Sisolak ‘damn proud’ of Legislature, will sign state public option bill, explains death penalty decision

Gov. Steve Sisolak said on Tuesday that he is “damn proud of what this Legislature did” and thinks it was “a very productive session,” highlighting priority policies that he will likely run on during the 2022 midterm election.

The first-term Democrat rattled off a list of accomplishments during the 120-day session that ended Monday, including distributing $100 million in grants to small businesses, earmarking federal funds to modernize the unemployment system, passing a bill that guarantees many hospitality workers the “right to return” to their old jobs and passing measures that expand voting opportunities.

He also says he’s “110 percent” sure he will run for re-election in 2022, saying he thinks the state is on the upswing after a turbulent year responding to the pandemic.

“I think we have an opportunity to build a new Nevada in the future, and I want to be part of that,” he said.

Below are highlights from a wide-ranging interview Sisolak conducted with reporters from his Carson City office.

Gov. Steve Sisolak with Chief of Staff Michelle White and Senior Adviser Scott Gilles at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

State public option

Sisolak confirmed Tuesday that he will sign Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s SB420, legislation that will make Nevada one of the first states in the nation to adopt a state-managed public health insurance option.

The governor’s commitment to sign the bill dashes the hopes of opponents urging a veto after a contentious legislative journey for the bill, which requires insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan resembling existing qualified health plans on the state health insurance exchange system. The bill also calls for an actuarial study and for the public options to become available starting in 2026.

“It's not something that you flip a switch and happens overnight,” Sisolak said. “But anytime there's an opportunity to get health care coverage available for more Nevadans is certainly something that I'm interested in.”

Special sessions

Sisolak said he has not scheduled a legislative special session focused on how the state should spend the coming $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and hundreds of other federal COVID relief funding streams coming into the state. 

Nevada lawmakers ended the regular session without a clear plan on the coming federal windfall — though lawmakers approved legislation, SB461, earmarking $335 million of the federal dollars to the unemployment trust fund aimed at avoiding any automatic hikes in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

The legislation also includes millions more in direct spending on specific public health, food insecurity and other programs, while also creating a “waterfall” of funding priorities for future use of the federal dollars.

Will that be enough to avoid a special session? Sisolak demurred, saying his office was still working through the U.S. Treasury guidance on how the federal dollars can be spent and for now was taking a “wait and see” approach. The governor added that a fall special session will be necessary to complete the state’s redistricting process, after delays in compiling and reporting U.S. Census data caused by the pandemic.

“When there's a session necessary, we'll call it,” he said.

Tax initiative petitions

Part of the deal to pass a bill imposing a new tax on the mining industry involved the Clark County Education Association teacher’s union withdrawing two proposed ballot measures that would raise sales and gaming taxes. Lawmakers amended a bill in the waning hours of the session to explicitly authorize such petitions to be withdrawn within 90 days of an election, even after they have qualified for the ballot.

“I'm gonna trust that any commitment that they made to me or to my staff, they're gonna follow through on,” Sisolak said.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said after the bill’s first hearing but before a vote that “if we get a deal, we will keep our word.”

But Sisolak said he wasn’t sure exactly when that would happen or if it would be right at the allowable deadline for withdrawal.

“I would hope we don't have to wait ‘til 90 days right before,” Sisolak said. “Hopefully it will be sooner than that. I don't know how much sooner.”

Asked if he was worried that the strategy of filing an initiative petition to try to force certain actions from policymakers would become commonplace, the governor said he hoped not.

“I don't believe in legislating by initiative petition,” he said. “The public's input is certainly required, it's necessary and sought out. But that's why we elect people. I don't think that the initiative petition process is the most effective way to get results. And I hope that that's not what this causes.”

Death penalty

After what was arguably the highest profile bill to die in the legislative process — a measure advanced by the Assembly on party lines to abolish the death penalty — Sisolak said nobody has yet approached him asking for him to impose a moratorium on capital punishment.

He also said he doesn’t believe he has the individual power to grant clemency for people on death row who fall outside of a category he thinks the death penalty should exist for — the most egregious cases, such as mass shootings and terrorism.

Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White, said the governor had wanted to meet with people on both sides of the issue, including families of victims and of people on death row, but those talks did not happen before the session.

“There were no conversations with our office leading up to this legislative session on the death penalty,” she said. “There was no outreach saying, 'we're going to do this and so we want to get some input on this.'”

Sisolak said he was uncomfortable making such a momentous decision in an environment where many legislative meetings were remote and public comment was taken in short increments over the phone. 

“It's different when you're sitting face to face with someone you see them, the family member,” he said. “And I'm not talking necessarily about the large groups, I'm talking about the family members who lost a loved one as a result of a mass shooting.”

He said there was “zero” consideration about being seen as soft on crime when Republican Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Clark County, is planning to run for governor.

“When I make legislative decisions, they have nothing to do with my political opponents,” he said.

Opportunity Scholarships

The compromise by which the mining tax was approved involved funding authorization for a program many Democrats dislike — the tax credit-funded Opportunity Scholarship program that supports low-income children attending private schools. The bill brings funding back up to 2019 levels, reversing an arrangement that lets no new children enroll and effectively begins a phase-out of the program.

Asked if he thinks the program should be a permanent fixture in Nevada, Sisolak noted that one Legislature can’t bind a future Legislature.

“There were a lot of discussions leading up to that. It wasn't easy,” he said. “Good governance is all about compromise. I mean, it's not just getting your way all the time.”

Asked if he would include it in the recommended budget he will put forward if he is re-elected ahead of the 2023 session, he said he hasn’t thought about the budget for next session but will “definitely” be talking to his top staffers about what the budget will look like.

“This was an agreement that was made,” he said. “I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

Innovation Zones

Though the concept was downgraded to an interim study, Sisolak said he is still a believer in “Innovation Zones,” the proposed semi-autonomous corporate-backed governmental structure sought by Blockchains, Inc.

No bill was ever introduced, but draft language around the “Innovation Zone” concept drew opposition from state lawmakers in both parties, rural communities concerned about proposed water usage and even became the butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts.

Sisolak acknowledged that the bill was a “heavy lift” but said he was still a supporter of the concept mentioned during his January State of the State address, saying that it put no state money at risk and could help with economic development. He said building support for the bill was difficult with the Legislature largely closed to the public and in-person meetings.

“I think the concept was misunderstood because the detractors put it out there like it's a company town, and you're given control of the government. That's not at all what it was,” he said. “But in the midst of a 120-day session, when I was in the initial discussions on Innovation Zones, I wasn't contemplating having a pandemic.”

Raises for state workers

Some lawmakers spoke out against a plan to give raises up to 3 percent for state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, and 1 percent to those without. It’s the first budget approved since state workers were authorized to unionize.

“I guess what I find disturbing is because this becomes a reward and an incentive to put everyone under a collective bargaining unit, because we don't pay them if they don't,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said before voting against a bill implementing state employee pay. “And to me that seems to be a little inappropriate.”

Asked whether the arrangement is fair, Sisolak said it’s not collective bargaining if everybody gets the same thing.

“I've been involved with different parts of collective bargaining for a long time. That's what collective bargaining is,” he said. “Different units came forward with different proposals and different requests and made cases and they came to agreements. And I'm no one to stop that.” 

SNWA turf removal

While cautioning that he wanted to read the bill for any last-minute amendments, Sisolak indicated that he also will sign a proposal backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority that would generally prohibit non-functional grass outside of single-family residences in Clark County starting in 2027. The bill would remove about 5,000 acres of unused grasses, which uses about 10 percent of Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot water allocation from the Colorado River. 

Sisolak called the idea behind AB356 a “great policy,” saying that anyone who flies into Las Vegas can see the infamous “bathtub ring” on the shores of Lake Mead and see the need for water conservation in Southern Nevada.

“I think that it's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” he said.

Innovation Zones study still sees issues raised by Storey County, others

Although it has been a month since the contentious proposal creating autonomous “Innovation Zones” was scrapped and turned into a study, the concept has continued to receive pushback as it moves through the Legislature. 

The concurrent resolution, SCR11, would establish a committee of six appointed lawmakers to study the Innovation Zone proposal, including evaluating its effects on economic development, natural resources, the environment and local tax revenues. The measure passed out of the Senate on May 19 on a voice vote.

During its hearing in the Assembly Committee of Revenue on Tuesday, comments from lobbyist Mary Walker in neutral testimony, representing Carson, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties sparked a conversation about tax revenue and future growth concerns in Storey County — the likely location of any Innovation Zone, as the concept backers Blockchains Inc. owns about 67,000 acres of land and spearheaded efforts in favor of the concept earlier this year. Blockchains did not testify in the committee hearing.

Under the original proposal, Blockchains would be allowed to create a new form of local government operating as a “county-within-a-county,” but the measure brought up concerns it would receive all of the tax revenue from technology companies located within the “Zone,” causing Storey County to miss out on taxes it would otherwise receive. Opponents also raised concerns about the Tesla Gigafactory, which has property tax abatements nearing expiration in 2024 and is expected to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments.

