.

Though no group or individual spoke in opposition, the Nevada Osteopathic Medical Association submitted a letter recommending that the risk assessment questionnaire be made mandatory for screening purposes. The association also suggested that the bill restrict the minimum age at which someone could access pharmacist-prescribed contraception to 17 (the same age designated for emergency contraception) and suggested additional steps for someone using birth control for the first time.

"Other countries employ safeguards such as having the primary care provider conduct an initial screening," the association wrote. "Physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants have the educational foundation to conduct a screening application and make a decision that is tailored to the needs of the patient, explain which contraceptive option is best based on medical or family history, or explain/answer questions that may arise."

Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) said he hoped there was recognition that the bill would prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions, adding that he is optimistic that the bill would not stop women from getting pap smears or other screenings as they often do during a visit to a physician to obtain a birth control prescription.

The bill does not preclude women from obtaining a birth control prescription from a doctor or getting recommended pap smears to screen for cervical cancer, Cannizzaro said.

"If you are a woman who does go to their OB-GYN for a prescription, and that is where you would like to get your prescription, you can do that," she said. "This bill is not meant to say that we don't want people to continue to see their OB-GYN for regular checkups."

Supporters praised the bill as a necessary step to trusting women with their own health care needs, reducing unplanned pregnancies and expanding access to health care for minority and lower-income communities.

Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, spoke in support of the bill in a personal capacity. She said that her prescription ran out over the weekend, leaving her without hormonal contraception that helps her control migraines and cramps and forcing her to jump through hoops to get a refill, still resulting in five days without her medicine.

"I've been doing this with my pills for years. I should have been able to walk into the pharmacy, have the pharmacist renew my prescription and have that conversation directly with the pharmacist so I didn't have to go through the things that I did," Magnus said. "There are thousands of people who take birth control in this state who are counting on you to make it easier and more accessible."

Legislative gun law changes inspired by October 1 have seen middling adoption over last nine months; advocates urge patience

Flowers lay on the ground near the Route 91 Festival grounds

Democratic lawmakers entered the 2019 Legislature with a clear vision in mind; toughen up Nevada’s historically loose gun laws.

State Democrats had won a near sweep and clear legislative majorities in the 2018 midterm election, the first election since the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds more injured. On the campaign trail, Democrats did not shy away and instead campaigned on preventing gun violence; one of Steve Sisolak’s most memorable ads focused directly on the mass shooting and a promise to ban “assault rifles, bump stocks, silencers.”

Within the first two weeks of the Legislature, Democrats had passed (along party lines) a bill to finally implement a narrowly passed 2016 initiative requiring background checks on private party gun sales. By the end of the 120-day session, they had passed a “1 October Bill” (AB291) banning bump stocks, raising blood alcohol limits for firearm possession and implementing a legal process allowing courts to temporarily seize firearms from a person displaying high-risk behavior.

Many of the bills elicited a strong negative reaction from pro-gun rights groups (including the National Rifle Association), with opponents flooding the halls of the Legislature to oppose the measures as unnecessary or overly punitive. 

Still, Democratic lawmakers — including bill sponsor and October 1 survivor Sandra Jauregui — touted the legislation as the “most comprehensive gun safety legislation in Nevada history.”

“We'll never be able to go back and protect those who have been taken from us because of gun violence, but because of the actions that we took in Nevada we are making our communities a safer place,” the Democratic assemblywoman said in a statement after the bill was signed.

The two major provisions — expanded background checks for private party sales and “red flag” extreme risk protection orders — took effect in January.

But over the last nine months, adoption and use of the new laws has been mixed.

Public records obtained by The Nevada Independent indicate that more than 2,400 background checks on private party transactions have been conducted between the law’s effective date in January and Sept. 1. But the state Department of Public Safety — which manages the state’s background check system — only reported four issuances of “red flag” Extreme Risk Protection Orders over the last nine months.

The small number of orders — which only include approved orders and not applications or denials — may be in part attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in many state courts closing in-person operations and taking other safety precautions to limit spread of the disease.

Advocates say it's also too early to draw strong conclusions about the efficiency of the laws William Rosen, Everytown for Gun Safety's managing director of state policy and government affairs, said in an interview that adoption and use of the laws isn’t an automatic process, but will become more widespread as time goes on.

“It's going to be an effort among various agencies and law enforcement officials and the public to continue carrying that into practice,” he said. “The first year of data, it's the beginning of the road, not the end.”

Expanded background checks

By a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast, Nevada voters narrowly approved Question 1 on the 2016 ballot — an initiative that would require background checks before the sale or transfer of a firearm between two private parties, with some limited exceptions.

Federal law already requires background checks to be conducted on any firearm sales from a federally licensed dealer, but backers — led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown for Gun Safety group — say the ballot question was necessary to cover the “gun show loophole,” or sales between private individuals without the involvement of a dealer.

Supporters, led by Bloomberg and Everytown, poured more than $19 million into the group supporting the ballot question, while the NRA contributed close to $6.6 million to the opposition group.

But implementation of the measure never happened. Then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt announced in late 2016 that the FBI was refusing to conduct the expanded background checks for the state — a major procedural issue as the initiative specifically required the federal agency, and not the state, to conduct the checks. Nevada law also prohibited any changes to voter-approved statutory initiatives for a period of three years.