Austin Osborne, Storey County manager, brought up the county’s 2016 master plan which includes a high density, urban housing development near the tech properties.

“We're not looking for ranch houses on one acre parcels with horses on that property, we have places in Storey County for that and we want to protect those areas for that,” Osborne said. “[This area is] for the millennials, the Generation Z, the high-tech people, people that want to live very close to innovation.” 

Although Osborne and the county were in neutral on SCR11, he said if a study was to move forward, it should compare the progress of the proposed Innovation Zone project versus what development would look like with Storey County's existing framework — touting that zoning and planning process takes only about 180 days, depending on the developer’s plan. 

In March, Storey County Commissioners voted to oppose the Innovation Zones concept as a bill.

“As long as the state of Nevada puts in the necessary structure in place to manage those [technological] resources appropriately, we're totally in support of it, no problem… As far as the separation from local government and everything related to, the commissioners are strongly opposed to that,” Osborne said. “If an interim study does move forward, we're going to find that really it's not necessary for this method to move things for what I think the goals are placed here… We really are the Innovation Zone already.”

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) shared some of her reservations with economic development bills and projects that oftentimes lack consideration of how it might affect the area, from infrastructure and affordable housing, to the environment and water consumption.

“My experience with a lot of projects where we say that we want to focus on economic development, is its economic development in a vacuum, without consideration for these other things,” Benitez-Thompson said. “When we talk about impacts, I think this conversation is long overdue… We've got to have a conversation about how this all plays out, and how the next decade looks regionally.”

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

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.” 

Follow the money: Breaking down $2.8 million in combined legislative campaign spending from major industries

The Nevada Legislature building

Even as lawmakers perennially tout the strength of their small-dollar fundraising, the driving force of any campaign in any cycle — with few exceptions — is big-money donors. 

Often contributing upwards of six-figures across dozens of campaigns, money from these donors often comprises the vast majority of campaign funds, especially in the most competitive legislative campaigns.

However, while all these contributions are reported to Nevada’s secretary of state every quarter, parsing trends from such reports or determining how corporate or PAC donors are spending in the aggregate is no simple task, as each contribution is siloed either under individual candidates or individual donors. 

To get at those trends, The Nevada Independent analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to every sitting lawmaker elected in 2020. 

That $200 cutoff excludes a small portion of small-dollar fundraising, as well as two lawmakers who were appointed to their seats in 2021 (Sen. Fabian Donate, D-Las Vegas and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, D-Las Vegas) and any fundraising by losing candidates. 

What is left is an expansive picture of the spending habits of Nevada’s biggest industries, from unions and casinos to health care giants and dark-money PACs. Over the course of our Follow the Money series, we’ve taken a deep dive into the spending of the state’s 10 largest industries, a group of donors that collectively spent $7.8 million of the $10.6 million in big money legislative contributions last cycle. 

Links to all previous installments of this series, including top-line breakdowns of all spending and all fundraising, have been included at the end of this article.

But beyond the largest 10 are the 14 “smallest” industries, according to our categorizations, which still spent upwards of $2.8 million combined. Below is a breakdown of that campaign spending, ordered by industry, from greatest to least. 

Spending nearly as much money last cycle as the much-debated Nevada mining industry were a number of alcohol and tobacco companies, which combined to contribute nearly $319,000. 

Spendiest among industry donors was tobacco company Altria (likely better known by its former name, Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), which gave 30 lawmakers a combined $95,050. Almost all of that money went to Republicans, who received $75,050 to the Democrats’ $20,000. 

Among all legislators, none saw more money from Altria than Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), who received $9,000. He was followed by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $8,750 and Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) with $7,000. The remaining 27 lawmakers, including eight Democrats and 19 Republicans, received $5,000 or less.

Other major industry donors include beer-giant Anheuser Busch ($50,500), the Nevada Beer Wholesalers Association ($49,000), alcohol distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits ($33,500) and electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs ($26,500). 

Contributing more than $306,000 combined, the state’s transportation industry included a varied mix of donors from car manufacturers, ride-sharing companies, railroads, taxis and associated organizations and individuals. 

Biggest of all was the Nevada automotive dealers PAC, NADEAC, which contributed $52,500 in total, split nearly evenly between Republicans ($27,500) and Democrats ($25,000). Most of NADEAC’s contributions were comparatively small, however, and only two legislators saw more than $2,500 — Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), each of whom received $5,000. 

Following NADEAC was electric car maker Tesla — operator of the massive gigafactory battery plant in Northern Nevada — which gave 20 legislators $45,000. Most of that, $34,500, went to legislative Democrats, with the two Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — receiving the most of anyone with $5,000 each. 

Other major transportation donors include the Nevada Trucking Association and its president, Paul Enos (a combined $42,500), Union Pacific Railroad ($33,500), rental car company Enterprise ($29,500) and the ride-sharing company Lyft ($21,000).

Twelve telecommunications companies combined to spend more than $300,000 on lawmakers last cycle, with the single largest chunk coming from internet service provider Cox Communications ($120,000). 

The largest internet provider in the state with a near-monopoly on internet service in the Las Vegas metro area, Cox’s spending largely favored legislative Democrats, who received $80,000 to the Republican’s $40,000. That includes one maximum $10,000 contribution to Frierson, as well as $8,000 for Cannizzaro.  

Communications giant AT&T followed with $82,250, again favoring Democrats ($58,750) to Republicans ($23,500). And here, too, the top recipients were Frierson and Cannizzaro, who received $8,000 each. 

Other major donors included internet service providers Charter Communications ($47,500) and CenturyLink ($14,000), as well as satellite TV provider Dish Network ($12,000). 

Though the pharmaceutical industry at large contributed nearly $273,000, more than half came from just one donor: the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which gave 45 lawmakers $140,500. 

Among the most powerful industry groups in the entire country, PhRMA’s contributions favored Republicans, who received $86,000 to the Democrats’ $54,500. Among individual lawmakers, PhRMA’s four top recipients were all Assembly Republicans: Roberts ($8,000), Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) ($8,000), Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) ($8,000) and Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) ($7,000). 

Other major donors include the drugmaker Pfizer ($46,250), National Association of Chain Drug Stores ($17,500), and biotechnology company Amgen ($11,000). Nineteen other donors, including major drugmakers such as Merck, Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, gave $10,000 or less. 

Though 55 donors in the finance and banking industry combined to contribute more than $214,000, almost two-thirds of that money came from one source: the Nevada Credit Union League (NCUL), the credit union trade association, which gave $86,250 across 46 legislators. 

The NCUL’s spending widely favored Democrats, who received $62,000 to the Republicans’ $24,250. Much of that difference was made up by the sheer number of Democrats receiving contributions (30 Democrats to 16 Republicans), but also by three large contributions to Democratic Leaders. 

Frierson and Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) both received the $10,000 maximum, while Cannizzaro received $9,000. No other lawmakers received more than $5,000 from the group.   

Other major donors include One Nevada Credit Union ($25,500) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors ($14,500). The remaining 52 donors gave just $9,500 or less. 

Unlike some other major industries, technology-related companies and donors gave to lawmakers in comparatively mid-sized or small amounts, with the largest among them — the data company Switch — giving a total of $62,000 to 21 legislators. 

That money was evenly split between 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, who combined to receive $31,0000 each. That even-split largely extended down to the individual level, too, with Democrats Cannizzaro, Frierson and Gansert, a Republican, receiving $10,000, while Republicans Hammond and Buck received $5,000 each. The remaining recipients all received $2,500 or less. 

The other significant chunk of technology contributions came from Blockchains, Inc. owner Jeff Berns and his wife, Mary, who combined to give $44,500. Berns was at the center of efforts this session to create so-called “Innovation Zones,” which would have created a semi-autonomous county in rural Nevada supported by the use of cryptocurrency. 

As criticism of the concept intensified over the course of the legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak backed away from Innovation Zones last week in announcing the proposal would take shape as a study, instead. 

The single biggest beneficiary of Bern’s contributions was Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), who received $10,000 each from Jeff and Mary for $20,000 total. Wheeler’s district, District 39, encompasses parts of Storey County, where Berns’ Blockchains company owns roughly 67,000 acres of land that likely would have become the state’s first Innovation Zone, had the proposal passed muster.  

Berns also gave $5,000 to Cannizzaro, Frierson and Settelmeyer, as well as a handful of smaller contributions to six other lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans. 

Other technology companies gave comparatively little, with Reno-based precision measuring equipment firm Hamilton Company following Berns with $15,000, and the tax-software giant Intuit giving $12,500. The remaining 25 donors gave $11,000 or less.  

Insurance companies — close cousins to the finance industry — combined to give lawmakers $165,700, with the Farmers Employee and Agent PAC leading all donors with $63,000. 

Farmers’ spending was split nearly evenly between the two major parties, with Republicans receiving $32,000 to the Democrats’ $31,000. No lawmakers received the maximum amount from the group, though four — Frierson, Roberts, Gansert and Titus — did receive $5,000 contributions. The remaining 20 recipients received $3,000 or less. 

No other single insurance came close to Farmers’ spending. The next largest, USAA, gave just $25,500 (of which most, $17,000, went to Democrats), while small business insurer Employers EIG Services gave $24,000 (including $13,500 for Republicans and $10,500 for Democrats). The remaining 20 insurance donors gave $13,000 or less. 

Though the payday lending industry at large gave comparatively little — $128,000 split across 37 legislators — the single largest industry donor, TitleMax, was among the biggest spenders of any industry as it contributed $93,000 to 35 lawmakers. 

Most of that went to 20 Democrats, who received $56,500 to the Republicans $36,500. TitleMax’s largest individual contributions similarly went to Democrats, with Frierson and Cannizzaro each receiving the $10,000 maximum. Gansert followed with $7,500, while the remaining 32 legislators received $5,000 or less. 

Other payday lending donors gave little in comparison to TitleMax. Dollar Loan Center was next-closest with $23,500 contributed, followed by Purpose Financial with $8,500. The remaining three donors gave marginal amounts, including $1,250 from Advance America, $1,000 from the Security Finance Corporation of Spartanburg and $750 from Community Loans of America.

Breaking down the smaller industries

Dozens of donors categorized as “other” combined to become the 14th largest category, with donors who could not be classified as industry-specific — 357 in all — contributing a combined $247,761. Many of these donors were retirees or private citizens, and most, 262, gave $500 or less. 

Lobbyists and lobbying firms were the next-largest donor group trailing payday lenders, with 56 donors contributing $126,401 combined. There were few major donors in that group — all but 10 gave less than $3,000. The only exception was the Ferraro Group, which gave $32,500 spread across 33 lawmakers. The group’s donations were relatively small, however, and the single-biggest recipient — Cannizzaro — received just $3,500. 

Roughly three dozen education companies, teachers and other individuals combined to contribute $83,272, with the biggest sums coming from charter school company Academica Nevada ($28,500), education management company K12 Management Inc. ($13,500) and for-profit college University of Phoenix ($11,000). Notably absent in this category are major teachers unions, such as the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association, as both of those organizations are covered in our analysis of union spending. 

Spending slightly less than they did in 2018 were 15 marijuana companies or related individuals, who combined to spend $86,500 (down from more than $91,000 spent in 2018). Most of that money was concentrated in the three biggest spenders: An LLC linked to The Grove dispensary ($24,750), Nevada Can Committee ($23,000) and a company linked to the Planet 13 dispensary ($15,000). 

The remaining two categories were the smallest of all: Nevada tribes, but only the Reno Sparks Indian Colony reported major campaign contributions with $30,500 across 37 legislators, while just seven agricultural donors combined for $10,950 (of which nearly half, $5,000, came from the PAC Nevadans for Families & Agriculture). 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent has published deep dives into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see any of the previous installments, follow the links below: 

Governor stepping away from plan for autonomous ‘Innovation Zones,’ a concept backed by Blockchains

Gov. Steve Sisolak is scrapping plans for legislation creating autonomous “Innovation Zones” with powers on par with counties, and will instead turn the idea he mentioned during his State of the State address into a proposed study.

The decision, first reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal, to punt on the highly publicized proposed legislation will be marked as a loss for both Sisolak and Blockchains Inc. in failing to convince skeptical lawmakers in both political parties to support the idea of allowing the company to essentially form its own municipal government on land in Storey County and build a city run on cryptocurrency.  The concept raised eyebrows in national media and on late-night television

In a press release issued Monday morning, Sisolak said he wanted to ensure the measure had enough vetting time outside of the “limitations” of the state’s 120-day biennial session and current response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Innovation Zones is a bold proposal for our State that deserves additional attention and discussion – and not under the pressure of less than 40 remaining days in the current legislative session,” he said in a statement. “I know that legislators, stakeholders and Nevadans still have questions, and I want those questions to be discussed and answered. I want people to be enthusiastic about this opportunity, not skeptical about a fast-tracked bill.”

Instead, the governor’s office and top legislative leaders said they will form a special joint committee through a concurrent resolution, with three or more members from the Senate and Assembly representing majority and minority parties as membership. 

The committee is expected to hold meetings at least once a month and report to the governor and lawmakers by the end of the calendar year, with possible recommendations including abandoning the idea, filing a bill draft request prior to the 2023 session or proposing legislative action prior to the 2023 session, such as in a special session.

Blockchains ran a series of television ads and hired more than a dozen lobbyists (including the politically powerful R&R Partners firm) to push the proposal, and the governor’s office hosted a virtual roundtable in late February to promote the concept.

The general idea, according to draft legislation, would allow a developer with more than 50,000 acres of contiguous land, a promise to invest more than $1 billion in the Zone and an agreement to allow an industry-specific tax to create an “Innovation Zone” — a self-governing county-within-a-county, taking over responsibilities such as tax collection, K-12 education and other services normally provided by county governments.

"The hope was that the Legislature would be able to vet this, and I mean really vet it,” Sisolak said, according to the newspaper.

The governor, a Democrat, said he realized there were a high number of stakeholders and issues involved in the concept, which was circulated as an unofficial bill draft request but never revealed as a formal request or bill. He said he was not sure whether amendments could make the idea feasible.

“I had to look at this and be realistic and pragmatic,” Sisolak told the newspaper.

The proposal was met with a cold shoulder by a wide swath of lawmakers and interest groups. Storey County and other rural counties passed resolutions formally opposing the efforts, some Democratic lawmakers and progressive groups questioned the validity of the proposal and tribal and environmental groups raised concerns about how the proposed “smart city” would obtain the water rights needed to serve an estimated population of up to 36,000 residents.

Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity described it as “a massive water grab from rural Nevada.”

The proposal also attracted questions about the personalities behind it. Blockchains had donated $10,000 to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign and $50,000 to a political action committee affiliated with Sisolak in 2019. 

Sisolak spokesperson Meghin Delaney told The Nevada Independent in late March that “campaign contributions have no bearing on decisions the governor makes. Since taking office, the governor's decision-making is focused on what is best for the state and for its residents, regardless of where the ideas come from.”

Blockchains had also hired the financial consulting firm Hobbs, Ong & Associates; the governor’s wife Kathy Sisolak is a director there. The first lady said in response that her firm “has a policy of segregating work assignments to ensure that I am not engaged in any work performed for the State of Nevada.”

Blockchains Inc. CEO Jeff Berns has also recently been the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former nanny.

Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said she was pleased that the governor downgraded the idea to a study.

“Stakeholder input should have been step one and I look forward to seeing broader impact studies," she said.

Senate Republican Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) said in a statement that Sisolak had "failed to deliver on his premier economic development policy," and said that complaints of running out of time rang hollow given unified Democratic control of the Legislature.

"The majority party controls the entire legislative process," he said in an email. "Democrats did not run out of time; they just prioritized a Billionaire over millions of Nevadans."

Updated at 8:38 a.m. on 4/26/21 to add comment from Assemblywoman Robin Titus. Updated again at 11:35 a.m. to add a comment from Sen. James Settelmeyer.

Sisolak's office answers questions about relationship with company that lobbied administration to push Innovation Zones legislation

Earlier this month, Jeff Berns, the CEO of Blockchains LLC, a tech company that is pushing an ambitious legislative proposal to create a new type of local government outside Reno, said he pitched Gov. Steve Sisolak on the idea after developing a “friendship” with the Democratic governor. 

But since the interview in early March, the governor’s office stonewalled or provided non-answers to The Nevada Independent about Sisolak’s relationship with Berns and meetings with the company, which hired his wife’s economic consulting firm, Hobbs, Ong & Associates. 

Not until this week, nearly three weeks after The Nevada Independent began asking questions, did the governor’s office address the relationships that intersect with Blockchains’ proposal, a massive project that is being cast as an important part of the state’s post-pandemic economic strategy. 

In addition to meeting with the governor last year, the company donated $10,000 to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign and $50,000 to a political action committee affiliated with Sisolak in 2019. 

Sisolak spokesperson Meghin Delaney said in an email Wednesday that “campaign contributions have no bearing on decisions the governor makes. Since taking office, the governor's decision-making is focused on what is best for the state and for its residents, regardless of where the ideas come from.”

When asked about Berns’ characterization of a “friendship” with Sisolak, Delaney wrote in an email on Monday, nearly three weeks after The Nevada Independent first asked: “Jeff and the governor share common goals for the State including responsible and impactful economic diversification, workforce expansion and development, and protection of natural resources.” 

The governor’s office did not provide more information about the relationship or answer a question about how many times Berns and Sisolak met last year. 