Fast-forward to 2019 — after Democrats won clear legislative majorities and control of the governor’s office for the first time in two decades — and Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill (SB143) moving the responsibility of conducting the background checks from the FBI to the state. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law in just the second week of the legislative session, with it set to take effect in January 2020.

Since the law went into effect in January, the number of private-party background checks per month has continually increased. January saw 168 private-party background checks, with August seeing the highest to-date total of checks at 518 total.

Nevada’s Point of Contact Firearms Program typically handles more than 100,000 background check requests per year, according to the agency. The agency rejects about 2,000 attempted firearm purchases every year.

Lawmakers and state officials say the state-run background check system is more effective and comprehensive than the federally operated system, as it includes state-level criminal history and mental-health records.

Though data on rejection rates for private party background checks were not immediately available, Rosen said he believed the state was off to a “healthy start” and that the law was more designed to take away gun-buying opportunities for individuals that would otherwise fail a background check.

“That's the whole point of the law, of course, is that law abiding sellers can help shrink the market of unlicensed non-background check sales for unlawful buyers,” he said.

Annette Magnus, executive director of progressive advocacy group Battle Born Progress, said the uptick in background check totals was a positive sign that meant more people were following the law and going through the correct process. But she added the numbers may also reflect the  higher number of gun sales in 2020 thus far, which could be a future cause of concern.

“I do think people feel unsafe,” she said. “I think you're going to continue to see those numbers go up and look, I'm glad we closed the background check loophole, that does make all of us safer. But I think on the flip side of that, seeing those numbers rise for gun sales generally and these numbers, I think there's more to that and there's more going on.”

Red Flag laws

Nevada’s new “red flag” law that allows courts to temporarily seize firearms from high-risk individuals has been used sparingly over the last nine months, and a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is still pending in court.

The ability to issue orders come from a multi-pronged firearms bill (AB291) approved during the 2019 legislative session. A total of 19 states and Washington, D.C. have implemented some kind of “red flag law,” according to gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety.  

Under the law, a court can issue an “extreme risk protection order” that takes away any owned firearms or the right to possess or buy a gun from an individual for any of the following reasons:

  • Making threats or committing actual acts of violence against themselves or others
  • Engaging in behavior a police officer determines to be a “serious and imminent threat” 
  • Engaging in high-risk behavior while possessing or recently purchasing a firearm

The law requires that a hearing to be held within seven days of the issuance of the initial order, allowing judges to issue an extended order valid up to a year prohibiting an individual from possessing firearms if the court determines gun ownership could result in injury to the person or others and if other, less restrictive options have been exhausted or not effective. 

The final version of the bill, which also banned firearm modifications similar to bump stocks and added penalties for negligent storage of firearms, was staunchly opposed by Republicans and passed on near-party line votes in the Senate and Assembly before being signed into law by Gov. Sisolak.

But according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, only four such protective orders have been granted since the state’s new law went into effect in January. Two of the orders were filed in February, another in May, and the fourth in September. One was issued in Carson City, one in the Ninth District Court (Douglas County) and two in Eighth Judicial District Court (Clark County).

Other states that have adopted similar “red flag” laws have generally seen larger numbers of protective orders filed. Oregon, which implemented a similar law in 2018, saw about 74 petitions filed in its first year of implementation. Maryland judges granted 148 such orders within the first three months of the law; Vermont issued about 30 such orders in its first 16 months of having a similar law in place.

The group found that states with “red flag laws” issued around 3,900 protection orders between January 2018 and August 2019, with a tally showing no state has issued fewer than nine extreme risk protection orders per year.

Rosen said there were a number of “confounding factors” that could affect Nevada’s total of protective orders issued, including court closures from the COVID-19 pandemic, and that most states tended to issue more orders as law enforcement and the legal system because they were more comfortable with their use.

“I do think it's going to take a little time and effort, but I'm not disappointed at all that in its first year, especially this year, that we may be off to a slow start,” he said.

Advocates of the law say it can help family members and law enforcement take a preemptive step to prevent mass shootings, domestic shootings or suicide by an individual demonstrating high-risk behavior.

Magnus, who lobbied for the bill in the 2019 Legislature, said the small number of protective orders filed thus far is likely attributable to court closures and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said a smaller number of the orders being filed should be considered a good sign — meaning fewer people found it necessary — but acknowledged it may take time for use of the tool to become more widespread.

“As more people find out about this new law, and are able to access this new law when they're in dangerous situations, you will see an uptick in the number of people who are utilizing this and I think you'll see judges and law enforcement also start to utilize this as well,” Magnus said.

But the law in Nevada has been met with a flurry of opposition from gun right activists and several rural counties and sheriffs, some of whom have threatened to not enforce provisions in the law.

That opposition culminated in a lawsuit filed in December 2019 by a conservative nonprofit group, NevadansCAN, which sought to challenge the new law as an unconstitutional “government power grab” that ignored due process rights in allowing a judge to temporarily seize a person’s firearms.

The request was rejected in an order filed in early July by Carson City District Court Judge James Russell, who denied the injunction request over a lack of standing.