But Delaney said on Wednesday that “one of the governor's top priorities is to recover our economy and develop our workforce, and his door will always be open to any private sector leader or CEO who is looking to expand their business, relocate to the state, and most importantly, create jobs for Nevadans.” 

Delaney added that “it is common practice in Nevada and every other state in the country for private sector leaders to bring proposals to state and local governments.”

She stressed that the governor and First Lady Kathy Sisolak, who is a director at Hobbs, Ong & Associates, do not discuss state issues that the firm might be involved with. The firm worked on an economic impact report for the project, along with Applied Analysis, another consulting firm, and did so “independent from the governor’s office,” Delaney said in a statement on Monday.

The first lady, in an email Tuesday, said the firm “has a policy of segregating work assignments to ensure that I am not engaged in any work performed for the State of Nevada.”

With Blockchains, Sisolak added, the firm’s work was conducted without her involvement. She said that she never discussed the proposal with the governor, and the firm did not brief the state. 

Blockchains owns about 67,000 acres of land in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory and other large-scale operations, east of Reno. The company, with Sisolak’s backing, is seeking legislation that would allow it to break away from an existing county government and create a new type of local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.” The company said such a move was necessary to develop a “smart city” of about 36,000 residents.

In the early part of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Berns said that Sisolak approached him about serving on a committee working to acquire personal protective equipment. Berns said he declined and recalled telling the governor that he would begin developing a concept that might bring more revenue to the state. That concept turned into the proposal for Innovation Zones. 

Berns said that he presented the concept to the governor around Labor Day. In January, Sisolak included a line in his State of the State speech touting the proposal and Blockchains LLC.

“Following the passage of my Innovation Zone legislation,” Sisolak said, “Blockchains LLC has committed to make an unprecedented investment in our state to create a smart city in northern Nevada that would fully run on blockchain technology — making Nevada the epicenter of this emerging industry and creating the high-paying jobs and revenue that go with it.”

The governor’s office has not provided a timeline of the events that led to that proposal.

On Monday, Delaney said the proposal was “the product of months of extensive analysis of the economic impact of a smart city developed using blockchain technology, review of different types of political subdivisions around the country and globally to find an optimal model for its development, and evaluation of the benefits and challenges surrounding its creation.”

Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst with Applied Analysis, the firm that assessed the economic impact of Blockchains’ proposal, said he attended multiple meetings last year with state officials. The governor, he said, was not present during the early meetings. Throughout the process last year, the proposal was fleshed out and refined as questions about Innovation Zones arose. 

When the state unveiled the proposal to the public at a roundtable in February, Sisolak was joined by Michael Brown, who leads the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Aguero. Since then, the administration has provided little information about the proposal.

On MSNBC Sunday evening, Sisolak was asked about the proposal. 

Sisolak said that “it’s something that we definitely need to have the discussion and the debate about. You need to look at new bold and creative ideas when it comes to diversifying the economy.”

Other companies, Sisolak added, are also looking at the idea. The governor’s office did not reply to a question about what companies the governor was referring to. The proposal would apply to companies with large landholdings that are developing innovative technologies. 

To apply for an Innovation Zone, a company would have to own more than 50,000 acres of land, make an initial $250 million investment and commit to investing at least $1 billion over ten years, according to draft legislation and a website promoting the concept. An applicant looking to form an Innovation Zone must also identify a way to generate new revenue for the state.

During the MSNBC interview, Sisolak also addressed concerns about the water supply for  Blockchains’ proposed smart city. 

“We will absolutely have the water there otherwise they couldn’t go ahead with the project,” Sisolak said, noting that the company had “made arrangements” to bring water to the area. 

As The Nevada Independent reported, Blockchains acquired water rights about 100 miles north of the area where it owns land. Before importing the water, the company would be required to go through a rigorous application and permitting process with state water officials and federal land managers.

Behind the Bar: Read by 3 cuts, builders back Innovation Zones, inside the home builders ad campaign, and a watered down first responders bill

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Is this the session lawmakers find a funding solution for the Millennium Scholarship? (No). Plus, it’s another deadline day, the future of Read by 3, building trades back Innovation Zones, major changes to a mental health hotline bill for first responders and details on an affordable housing campaign backed by the home builders.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. This newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


Near the end of his 1999 State of the State address, Gov. Kenny Guinn shared a major announcement: His administration would use its sizable share of the national tobacco settlement to fund a universal scholarship program for graduating high school seniors.

That program — dubbed the Millennium Scholarship — was promoted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide Nevada’s children with the means to advance their education in a way never thought possible.”

“Using 50 percent of the settlement money to fund these scholarships, and reverting the unused portion of the initial years to an endowment fund, will enable us to fund these scholarships in perpetuity,” the governor said at the time. “Without an increase in taxes.”

More than two decades later, the program has become an unabashed success, helping more than 143,000 Nevada students pay for college over its 21-year-existence.

But continued success of the program (as well as Nevada’s population growth over the last two decades) has left the state in an uncomfortable position — the program has grown so large that it now takes general fund (i.e. tax) dollars to continue funding it.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval started allocating general funds to the program in 2013, and every session since then has seen the state chip in more general fund revenues to help keep the scholarship program afloat. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 2021-23 budget calls for a hefty $44 million one-shot appropriation for the scholarship program.

Discussion around finding a more permanent and reliable funding source for the scholarship program isn’t new — it came up in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Now, in 2021, lawmakers are prepared to finally figure out the funding solution for the scholarship program. The only problem is that solution will have to come next session, in 2023, and only maybe.

Any progress on a permanent Millennium Scholarship funding solution will have to come from SB128, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) that would create an interim study focused on ways to improve the scholarship program (as well as the Promise Scholarship and Silver State Opportunity Grant).

“At some point, we have to find a permanent solution for funding these scholarships, but before we can have that discussion, we need to make sure that they're being run as efficiently and that they're accomplishing what they need to,” Denis said during the Thursday hearing.

The study will focus on both student outcomes of the scholarship programs, as well as a “comprehensive evaluation of the short-term and long-term financial viability” of the programs, as well as estimated cost of administering them in the future. It’ll be overseen led by state Treasurer Zach Conine’s office and funded out of the state college savings endowment account. 

Conine has been a vocal proponent of finding a permanent funding source for the program, and made what I think is a really good point back when I interviewed him on this topic two years ago — eventually, the size of the scholarship program is going to grow so large that it’ll be nigh impossible to avoid cutting it during any sort of budget downturn.

“Any solution that we can come up with that doesn't require general fund appropriations every year stops the Millennium Scholarship from having this possibility of being a random casualty of the budget process,” he said at the time.

— Riley Snyder


Read by Grade 3 is being downsized and diluted. A new bill would take us back to 2015

There’s no shortage of bad headlines about Nevada students’ academic performance, but reading has been a success story: fourth graders in the Silver State performed on par with their national peers in 2019 after being a year behind them in 2009, and their scores are among the fastest increasing in the country.

Many credit Read by Grade 3, an initiative authorized by the Legislature in 2015 that requires students to read at grade level by third grade, calls on schools to designate a literacy specialist to coordinate reading supports and provides about $62 million a biennium to make it all happen.

But funding was zeroed out during the summer special session, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recommended budget restores less than half of it. Because of a transition to a new funding formula, the money will also be sent to a large pot and redistributed to all students, rather than being earmarked for literacy in the lower grades. 

The arrangement is drawing criticism from several corners, including Republican senators Heidi Gansert and Ben Kieckhefer, who introduced a bill last week, SB273, calling for keeping Read by Grade 3 money in a separate account and requiring specific accountability for it. Gansert said she’s not necessarily opposed to the new funding formula overall, but is concerned about diluting the funding toward literacy and not establishing a special “weight” of funding for children who can’t read.

“This program is also focused on very young students versus the entire spectrum of age groups that are in K through 12,” she said in an interview. “Literacy is essential.”

The Nevada State Education Association teachers union argued that an unintended consequence of following through with the funding formula transition during a recession could erase progress Nevada has made since 2015 through “strategic investments” in student mental health, Zoom and Victory schools.

“The most important line of accountability between districts and the state is blurred,” said NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly. “While requirements may continue in statute, the impetus for districts to deliver on these legislative priorities is watered down.”

Federal funding might help bail to blunt the pain. Nevada schools are receiving $477 million from the late-December stimulus bill. 

But officials with the Nevada Department of Education weren’t able to answer any specifics during a Friday budget hearing about where those dollars, which were formally accepted by lawmakers in February, would be going.

“It will take us some time to go back and review each sub grant to identify specifically how each school district has chosen to invest those dollars, but that we'd be happy to provide that information to your staff,” said state Deputy Superintendent Heidi Haartz.

We’ve asked for them to copy us when they have an answer.

— Michelle Rindels


More support builds for Innovation Zones

Building and construction unions across the state are backing Blockchains LLC’s proposal to build a new city outside of Reno and accompanying legislation that would allow developers with large land holdings to establish “Innovation Zones,” autonomous local governments. 