Without ruling on the constitutionality of the law, Russell wrote that the political advocacy group and an individual gun owner who joined the lawsuit lacked standing because they “have not alleged that they will suffer an imminent cognizable personal injury due to the order for protection provisions.”

Instead, Russell wrote that a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality would be better suited if brought by a person subject to an extreme risk protection order.

But the lawsuit is still pending, as three rural counties and four sheriffs in Elko, Pershing, Humboldt and Eureka counties have filed to intervene. No additional hearing on their motion has yet been scheduled, and a spokeswoman for Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office said a decision from the court could take a “couple of months.”

Coalition of 20 progressive groups, unions urges Sisolak not to expand business liability protections in possible second session

A coalition of progressive groups and unions is sending a letter to the governor and legislative leadership making a case against adding liability protections for businesses fearful of coronavirus transmission-related lawsuits.

The letter dated Saturday argues that legal liability is one of the strongest incentives for businesses to uphold safe practices, and chipping away at those would jeopardize the health and safety of workers and people patronizing businesses. It says businesses already have protection against careless lawsuits and won’t lose a case if they are following guidelines and being reasonable under the circumstances.

“The pandemic cannot be an excuse for failing to protect workers and the public,” the letter says. “Nevadans and our tourists would suffer needlessly as a result of failing to protect workers. Allowing legal immunity does not align with the administration’s extraordinary actions in past months to keep Nevadans safe.”

Republicans and numerous powerful business associations have argued to Sisolak that frivolous lawsuits blaming businesses for the spread of COVID-19 could devastate those companies. School superintendents, too, testified that they would support efforts to strengthen protections against lawsuits as they enter the uncharted territory of trying to reopen while coronavirus is alive and well.

The new “Nevada Workers Coalition” signed on to the letter includes 20 groups, ranging from the Nevada State Education Association teachers union to the Culinary Union and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN).

Annette Magnus of Battle Born Progress said the coalition does not want to see liability protection legislation emerge in a potential special session and wants worker safety to be the priority. Sisolak has suggested he would call a second special session after a budget shortfall is addressed, but it’s unclear what topics might be on the agenda, and many interest groups are lobbying him on what to include in the discussion.

Nevada Workers Coalition Letter to Governor by Michelle Rindels on Scribd

Long lines on Election Day become political flashpoint

At 3:09 a.m. on Wednesday, an Elvis impersonator cast his ballot at the Paradise Recreation Center in Las Vegas, making him the last Nevadan to vote in the state’s primary, more than eight hours after lines to the polls were officially cut off.

The vast majority of votes in Nevada were cast through ballots that were either mailed in or dropped off at locations throughout the state, but the state reported on Thursday that several thousand Nevadans chose to vote in person. Those that did elect to fill out ballots on site were met with long lines at the state’s limited number of polling locations.

“Let me say that the long lines our voters experienced on Tuesday were not acceptable,” Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria said in an email to The Nevada Independent on Thursday. “Obviously, this was a new process for everyone and we had to make some predictions when planning for Election Day. Honestly, we did not expect as many people would need replacement ballots. Our staff did a great job and we sincerely appreciate the voters’ patience.”

There has been much partisan debate over Nevada’s primary since Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske announced that the election would be taking place primarily via mail-in ballots in hopes of curbing the spread of coronavirus. 

State and national Democratic Party groups filed a lawsuit in response to the election plan in April demanding more in-person sites be made available. The lawsuit was later dropped when Clark County decided to increase the number of polling locations from one to three and make other concessions, including sending ballots to inactive voters.

Republicans initially supported Cegavske’s plan but later criticized the agreement between Democrats and Clark County officials, especially on accommodating inactive voters.

State Democrats were quick to point to Tuesday’s delays as evidence that their concerns had been correct. Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II released a statement on Tuesday that was directly critical of the election’s organization.

“As predicted, despite the Secretary of State moving Nevada’s primary to an all-mail election, many Nevada voters still participated in person,” said McCurdy. “Had the Secretary of State gotten her way and Clark County voters were limited to just a single polling location, these wait times would have been even longer than the ones we’re seeing now.”

The Secretary of State's Office declined to provide a comment in response to the state party's statement.

The League of Women Voters of Nevada released a statement Thursday defending elections officials.

“Both parties have used this election’s processes for partisan purposes and have tried to score partisan points by trying to tear down our election officials,” said Sondra Cosgrove, president of the league. “I therefore strongly believe that it falls to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Nevada, and myself specifically, to go on record in full support of our Secretary of State and county election officials.”

Cosgrove praised the all-mail voting plan as well as the efforts made by the state to educate voters about in-person alternatives and online registration.

“We already have a problem with low voter turnout in Nevada, we do not need to sow seeds of doubt about our election processes,” Cosgrove said. “That is irresponsible.”

In-person voting in Washoe County on June 9, 2020. Photo by David Calvert.

High demand for replacement ballots

Delays began early on Tuesday in Clark County, where voters reported sites opening late and lines up to three hours long to cast ballots, and, as the day progressed, wait time only increased. By the time the last votes were cast in Clark, voters were spending over six hours in line.

While Clark County has not reported their total in person voter turnout for Election Day so far, state officials estimate that about 4,000 people showed up to the county’s polling sites to vote on Tuesday.