On Thursday, two groups representing building unions in Southern and Northern Nevada put their weight behind the proposal, backed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who pitched the “Innovation Zone” concept as a key economic development driver for the state’s post-pandemic recovery.

Economic impact studies, cited by Blockchains and the governor’s office, claim the company’s proposal to build a technology park and a new city of about 36,000 residents could create, over time, about 123,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. An economic analysis also said the plan could generate a total economic impact of $16.4 billion.

Rob Benner, secretary treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada said in a press release Thursday that “Nevada Innovation Zones, and Blockchains' Smart City proposal specifically, have incredible potential to help Nevada thrive again.”

The trades council’s membership includes local unions that represent workers across the region. The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council also backed the plan.

The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council contributed a total of $27,250 to sitting Democratic lawmakers in 2020, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent. The Building and Trades Council of Northern Nevada contributed $2,500 to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. 

Daniel Rothberg


Mental health support for first responders bill severely watered down

A bill that would have established a dedicated commission and hotline focused on mental health issues for emergency responders has been overhauled to severely limit the bill’s impact, after the Division of Public and Behavioral Health estimated the financial impact to be more than $1 million per budget cycle.

With a conceptual amendment from the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), AB96 would no longer require the establishment of a hotline, and instead would just authorize government agencies that license and regulate first responders (including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service providers) to contract a non-profit organization to carry out peer support counseling for those first responders.

“I'm just looking at the amendment, right. We're doing just a gut and replace,” Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said during the bill’s first hearing on Wednesday. “It feels local governments have established relationships… This is definitely meant to kind of be complementary to anything that might be happening within a local entity already.”

With the amendment, the bill would only require the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to maintain a website with information for first responders about available peer support services. That would simply build off of what is already available to first responders in the state through the Nevada Peer Support Network — which offers peer support, mental health resources and toolkits throughout the state.

Cohen acknowledged that the slimmed down version of the bill is the result of a lack of funding. But it would still provide more structure to existing peer support provided to first responders in Nevada, and, as Cohen put it, “basically promote peer support for first responders.”

And though the impact of the bill is limited, those in the meeting discussed an important need to provide support for first responders.

“We have a lot of national data out there that tells us that our first responders are in crisis,” Benitez-Thompson said.

From June through February, a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine received 30 calls. And calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2020.

— Sean Golonka


Home builders behind Facebook ads for affordable housing, praise Sisolak

With Nevada lawmakers debating dozens of proposals aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, an advocacy group backed by the Nevada Home Builders Association has started running a social media campaign urging the governor and Legislature to “Do no harm.”

Nevada Housing Now, a self-described "grassroots arm of the Nevada Home Builders Association," has in recent weeks launched a digital ad campaign highlighting articles discussing Nevada's record-high rent prices, statistics characterizing the affordable housing crisis and messaging targeted at lawmakers not to make housing more expensive.

"Nevada Housing Now is a key stakeholder that helps promote legislation like SB 257, a measure that streamlines insurance requirements for multifamily for purchase developments," the group wrote in an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent. "We want to work with all advocates and stakeholders to solve Nevada's affordability crisis and assure the problem does not get even worse."

According to Facebook’s ad library, the group has spent more than $450 on the social media platform over the last week, and nearly $40,000 since the page was launched in 2019.

Charges also show that the Nevada Home Builders Association spent less than $100 on advertisements related to the Nevada Housing Now page, but Nevada Housing Now would not provide additional details on its connection with the Nevada Home Builders Association or further comment on its plans for the legislative cycle.

Nevada Housing Now isn’t registered as a political action committee with the secretary of state’s office. The group’s website describes the organization as a “coalition of more than 7,000 homeowners, renters, and homebuilding professionals and organizations including the Nevada Home Builders Association.”

The majority of the group’s advertisements feature statements thanking Gov. Steve Sisolak for protecting housing affordability during the pandemic.

"NHN applauds the efforts of Governor Steve Sisolak during the pandemic to not only keeping the employees in the homebuilding industry working, but also adding nearly 10,000 new homes to a shrinking supply of shelter," the group wrote.

Real estate companies, developers and PACs funded by those groups contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers' campaigns with funds from the Nevada Home Builders Association PAC making up 6 percent or $79,500 of that overall total and establishing it as the fourth-largest donor out of those groups for the cycle.

The Nevada Home Builders Association could not be reached for comment.

— Tabitha Mueller


Upcoming bills of note

Lawmakers heading into the eighth week of session have stacked their schedule with a bevy of high-profile measures, ranging from licensing cannabis-friendly events, increasing protections for tenants, upping the penalties for public record violations and making it easier for women to obtain birth control medication.

Below, we’ve listed the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Friday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.

Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:

Monday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hold a hearing on SB209, a bill from Sen. Fabian Doñate that expands the types of activities and reasons for an employee to request paid time off. It’d also require the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study regarding the long-term health implications of COVID on casino and frontline workers.

Monday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hear AB187, which formally designates the month of September as “Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Prevention and Awareness Month” in Nevada. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson — who underwent treatment for prostate cancer complications last week — will present the bill.

Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Legislators in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure will hear details of SB232, which would generally require that any car traveling on a two-lane highway in the state has to keep its headlights on, regardless of the time of day.

Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hold a hearing on AB276, a bill by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) that increases the size of court penalties in any lawsuit brought about over a delay or denial of public record requests.

Tuesday, 1 p.m. - The Senate Judiciary committee will hear details of SB223, which would prohibit those in the legal system from denying someone’s ability to serve as a juror on the basis of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability.

Tuesday, 4 p.m. - Members of the Assembly Revenue committee will hold a hearing on AB322, which provides a licensing and regulatory structure for events where the sale and consumption of cannabis and cannabis products is allowed.

Wednesday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hear details of SB190, a bill by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that would create a standing order for birth control medication from the state’s chief medical officer — allowing women to get birth control without a prescription from their doctor, and still be covered by insurance.

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Expect fireworks during the Senate Judiciary hearing on SB218, a bill by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) that would make several tenant-friendly changes to state law. Those changes include a clearer definition of a “security deposit,” give tenants a chance to address any issues with a dwelling that could affect the security deposit before the end of a rental agreement, exclude “normal wear” from costs that can be taken from a security deposit, require a grace period on late payment of rent, prohibit application fees for prospective tenants, and also prohibit any fee charged to a tenant not explicitly authorized in state law. 

An empty hall reflected on photos of the Nevada's Senate majority leaders inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Lawmakers say they want to stop jailing people for traffic offenses — a practice one critic says is out of a Charles Dickens novel — but the bill faces a wall of local government opposition,  Michelle Rindels reports

Riley Snyder gets his hands on the official complaint against former lawmaker Alexander Assefa.

A citizen review board that’s supposed to monitor police misconduct rarely contradicts the police, the Review-Journal’s Art Kane finds. Martha Menendez, an Indy columnist and former member, called it “chummy” with the cops.

Things are getting increasingly serious with Republican former Assemblyman Brent Jones’ company Real Water — one consumer needed a liver transplant, and another woman blames the beverage for her sister’s liver failure death, the Review-Journal’s David Ferrara reports.

After the tragic deaths of five cyclists in December, Sen. Joe Hardy wants to bar cyclists from roads with speed limits of 65 mph or higher, but the cycling community is forcefully opposed. Via the Sun’s Ricardo Torres-Cortez.

The 90s-era policy of automatically referring youths accused of certain felonies to the adult system is one throwback that lawmakers want to get rid of this session (Nevada Current)

Do HOA foreclosures feed into systemic racism? Sen. Pat Spearman says yes (Nevada Current)

Vegas PBS’ Nevada Week digs into a Sen. Ben Kieckhefer-endorsed effort to make the state the Esports capital of the world.

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Remaining Bill Introductions Deadline: 0 (Monday, March 22, 2021)

First Committee Passage: 18 (Friday, April 9, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 70 (May 31, 2021)

Indigenous leaders, environmentalists urge lawmakers to pass protections for sacred swamp cedars

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

A lot of news this week, and it’s only halfway over. On that note, a small piece of programming. As we spring forward into daylight saving time, so too is this newsletter. We are moving the run date for the Indy Environment newsletter up to Wednesday for the foreseeable future. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Most Rocky Mountain juniper trees grow at elevation. But near the eastern edge of the state, a  unique population of large juniper trees rest on a valley floor. For generations, the trees have lived in an area within Spring Valley, outside of Ely, that is known as Bahsahwahbee, or “the sacred water valley” in Shoshone. For Indigenous communities in the area, it is everything.

On Monday, Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, told lawmakers that the land is sometimes compared to Mecca or Vatican City. Bahsahwahbee is a ceremonial site for many communities in the area. It could also be compared to Wounded Knee. The land is the site of multiple gruesome massacres of hundreds of Indigenous people in the 1800s.