Same-day registrants, which made up a significant portion of in-person voters in the state, and voters with accessibility needs were the demographic that election officials were prepared to serve on Election Day. But Gloria pointed to the surprisingly high number of voters in need of replacement ballots as the cause of the delay.

“We certainly would plan for significant demand for replacement ballots if this scenario returns in the future,” Gloria said.

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom weighed in on the Election Day discussion on Twitter, also calling the long wait times “unacceptable.”

In a call with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Segerblom said that issues stemmed from a lack of sites and technology.

“We should have had more sites, we should have had more printers, we should have had anything,” he said. “I’m a county commissioner, I supervise that department, I knew there were only three sites. We pushed it from one to three, so we tried to do something, but I’ll take the blame too.”

Segerblom apologized to voters who were forced to wait for hours in order to cast their votes but also expressed admiration for their determination.

“I wanted to have the county honor all those that stuck around for five, six, seven hours,” Segerblom said.  “They are true heroes to do that just to exercise the right to vote.”

Annette Magnus, the executive director of the progressive group Battle Born Progress, released a statement on Thursday, pointing to the decision to limit the number of voting locations as the cause of long delays. Magnus had initially criticized this decision in April in a column published by the Las Vegas Sun.

“Tuesday proved that all Nevada elected leaders, especially the Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and registrars across the state should heed our advice and make voting more accessible by arranging and staffing a more adequate number of vote centers, when turnout could be more than 80%, in each county,” Magnus said in Thursday’s statement.

Turnout for the 2020 primary has been reported as 27 percent as of Thursday, making it the highest turnout of the last few primary election cycles.

Magnus also pointed to a need to better educate voters in communities most likely to be disenfranchised about voting by mail and their in-person options.

“Countless voters were left unheard because the cost of waiting for hours to vote was too great to bear for their family, their job, or their health and well-being,” she said.

In-person voting in Clark County on June 9, 2020. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Technology issues

Not only were the three voting locations that Clark County operated overwhelmed by demand, but county officials also reported that the Desert Breeze Community Center site opened 40 minutes late because of technical difficulties.

While the county said this was the only site to see such delays, voters at the Paradise Recreation Center said the voting process didn't start until almost an hour after the site officially opened and were told it was because of issues with printers and computers. 

In response to the late starts at these sites, Silver State Voices, the Nevada chapter of State Voice, an organization that works to increase civic engagement for underrepresented populations, and the ACLU of Nevada issued a joint request to the Secretary of State’s office on Election Day that sites be held open until 8 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. While this request was rejected, the office assured both organizations that any individual in line by 7 p.m. would be allowed to vote. 

“On our end, we made sure that our poll monitors were monitoring this and that folks were staying in line,” said Emily Zamora, the executive director of Silver State Voices.

When the final vote was cast at just past three in the morning, Silver State Voices observers were on site with that final voter.

While organization leaders agree with the need for mail-in options in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, they do believe that in-person alternatives need to be more readily available and more convenient.

“With such a big election, it’s really important to us that we do continue pushing mail for the safety of Nevada voters but that we have more vote centers being open,” said Zamora. “Three in Clark County and one in Washoe was just not sufficient for the quantity of voters that wanted to vote in person.”

Washoe County’s one in-person polling location was also the only site in the state that allowed voters to use electronic voting machines instead of paper ballots. Wait times at the site ranged from 45 minutes to two hours, and the county reported that 1,627 individuals voted in person on Election Day.

In a press call on Wednesday, Washoe County Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula said she was “happy” with how voting had gone at that site.

“I'm still very happy with only having the one location, how everything flowed, that people were allowed to come in person and vote and that was their choice, their decision, and we were able and prepared to provide that to our voters,” Spikula said. “So again, I am still very pleased with how our election went yesterday.”

Looking forward to the general election in November, when the presidential race will be on the ballot, voting rights groups and county officials alike hope that the election will be able to proceed with less reliance on mail-in options and more use of electronic voting machines. However, if that is not an option, officials will need to make changes to accommodate an even larger number of voters participating.

“There will probably be machines in November, so that makes it simpler, but if we don’t have machines we need to make sure we have, you know, a thousand printers, whatever it takes. There’s going to be a lot more voters at that time than this time,” said Segerblom.

Tabitha Mueller and Savanna Strott contributed to this report.

Smart, early organizing in communities of color helped propel Sanders to victory in Nevada

As the politically powerful Culinary Union warned that Bernie Sanders would “end'' their union health care if elected president, the Vermont senator’s campaign was quietly canvassing their rank-and-file membership.

In the three weeks leading up to Saturday’s Democratic presidential nominating contest in Nevada, a team of a couple dozen organizers fanned out across the Las Vegas Strip to properties where casino workers unable to leave work to caucus would be able to participate at at-large precincts while on shift, including the Bellagio, Harrah’s, Mandalay Bay, Paris, Park MGM, the Rio and Wynn. 

The Sanders campaign had been courting the predominantly immigrant, working-class Culinary members at their homes — knocking on their doors, sending mailers, calling them and running ads on their TVs — for months. But in the home stretch, the campaign took its final pitch right to the employee entrances of the hotels where workers would be able to caucus. It was a strategy adapted from the campaign’s successful efforts organizing immigrant meatpackers in Iowa.

“A lot of people are busy, they're coming into work or they're leaving and trying to get home,” said Sarah Michelsen, Sanders’ state director. “But they would stop and have conversations with us because they were like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you standing in the parking garage?’”

They talked about health care, sure. The union opposes Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan on the basis that it would replace their members’ much-loved health insurance with a government-run system they fear wouldn’t provide as good of benefits as their gold-standard plan. But campaign organizers also talked about the Vermont senator’s plans to provide free college for all, address climate change and bolster unions.

The campaign had no idea whether their organizing efforts would work, especially with the union actively circulating anti-Sanders flyers. Heading into Saturday’s caucus, the campaign’s only hope was that Sanders would receive at least 15 percent support in each of the seven at-large Strip precincts, which would qualify him for delegates to the county convention out of those sites.

Sanders ended up winning five of the seven Strip precincts, not only suggesting that rank-and-file Culinary members rejected their union’s messaging on Sanders but that an overwhelmingly female, multi-racial group of voters was able to get behind his ambitious, progressive agenda. It also proved how effective the campaign’s leave-no-stone-unturned approach to organizing in historically underrepresented, low-turnout communities could be.

“This was the chance to really create that narrative and really prove that theory of the case,” Michelsen said. “We knew that this was going to be a really very important piece of the momentum that we needed to build to win.”

And win in Nevada he did. Sanders emerged from Saturday’s caucus not only with 46.8 percent support but a 26 percentage point lead over his next closest competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden. Political observers in Nevada anticipated a Sanders win, but they didn’t anticipate exactly how much he would win by.

“He ended up running away with it,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Political activist Cornel West, left, introduces presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during the opening of the Bernie 2020 East Las Vegas Office grand opening on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Sanders organization

For the Sanders campaign, there was no complex calculus about where to devote resources ahead of Nevada’s caucus. Where other campaigns had to be strategic about where they spent their time and money, Sanders, who raised $25.2 million in the last fundraising quarter, could afford to be and spend everywhere. The campaign began staffing up in Nevada in March and had more than 250 staffers on the ground by Caucus Day, outnumbering the next-biggest presidential campaign team by nearly two to one.

“One thing that's up that's a major trap about a caucus is people end up twisting themselves up, trying to figure out the puzzle and the strategy of all of it,” said Peter Koltak, a senior adviser to the campaign. “At some point it's like if you hit hard everywhere, then you're going to win.”

But there was at least some logic to it. For instance, the campaign deployed what Michelsen described as a full “Election Day-style turnout mechanism” for each of the four days of early voting last week ahead of the caucus. That included hosting get-out-the-vote events in both Northern and Southern Nevada, including a “Unidos con Bernie” soccer tournament in East Las Vegas, and then giving supporters rides to the polls.

“We made a Bernie trophy for them and then we drove them to the polls,” Michelsen said. “It was a community event that felt natural to them in the way that they normally gather, and then they got to have the exciting civic experience of voting together as a community during the early vote.”

In total, the campaign estimates that it gave dozens of rides to voters, including from five mosques, the popular Filipino supermarket Seafood City, and the popular Latino supermarket Cardenas Market.

The success of that final get-out-the-caucus effort was, in part, predicated on the time and money spent on a massive field organizing effort — what Michelsen referred to as the “sweat equity” of the campaign — that knocked a half million doors between when it started in June and Caucus Day. 

“People recognize that and they see that when they've seen you at their door multiple times, when they're used to getting your literature on their door, when you've called them over and over, when you're starting to get to know them,” Michelsen said.

They also engaged in an extensive relational organizing effort, a hub-and-spoke strategy where Sanders supporters reached out to their personal networks and used their social capital to persuade friends and family members to caucus for the Vermont senator. That effort, campaign aides believe, proved particularly critical to Sanders’ successes among voters of color. Entrance polls show that Sanders won 51 percent of voters who identify as Hispanic or Latino and 27 percent of voters who identify as black.

“What is often forgotten is that particularly in Latino communities and communities of color, the networks are very strong, the family bonds,” said Susana Cervantes, Sanders’ field director in Nevada. “It just comes down to finding supporters and then asking them to talk to their friends, family and neighbors. I know it sounds simple, but that's what it comes down to.”

Even operatives working on rival campaigns were impressed by the Sanders operation.

"I can say without a doubt they were the only campaign that really took the hashtag #WeMatter seriously,” said Megan Jones, a longtime political consultant in Nevada who worked on California Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign. “They were invested deeply in all parts of the communities that they were organizing in.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Courting communities of color

While Biden bested Sanders among black voters, no other candidate came close to approaching the level of support that Sanders — nicknamed Tío Bernie, or Uncle Bernie — received from Latino voters. Precinct-level data also show that he was by far the most popular candidate in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods in East Las Vegas, which is also where Sanders opened his first campaign office in July.

The campaign attributes those successes, in part, to young Latino supporters winning over their parents and grandparents.

“The first generation depends on their kids who are growing up here to help them. You grow up having influence and your parents listen to you because they depend on you,” Cervantes said. “It's very powerful to have all this youth behind us, especially in the Latino community.”