“But,” Spilsbury said, “I want to say that you cannot compare Bahsahwahbee to anywhere else. There is only one. And if the Swamp Cedars are gone from Bahsahwahbee, then it is all gone.”

The stands of unique juniper trees in Bahsahwahbee are described as the swamp cedars, and under proposed legislation, they could receive state protection, a measure widely supported by Indigenous communities and environmental groups during a hearing Monday evening.

Assembly Bill 171 would make it the state’s policy to protect the geographically distinct Rocky Mountain juniper population and make it illegal to damage the swamp cedars without obtaining a special permit from the state, similar to rules that govern other sensitive species. 

“When you get to this valley, you see how different and significant it is to have a stand of Rocky Mountain junipers thriving in this valley floor,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

Watts said the bill’s language mirrors the protections given to distinct species for threats. Those designations are typically species-wide. But the proposed bill applies similar regulations, Watts said, to a subsection of the Rocky Mountain juniper population in Bahsahwahbee because of its importance to Indigenous communities and its unique presence in low-elevation habitat. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, described the area as a sacred, spiritual and holy place for Goshute and Shoshone communities.

“My people were massacred in a very, very harsh way at swamp cedar,” Steele said. “Just like a seed, each one of those swamp cedars was fertilized by one of those that was massacred there. And through that, we live spiritually and connect with Mother Earth through them. And to destroy those trees would be an act of genocide.”

His message resonated with communities from other parts of the state. Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the ancestors of their Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe members “have been affected by issues like this throughout the history of this country.”

“That said, historical cultural areas of Nevada are important to all of us and we urge your support for AB 171,” McDade Williams said. 

If the legislation is approved, it would mark a significant moment for state law because it would be the first time a statute specifically protected a plant because of its cultural value. Watts said he saw the legislation fitting in with broader efforts to recognize Indigenous rights at the state level.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is addressing the long and painful history that our state and government has with Native American people,” Watts said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’ve been a lot of instances, over time, including recently, where the cultural, spiritual beliefs of Native populations here have been overlooked or disregarded.”

Tribal leaders across northeastern Nevada stressed the importance of Bahsahwahbee, and the need for state protection. Although the land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, has several layers of protection, state protection would more concretely protect the plant. 

In the past, the swamp cedars faced threats from the proposed Las Vegas pipeline. For decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought permits to pump groundwater in Spring Valley and pipe it to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shelved its plans for the pipeline last year, has not taken a position on the legislation.

Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Conservation League, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Great Basin Water Network, supported the legislation.

In written testimony, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it supported the “spirit and intent” of the bill, but the agency raised concerns about precedent.

“We appear to be standing at the top of a long slippery slope,” Dominique Etchegoyhen, the agency’s deputy director. “There are innumerable important natural resources across this vast state, many of which are located on federal lands. These unique resources cannot all be individually recognized in state statute, each requiring a special permit issued by the State Forester Firewarden. The burden would simply be too great.”

But Etchegoyhen, in later testimony, said the state did support a second piece of legislation, AJR 4, an assembly joint resolution calling on the federal government to increase protections for the area.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic confirmation: Incoming Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person to serve in a cabinet-level position. The Senate confirmed Haaland to the position on Monday in a 51-40 vote. The Department of Interior oversees federal public land across the West, and the agency plays a decision-making role in everything from protecting sensitive ecosystems to permitting mines. The Interior Department is especially important in Nevada, where the federal government is responsible for managing about 85 percent of land within the state. 

  • Importantly, the agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That means “Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated with devastating consequences for life expectancy, exposure to environmental hazards, political participation and economic opportunities in Indian Country,” as reporter Nina Lakhani writes for The Guardian.
  • Soon after the election in November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support to the incoming Biden administration for nominating Haaland. “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of Interior,” the Inter-Tribal Council wrote. After President Joe Biden nominated Haaland to lead the agency, we reached out to tribal leaders from across the state to talk about what her historic nomination meant. 

The mining tax debate: On Tuesday night, we hosted an IndyTalks panel on the debate in the Legislature over whether to change the constitutional cap on taxing mines. In August, legislators passed three resolutions in a special session that would increase how much the industry pays in taxes. Although legislators have not yet taken up the resolutions in this session, lawmakers are expected to weigh the proposals in the coming weeks. To amend the Constitution, the Legislature must approve the resolutions again. Then they would go to a vote in the 2022 general election.

All three resolutions kickstart the process of amending the Constitution. Two resolutions remove a 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals and replace it with a 7.75 percent tax rate on gross proceeds, raising an estimated $541 million, with a portion of that revenue going toward education and health care or to Nevadans as a dividend. A third measure, cast as an “olive branch” to the industry, raises the net proceeds tax cap to 12 percent, but it is estimated to generate less revenue than the other proposals.

Our panel included Lorne Malkiewich, former Legislative Counsel Bureau director; Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and James Wadhams, a longtime lobbyist for the mining industry. Check out the full discussion here.

Sisolak on Blockchains and water: Last month, we reported on concerns, including from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, about acquiring the water needed for Blockchains LLC to develop a Smart City as part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal. Last week, Sisolak’s spokesperson Meghin Delaney replied to two questions I sent to the office. Here they are:

  1.  Is the governor concerned about the environmental consequences of importing water? “Responsible and equitable use of Nevada’s water resources are top of mind and will be the focus of much work between all the parties involved before any approvals are granted.  An Innovation Zone developer will be required to navigate the same water use rules as any other developer in Nevada.”
  1. Has the state consulted with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe or considered their views? “The state is in the very early stages of a long-term project, and the state is committed to working with all stakeholders on the responsible development of the Innovation Zone. The door is always open to the PLPT to answer any questions the tribe may have about the proposal.”

Gold mining outside of Death Valley: The Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún writes about Indigenous communities and environmental groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Death Valley. He writes that “environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.”


Drought across the West: “The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records,”  Lili Pike writes for Vox in an article that makes the connection to climate change. 

New report calls for stronger climate action: “A new analysis finds that Nevada is not on track to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets absent stronger clean energy policies,” Jeniffer Solis reports for the Nevada Current. “The analysis by research firm Energy Innovation — based on a state-specific version of the firm’s “energy policy simulator“— shows that without additional action Nevada’s emissions will actually increase 12 percent by 2050 as fossil fuel use outpaces solar power and electric vehicle growth.”

30 by 30: The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Brian Bahouth has a good piece about testimony in the Legislature on a resolution supporting the conservation of 30 percent of the state by 2030.

Thacker Pass, lithium and mining: Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration. From the story: “The controversy over Thacker Pass highlights a much bigger challenge the Biden administration will have to grapple with in order to quickly transition the U.S. economy to carbon-free energy sources: How to acquire the vast mineral resources that are needed, such as metals needed for batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, without sacrificing biodiversity or the health of communities living nearby mining projects.”

Something to watch: “As part of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has identified more than 2,000 MW of new renewable energy generation in southwest Nevada that would help California achieve its climate change goals,” Gridliance announced in a press release this week. More to report on this in the coming weeks.

Behind the Bar: Lawsuit to open building hits roadblock. Plus: tiny house regulations, opt-out organ donation, state ERA advances and tribal burial site changes

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Where the lawsuit seeking to open the Legislative building to the public stands after a 9th Circuit Court dismissal. Plus, details on a bill allowing tiny house development, an icy reception for the organ donation opt-out bill, advancing a state-based Equal Rights Amendment, and changes to tribal burial site laws. Carson City Restaurant Spotlight returns.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


The legal effort to open the halls of the Legislature to the public isn’t going so well.

On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by an attorney for the group of four conservative lobbyists who sued to open the building in mid-February.

The order was brief — just five lines — and echoed what defendants in the case have said all along: the appeal was inappropriate because it was focused on a non-appealable interlocutory order, which is legal jargon for the procedural order issued by the federal District Court judge in the case. 

The appeal in this case focused on Judge Miranda Du’s order setting a normal and non-emergency briefing schedule in the case — a decision made because the plaintiffs (the four lobbyists) didn’t check all of the boxes needed to qualify for an emergency briefing. 

A filing submitted by Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby to the 9th Circuit outlines where the initial lawsuit fell short in providing information typically required for an emergency, expedited briefing. It also seeks to have Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford — named defendants in the lawsuit — dismissed from the case, because, well, the executive and legislative are separate branches of government (the response helpfully links to a Schoolhouse Rock video in a footnote).

“Unlike other cases brought by Plaintiffs’ counsel, there is no emergency directive issued by the Governor mandating that the Legislature close (or open) the Legislative Building,” Newby wrote in a separate filing submitted to the district court. “The Governor understands the risks of COVID-19 spread in our community, resulting in difficult decisions he has had to make. Here however, the difficult decisions for keeping the Legislative Building open or closed lie with the Legislature, not him.”

I’m not an attorney, but I would guess that barring some kind of Hail Mary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case will fall back to the original District Court.