Cecia Alvarado, state director for the Latino voting rights organization Mi Familia Vota, said that Sanders was able to appeal to the Latino community in a deep and authentic way that other candidates were not. She also noted the way that he strategically used surrogates to boost his campaign — and not just Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who hosted a Spanish-language town hall for Sanders in Las Vegas in December, but also José La Luz, a Puerto Rican labor activist who attended several events on Sanders’ behalf in Las Vegas this week.

“The lack of investment in our community has shown in the past, always,” Alvarado said. “I think with Senator Sanders campaign we learned when you invest in the Latino community, when you are talking with Latinos about immigration, about health care, they show up.”

But the Sanders campaign didn’t reserve that level of investment just for the Latino community, though. Nine months ago, Miles Cooper, a political associate on Sanders campaign, and physician Zaffar Iqbal launched “Muslims for Bernie.” The group, which met on Sundays, focused on how to pitch Sanders’ message with a level of cultural fluency to Muslims, who make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, that non-Muslims wouldn’t have.

“They did a lot of mosque visits, going to mosques at prayer time and reminding people about when they can vote, how they can vote,” Michelsen said. “It's different than if we just tabled at the mosque the week before the election.”

The campaign also spent time getting to know local issues and using Sanders’ platform to draw attention to them, particularly within Indigenous communities, who make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population. The Sanders campaign released a video in May highlighting Native concerns over the possible construction of a long-term high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, and after meeting with tribal leaders after a campaign stop in Elko in December, Sanders came out against oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains.

“It nets votes because people understand that it's real. If campaigns are super slick and are all about paid media and are all about the most poll-tested messaging, people can smell bullshit from a mile away,” Michelsen said. “We didn't meet every native American voter, but those are strong family networks too, and they could see the work that we were doing from the beginning.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a rally in City Plaza in downtown Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Media and momentum

It wasn’t just smart organizing, either. The campaign also undertook a substantial paid media campaign that included sending mail to Latino households beginning in the late summer and continuing through February, as well as a digital campaign targeting all of the campaign’s audiences beginning in late November. According to The New York Times, Sanders spent about $407,000 just on Spanish-language ads in Nevada.

“We just sort of never said anything about it because we wanted to kind of fly under the radar with how aggressively we were coming on,” Koltak said. “By the time that we actually got to the TV wars, we'd actually already been communicating with people, both from an organizing perspective and a paid media perspective for a really long time.”

Of course, the momentum out of Iowa and New Hampshire helped Sanders here too. The Vermont senator won the popular votes in both states, with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg close on his heels. But Nevada represented his first substantial margin of victory, separating him from what has been a crowded pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls over the course of the race.

“I used to joke with people like, we’re third and we’ll be ready for the handoff. What you hand us off is up to you,” Koltak said. “Luckily they handed us off a campaign with a little momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then because of the work we had already put in here and the demographics of the state and a variety of other factors, we were ready to take that and blow it up.”

And unlike many of his competitors, Sanders wasn’t starting from scratch in this Democratic presidential race. In fact, he only lost Nevada to Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in 2016, a far closer race than anyone had anticipated and positioning him well for this year’s contest.

“He has had time for his message to percolate since 2016,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “In 2016, people didn’t know who he was. Since 2016, he has been on the scene, he’s a known commodity, people understand what he’s talking about.”

But those who watch politics closely in the Silver State note that his message has a particular resonance and urgency now in a way that it didn’t four years ago, before Donald Trump became president. Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West pointed in particular to the issue of health care and the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act compared to Sanders’ Medicare-for-all policy.

“We’ve seen such a deterioration of the ACA and the attacks on it. There’s so much fear there about people having to pay more or losing coverage or knowing they or a loved one has a pre-existing condition and not having health insurance,” West said. “That message just comes on so strong, and I think it really resonated here.”

The question now is how that message will resonate through the rest of the nominating contests and, should he ultimately prove successful, among a general election electorate. Sanders’ thesis is that his campaign is expanding the electorate and bringing voters into the fold who might not have otherwise ordinarily participated in the electoral process. And it’s possible he’s right. More than 10,000 people newly registered as Democrats during early voting and more than 50 percent of early voters had never caucused before.

Jones said there are “plenty of downsides, frankly, to Bernie being the general election nominee.” But she does believe he is making an impact on Nevada's Democratic electorate.

“I would imagine that a large percentage are new caucusgoers for Bernie and new registrants to Bernie, which speaks to the power of organizing,” Jones said.

In analyzing the Vermont senator’s victory in Nevada, Sanders campaign aides talked a lot about that organizing heft. But there was one point they kept circling back to: his message.

“I think that we can talk about tactics and a strategy and all kinds of various campaign topics, but at the end of the day, people need something to vote for,” Cervantes said. “I could talk to my neighbors. I can talk to my family. I can do all of that. But people need to feel that there's something to vote for, and I think we have that. Bernie does that.”

Supporters listen as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at Springs Preserve on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Still largely untested, Nevada’s new red flag law and expanded background checks rankle gun show attendees

At a gun show last weekend in Carson City, where handguns and scopes and rifles were on display at a community center, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was a bit of a persona non grata.