But even then, the lawsuit still has issues. 

In a filing submitted on Tuesday, Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers told the court that the plaintiffs had “ failed to serve the Legislative Defendants, or an agent designated by them to receive service of process, with the summons and complaint.”

“In the absence of such service, the Legislative Defendants have not officially become parties to this action, and this Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over the Legislative Defendants for any matters, including, without limitation, the emergency motion for preliminary injunction,” Powers wrote in the motion, which asked the court to pause all briefings in light of the then-pending appeal with the 9th Circuit Court.

(It should probably be noted that the attorney for the plaintiffs, Sigal Chattah, is running for attorney general in 2022.)

If you made it through all that legalese and are still reading, 1) congratulations, 2) now you know what it’s like to live in my brain and 3) you’re probably wondering where exactly this leaves the lawsuit and potential of a judicial-ordered reopening of the legislative building.

Again, not a lawyer, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made that an expedited briefing is appropriate in this case — we’re already a third of the way into the 120-day legislative session.

But that ticking clock also works against the litigation — legislators and staff got their first COVID vaccine shot last month, and legislative leadership are still targeting mid-April for a tentative, limited reopening date. 

As that tentative date gets closer, I think it makes it less likely that a judge would feel inclined to issue an emergency injunction to open the building, especially if the limited reopening is just a few weeks away.

But I’ll continue to follow the court case regardless; if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that making predictions in this business should be left to the supremely confident or foolhardy

— Riley Snyder


More options for tiny houses in Nevada

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) is the latest supporter of a housing movement that began when Henry David Thoreau rejected society and moved into a 150-square foot cabin near Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Though Harris has not committed to a solitary existence in a small cabin near a pond, nor the modern-day option of applying for the popular television series Tiny House Nation, she did say that allowing more tiny homes to be built in Nevada could help address the state’s housing shortage.

"This is something I personally would choose to live in and maybe build as a permanent residence because of who I am and my own personal tastes," Harris said during a Senate Government Affairs committee hearing on the bill SB150 on Monday. "What I'm looking to do here is to allow those who like to build one ... or who would like to put it in their backyard, I would like to give them the option." 

Under Harris' proposed bill, municipalities in counties with more than 800,000 people would have to create zoning laws for tiny houses no more than 400 square feet in size that would: 

  • allow homeowners to build tiny houses as an addition to a property
  • recognize tiny homes as single-family dwelling units
  • set aside space for tiny house parks similar to mobile home parks. 

Counties with 100,000 residents or less would follow through with at least one of the three options, Harris said.

The bill addresses a need for specificity around zoning for tiny houses which are often a smaller square footage than what is normally permitted for single-family residences and sets up a regulatory structure for the housing type, supporters said.

But one skeptic of the bill, Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), worried tiny homes might depreciate housing values or exacerbate zoning disparities.

"I'm not a fan of tiny houses, mainly because I don't want it to go into poor areas. And I don't want it to go into poor areas that I want redevelopment to occur and actually have sustainable homes, good homes ... the American Dream home " she said.

Harris chalked up Neal's comments to a difference in philosophies. She said the legislation would provide an alternative for people who may not be able to find or afford a larger home and a way to increase density in more established communities.

"I also see [tiny homes] as a stepping stone to larger home ownership in that American Dream sense," Harris said.

— Tabitha Mueller


Proposed opt-out organ donation system gets icy reception

Critics of a new bill that would make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system are concerned that the new method would infringe on personal liberties and might even reduce the state’s donor pool.

The bill, SB134, would adjust the current opt-in system by making Nevadans who update or apply for a new driver's license or state ID card organ donors by default. If the bill is passed, someone filling out a DMV application would have to opt out of becoming an organ donor instead of opting in.

“I'm afraid that Nevada Donor Network has a very deep concern that an opt-out system is likely to have unintended negative consequences that would actually result in decreasing the availability of organs and tissues,” said lobbyist Dan Musgrove, a representative for the non-profit organ procurement organization, during a Monday hearing of the bill.

Musgrove explained that the opt-out system could create conflict with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which sets a regulatory framework for organ donation across different states. And he said the system could pose a problem by creating a group of people who decide to not be organ donors and remove themselves from the donor pool.

The main presenter of the bill, Ashley Biehl, a 30-year-old who had a heart transplant in 2017, pointed to the thousands of Americans who die each year waiting for a transplant, as well as Nevada’s “abysmal” rate of organ donor registration, which at 41 percent sits below the national average of 49 percent.

“Senate Bill 134 seeks to help alleviate that burden and reduce the number of unnecessary deaths by making more organs eligible for donation,” Biehl said.

Those who opposed the bill during the meeting, as well as some of the lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, expressed concerns that a change to the organ donation system could infringe on individual rights.

“The general consensus has been over the years that government can't make choices over our bodies, over our personal opinions. And yet, this would seem to do violence to that concept,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said during the hearing. 

Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) also said the change to an opt-out system could potentially confuse people. Hammond said that someone could miss the change to the system and become an organ donor, even though they do not actually want to be one.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), said during the meeting that he would continue to work with stakeholders to address concerns about the bill language.

“Certainly the intent of this bill is to make a bold statement that Nevada would be the first opt-out state in the nation,” Ohrenschall said. “There is no intent to replace anyone's conscious decision as to whether they want to participate or not.”

— Sean Golonka


Nevada Equal Rights Amendment moving on to the next round

The Nevada Equal Rights Amendment is one step closer to the 2022 ballot, after the resolution passed out of committee with a 4-1 vote on Tuesday. 

The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee passed the resolution, SJR8, that would amend the Nevada Constitution to include that rights shall not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.” It echoes language from the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which Nevada ratified (35 years after the fact) in 2017.

Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) was the sole vote opposing the resolution. She argued that the bill is “redundant” as it lays out equality and protection to multiple groups that the federal and state constitutions already protect. She also said the resolution’s list of specific groups of citizens is “bound to miss some.” 

“I believe in the rights of all people… I embrace those voices and the narratives behind those who have said ‘enough is enough,’ they are equal and I am equal with them,” Buck said. “I just cannot in good conscience support a bill that has the potential to harm, exclude or potentially forget a subgroup of people who were left off the list.” 

This is the proposed constitutional amendment’s second round of approval after being passed during the 2019 legislative session. If approved by the full Legislature, the resolution goes to a statewide vote in 2022. 

The committee vote comes after a setback for a national movement to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. A judge ruled last week that the effort could not advance, even though Nevada and two other states recently ratified the proposed amendment, because a 1982 deadline set by Congress has passed.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford said he is exploring further legal options, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) said she would continue the fight.

“There have been a long list of people who have been fighting for this, hoping for this, and praying for this,” said Spearman, who led the charge to have Nevada ratify the national amendment. “We are the hope. We are an answered prayer. We are the continuation of their work. We will not stop until the work is finished, and it will not be finished until the Equal Rights Amendment becomes the 28th amendment in our U.S. Constitution.” 

— Jannelle Calderon


Bill amends law that protects Native American burial sites

It’s illegal in Nevada to knowingly excavate an Indian burial site, which has been the case since 2017. 

But the current law exempts entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the purpose of the activity is exclusive from excavating a burial site. 

Nevada lawmakers are looking to clear up any ambiguities in the law through AB103, which seeks to clarify that the activity in question can only occur on the portion of the private land that does not contain the known burial site. 

“It got interpreted that there was an exemption,” said Marla McDade Williams of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony during the bill’s presentation in the Assembly Natural Resources committee on Monday. “So this legislation in front of you simply makes that clarification to say that as long as the activity occurs only on a portion of the private land that does not contain the known site, then they don't have to get the permit.” 

Although the bill doesn’t significantly change the scope of the existing law, it brought an important conversation to the Legislature regarding the presence of Native American peoples who lived, died and were buried throughout the state before other populations settled here. 

“The core theme of AB103 is to ensure protection of our ancestors' final resting place where they were originally buried, and to ensure Nevada tribes are part of the discussions and decisions made affecting the management, treatment and disposition of Native American ancestral human remains,” said Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program. 

Eben said that just as any other human remains are respected as they lay within cemeteries, so too do Native American remains throughout the state need to be respected and remain undisturbed. 

“Native American remains and sacred objects were desecrated by early pioneers and settlers, but what remains buried throughout the state is still important to contemporary Native society,” Eben said. 

While many areas are not necessarily marked as burial sites, the law holds that landowners who find remains (called “inadvertent findings”) must notify the State Historic Preservation Office, which then catalogs the findings into a database of known findings. The database is not publicly accessible. 

Eben also clarified that while the law currently protects Native American remains, it does not protect Native American cultural items or objects found across the state, adding that this is something “we’d like to change in the future.” 

— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez


Carson City Restaurant Spotlight: Antojitos la Jefa

I thought it was a pretty good sign when the woman answering the phone to take my order at Antojitos la Jefa did so in Spanish.