Gun control bills the governor signed out of the 2019 legislative session — including one requiring background checks on private sales and transfers and another authorizing temporary gun confiscation for people showing behavioral “red flags” — just took effect this month. Although the red flag law has not yet been used in Nevada’s two largest counties, it has attracted a lawsuit, and both laws have drawn defiant statements from rural officials and frustration among gun owners.

“It's very important for people to be able to defend themselves and also to remind the government that we're not to be pushed around,” Lee Vela, a gun seller at the Northern Nevada American Dream gun show, said on Saturday. “That goes for the federal government, that goes for Steve Sisolak, and the state government.”

Robert Wood of Lewis Machine and Tool shows an attendee a rifle during the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show inside the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

SB143 implements a 2016 ballot initiative that requires background checks on private gun sales and transfers, instead of only on licensed gun dealer sales. AB291’s “red flag” provisions allow family and household members as well as law enforcement to petition a judge for a court order that allows for seizure and suspension of firearms possession for up to a year.

Vela argued that the Second Amendment guarantees him autonomy and protection and said he is worried the new laws will infringe on his rights.

“I've been carrying myself for 40 years to Vietnam and beyond, and I've never shot anybody in anger, never pulled the gun in anger, but I will if I have to defend myself, loved ones or the general public at hand,” he said.

Fellow gun salesman Matt Park chimed in and said guns are not the problem, “the ones that don’t obey the laws are the problem.”

Comments from the gun show stand in stark contrast to those of gun control advocates, who attribute public safety concerns to Nevada gun control laws that are lax in comparison to states such as California.

For some Las Vegas residents and gun control advocates, an isolated shooting that injured three people at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas last week brought flashbacks of a larger-scale incident of gun violence that took place over two years ago: the Oct. 1 shooting in which a man who had smuggled guns into his Strip hotel room killed 58 and wounded hundreds at a concert that was taking place 32 stories below, across Las Vegas Boulevard. 

Annette Magnus, executive director of the political advocacy group Battle Born Progress, said in a statement that existing gun laws are still not enough to prevent large- and small-scale gun violence. She called it a “twist of poetic irony” that the lobbyists who fought against local jurisdictions’ ability to make gun control laws stronger than those in the state at large were representing the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show — an event that was happening the same day as the mall shooting.

“In reaction to news reports of shots being fired, our Las Vegas community was once again panicked at the possibility of losing loved ones to yet another mass shooting. Thank goodness that turned out not to be the case,” Magnus said. “Those following the movement for sensible gun violence prevention during the 2019 legislative session may recall representatives of the SHOT Show and the gun lobby pushed hard to kill attempts to repeal state preemption of gun laws.”

Originally, AB291 was written to allow local governments to “pre-empt” state gun laws, allowing for more stringent rules if municipalities wanted them. But after labor unions raised concerns that such a provision would cause the SHOT Show — the nation’s largest trade show for the sport shooting and hunting industry — to relocate, pre-emption was removed from the bill.

Magnus said the fact that Clark County, municipal and local governments cannot set their own laws on gun control limits their ability to sufficiently address local gun violence.  

On the other hand, sheriffs across the state have pushed back at the new gun laws, saying that they violate the Second Amendment and due process. Moreover, several county commissions have signed “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolutions essentially declaring their intent to disregard gun laws they believe to infringe on constitutional rights.

Dorin Adika, a gun seller from Florida with Dorin Technologies, hosted a booth at the SHOT Show last week and described how sometimes background checks fail to uncover issues but said he supported background checks “as long as they actually work.”

SB143 transferred the responsibility of background checks to the state’s Department of Public Safety, whereas before, voter-approved language in the law called on the FBI to conduct the background checks. The Associated Press reported that the FBI’s database has proven unreliable and incomplete in other states.

The National Rifle Association booth as seen on the convention floor of the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show inside the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Background checks

Las Vegas has the misfortune of being the site of the deadliest mass shooting in recorded U.S. history, and testimony from survivors helped propel an effort in 2019 to expand mandatory background checks to more gun sales and transfers.

Nevada voters had approved background checks by ballot initiative in 2016, but implementing the law proved difficult when the FBI refused to perform the checks.

Department spokeswoman Kim Yoko Smith said that although the state could not enforce the voter-approved background check initiative for the last three years, the Nevada Department of Public Safety conducted free, voluntary private party background checks since December 2017. Relatively few people took advantage of the optional program: the department conducted 11 private party background checks in 2017, 194 checks in 2018, and 221 checks in 2019.

For comparison, the state conducts about 100,000 gun background checks a year — it has been required to do them on sales from licensed gun dealers.

State-run background checks of private party sales and transfers are expected to jump dramatically this year, now that they are mandatory. In the first 25 days under the new law, 151 private party background checks have been completed.

New background checks and red flag laws aside, Nevada has no laws requiring licensing for gun owners nor any requiring registration of firearms. The state does not have restrictions for assault weapons or large-capacity magazines lawfully purchased by the Las Vegas shooter, enabling him to inflict mass carnage in a matter of minutes.

Red flag laws in Nevada and elsewhere

Less high-profile than background checks, a new “red flag” law — based on a concept authorized and studied in other states — is garnering perhaps the most backlash of the new gun control laws.

The measure, enacted through AB291, gives family, household members or law enforcement the ability to file Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which allows law enforcement, by a court order of up to one year, to seize firearms and prohibits possession or purchase of firearms for the duration of the order. AB291 also includes a provision that prohibits trigger-accelerating accessories, such as the bump stocks used by the Las Vegas shooter.

Bump stocks were also banned at the federal level in early 2019.

A shattered window on the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay
A shattered window on the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay as seen Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 where the Oct. 1 shooter rained bullets down on the Highway 91 concert. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

According to information from the Eighth Judicial District Court, no Extreme Risk Protection Orders have been filed in Clark County to date. The Second Judicial District Court said no one has requested a protection order in Washoe County, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said they have not received nor served a protection order as of late January.

Seventeen other states have implemented red flag laws as of 2020. Connecticut was the first state to enact red flag laws in 1999 and research has shown that the law correlates with a reduction in firearm suicides, but not necessarily in other forms of suicide or firearm homicides. 

A study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association analyzing the effects of firearm seizure on suicide rates from 1981-2015 in Indiana and Connecticut concluded that risk-based firearm seizure laws were connected with reduced firearm suicide rates.

As part of the study, researchers also found that firearm suicides dropped by 1.6 percent in Connecticut immediately after the law passed and when enforcement of the law increased following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, reduction of firearm suicides rose to 13.7 percent.

In the 10 years after Indiana’s implementation of a red flag law in 2005, researchers added the state saw a 7.5 percent decrease in firearm suicides. However, the study also noted that data about suicide reduction in relation to red flag laws was still inconclusive when comparing Indiana to Connecticut.

“Whereas Indiana demonstrated an aggregate decrease in suicides, Connecticut’s estimated reduction in firearm suicides was offset by increased nonfirearm suicides,” the study said.

Attendees of the Northern Nevada American Dream gun show in Carson City acknowledged the need to reduce deaths from guns but said they were concerned about the potential for false allegations.

“I don’t think it’s a good law. I think they could take advantage of that situation real easily,” said Dave Rhines, a 61-year-old gun owner from Carson City.

“I was accused of something a while back. It cost me $8,000 to prove my innocence, and they dropped all the charges, but it still cost me eight grand. Same thing [with the red flag laws]. They can accuse you of something and you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent,” he added.

Growing polarization in the state surrounding gun laws

The new laws have underscored and in some ways widened divides between Democratic lawmakers, the governor and sparsely populated rural counties, some of which have mulled legal action to challenge the new requirements.

On Friday, the Humboldt County Board of Commissioners discussed joining a lawsuit filed by the conservative nonprofit group NevadansCAN, challenging the constitutionality of the red flag law. According to the Humboldt County clerk, no action has been taken yet.

Plaintiffs are concerned about due process and called the lawsuit a “government power grab.” They added that the red flag law was unconstitutional because a judge was making the decision to remove a citizen’s gun as opposed to a jury.

Red flag laws could have similar consequences to a law passed by the Legislature that authorized temporary confiscation of firearms for domestic violence offenders. Last year, the state Supreme Court required that domestic violence offenders who have their firearms confiscated under that law be given the option of a jury trial.

Justice Lidia Stiglich authored the order, which called the law a “prohibition on the right to bear arms as guaranteed by both the United States and Nevada Constitutions.”

At the Carson City gun show, 70-year-old John Abrahamian said he had been around guns all his life and views guns as tools.

“Red flag gun laws — as a gun owner, I bristle a little bit at it. Why is somebody telling me what I can and cannot do? It is one of the basic American freedoms,” he said, adding that “education is huge,” when it comes to maintaining public safety in a society that allows gun ownership.

Attendees examine firearms and accessories on display on the convention floor of the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show inside the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Abrahamian acknowledged the need to address gun violence but said gun violence reflects poorly on law-abiding gun owners.

“Somebody gets up on a tower, knocks a window out of a building, and starts shooting people for what reason will we ever know? I don't know. And it reflects on all of us,” he said.

Yolanda Donato came to the gun show in Carson City with her husband and said she owns guns to protect herself. She echoed Abrahamian’s call for increased education and emphasized the need for training.

“I think that those who are opposed [to guns] need to really educate themselves and I know that there's a lot of bad things that go on in the country and it's very concerning,’ she said. “Part of [the reason people might be anti-guns] is mostly fear. A lot of them probably have young children. I can understand that.”

For some, the polarization and high emotion on both sides of the issues has prompted them to largely keep quiet about their interest in guns.

Twenty-two-year-old Hector Escobar, a granite fabricator from Carson City, says his coworkers are gun enthusiasts, and he appreciates the craftsmanship of guns. He has never owned a gun but was considering buying one at the American Dream gun show.

He perused tables featuring a variety of guns and explained he has an interest in firearms but does not usually discuss them with strangers.

“I feel like [talking about guns is] one of those conversations that's kept behind doors,” he said. “You don't really go out and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think about guns?’ I feel like you know when someone has a common interest in it and so it'll strike up a conversation, or it can put a conversation to an end."

This story was updated at 7:51 a.m. to include data on private party background checks since Jan. 2, 2020.