And it was another good sign (although a little nerve-wracking for this half-vaccinated restaurant critic) that this cozy joint on Carson Street was positively hopping on a Friday night.

Antojitos la Jefa is one of the newest restaurants in town, replacing what used to be a sushi joint sandwiched between the FISH thrift store and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Loosely translated, the name is “Snacks from the Girl Boss.”

I ordered a gordita with asada and all the fixins and a “pambazo” al pastor — an item I’d never heard of but that entailed a guajillo sauce-treated sandwich roll filled with all the tasty pork taco fixings you’d otherwise find on a tortilla. It was all quite delicious, particularly after watching the tortillas made by hand just behind the counter.

If you miss Tacos El Gordo in Vegas, this place can fill the void in your heart. And at less than $20 out the door for two entrees plus beans, rice and a few chips, it won’t leave much of a void in your wallet.

Antojitos la Jefa is located at 1701 North Carson Street. Open until 9 p.m. Order your takeout in English or Spanish at (775) 461-0771.

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at michelle@thenvindy.com. FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.

A soon to be devoured gordita and “pambazo” al pastor from Antojitos la Jefa in Carson City on March 5, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

Daniel Rothberg and Joey Lovato’s must-read interview with Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a 36,000-person, self-governing, blockchain-run “Innovation Zone.” (Berns: “I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money.”)

The Guinn Center does its best Dina Titus impression and finds that Nevada is still on the bottom of the good list of states that receive the most federal grants.

Jannelle Calderon reports on the bill from Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) to ban racially discriminatory language or imagery in school “identifiers.”

A state of play on where state worker collective bargaining contracts stand.

We also report on Sen. Chris Brook’s big energy policy plans for the 2021 session; $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations, potentially moving the state to a wholesale electric market, expanding renewable energy tax credits, calling for more transmission infrastructure build-out, and prison sentences for Hummer owners after 2025 (one of those may not be true).

Unions and labor groups contributed more than $1 million to legislative candidates in the 2020 election cycle, Jacob Solis reports

A provision in the recently-passed federal defense bill could shine more light on company transparency — and possibly affect the millions of dollars in registration fees that Nevada makes on being a haven for “shell” companies. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Another look at the opt-out organ donation bill. (Nevada Current)

A bipartisan group of 17 female lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to focus the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee to focus on “disparities among persons of color, geographic region and age.” (Nevada Current)

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the state’s judicial commission of conspiring to ruin her reputation after she criticized officials including Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. (Nevada Current)

A lawsuit over MGM Resort’s use of resort fees. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Sisolak lays down the marker and tells the AP that Nevada will be “the safest place to have a convention or to come and visit.” (Associated Press)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 1 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 4 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 81 (May 31, 2021)

Butterfly populations are declining across the American West as the climate changes, UNR researchers find

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Hundreds of butterfly species are slowly vanishing from the American West as the landscape becomes warmer and drier, according to a sobering report published in Science last week.

The report, led by researchers at UNR and relying on population data collected over four decades, included more than 450 species of butterflies. The study estimated a 1.6 percent annual decline in butterflies, a rate that is in line with reductions of other insects across the globe. Although insect declines have been observed in developed areas, the study is significant because it demonstrated declines even in untouched landscapes.

“Habitat loss is always the most important thing,” said Matt Forister, a UNR biology professor and the lead author on the report. “But the effect that we see of climate change out there in the open spaces is impressively strong. It’s stronger than we would have expected.”

An annual decline of 1.6 percent might not sound like a lot, but the value represents a significant population loss for species that remain vulnerable to temperatures that are only expected to increase. Forister noted that the rate compounds each year. He calculated that if you went to a location 20 years ago and saw 1,000 butterflies in a day, the rate would predict 725 butterflies now.

“We hope this study adds more motivation to fight climate change wherever possible,” he said.

For scientists studying insects, butterfly populations can provide valuable insights into understanding how populations are changing, Forister said. Researchers and citizen scientists can often have an easier time counting butterflies, compared to other insect species. 

The data analyzed in the study included observations from researchers like Forister who visited the same areas regularly, observations from volunteers and records from nature enthusiasts. 

Insects are small critters, but they play a key role in many ecosystems. Caterpillars, butterflies and moths are large consumers of plants and often provide food for other species, Forister said.

“It’s really almost impossible to imagine ecosystems without these animals in them,” he said. “But we are finding out how they are going to change with fewer of them.”

While insects still face threats from human development and pesticides, the study highlights the fact that warming temperatures can affect all ecosystems, even in largely undisturbed areas.

“If protecting open lands is not enough to protect insects, then that means we need to think close to home,” Forister said. “And it raises the importance of people making smart choices about their backyards and city parks and edges of agriculture and places we have control over.”

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


THE LEGISLATURE:

A big energy bill is coming: My colleague Riley Snyder reports on state lawmakers preparing a wide-ranging energy bill that will focus primarily on the transportation sector, which makes up the largest share of the state’s carbon emissions. The legislation could require NV Energy to invest more than $100 million in electric charging stations over the next three years. It would also include language making it the state’s policy to increase transmission capacity. 

  • Last week, InsideClimateNews’ Dan Gearino took an in-depth look at Warren Buffett’s energy empire, which includes NV Energy. He writes that Buffett’s “holdings are so large and in so many sectors that he is simultaneously financing the transition to clean energy while continuing to have deep connections to fossil fuel industries.” Buffett focused on transmission in his shareholder letter, mentioning NV Energy’s Greenlink project.  

More on the Blockchains proposal: Earlier this week, I interviewed Blockchains LLC CEO Jeff Berns with my colleague Joey Lovato in a special edition of our IndyMatters podcast. We asked Berns about his effort lobbying the Legislature for a bill that would allow wealthy developers with an innovative technology and large land holdings to break away from existing counties and create a new local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.” Here are a couple takeaways:

  • Blockchains LLC hired Jason King, who retired as Nevada’s top water regulator in 2019, as a consultant to help the company navigate its issues developing water rights.
  • Berns said the company was looking for water in six different areas in multiple counties. Earlier this year, we reported on its acquisition of water rights in rural Washoe County.

WATER AND LAND

A Sloan Canyon pipeline: The Southern Nevada Water Authority is considering a pipeline that would tunnel under the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar writes that “the project is part of an effort to increase the reliability and capacity of the water system in the southern valley while also creating backup infrastructure to an existing water line.” It could help serve a future Clark County airport in the Ivanpah Valley. 

Seeping growth: The city of Fernley is concerned about its long-term water supply as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation looks to line the Truckee River canal. Right now, the Truckee Canal, one of the earliest federal water projects, is unlined. That means water can seep out of the side of the canal and into the groundwater. Fernley relies on that groundwater, or seepage, for its water supply. If the canal is lined, the water could go away. In a story by the Reno Gazette Journal’s Amy Alonzo, Fernley’s city manager asked: “How can you just take away the water we’ve been dependent on for so many years?” The answer is this: Neither the federal government nor the state recognizes the seepage as a valid water right. I’ll be writing more on this at some point.

Reno water lawsuit goes to federal court: “Dozens of Lemmon Valley residents involved in a years-long legal battle with the city of Reno over the flooding of their homes in 2017 are moving to federal court in a complex case that could cost the city millions of dollars,” Kristen Oh writes in the Reno Gazette Journal.

Group petitions federal government to protect imperiled fish: The Center for Biological Diversity is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Fish Lake Valley tui chub under the Endangered Species Act. The conservation group told federal wildlife regulators that the fish species is threatened by groundwater over-pumping and alterations to its natural habitat.

Nevada and mining investment: This news came out a few weeks ago, but I tweeted it last week and thought I should share it in the newsletter, too. A recent survey of mining companies found that Nevada is now the most attractive region for investors, replacing Western Australia. The survey, which was reported by Mining.com, is based on geologic potential and an index “that measures the effects of government policy on attitudes toward exploration investment.”

Nevada Gold Mines negotiates new cooperative agreement: Since last year, Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest gold mining company, has been updating a cooperative agreement with Indigenous communities in the large area of Nevada where their mines operate. Several tribes have expressed concerns about their relationship with the company, a joint-venture that formed in 2019. Suzanne Featherston, a reporter for the Elko Daily Free Press, has more.

One other thing: Last week, I reported on Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s introduction of the Clark County Lands Bill, which allows for new development on public land around Las Vegas while conserving about 2 million acres. In the story, I wrote that the land also opens up public land around Indian Springs, Laughlin and the Moapa Valley. A point of clarification: Federal land managers, through an administrative process, had already identified those lands for future development. What the bill changes is that it includes those lands in a program known as SNPLMA. If those lands are sold, under the bill, they would help generate revenue that returns to Nevada.

ENERGY

A coalition opposing the Mormon Mesa solar project: “A motley coalition that includes skydivers, off-roaders, and art aficionados has risen up to oppose a proposed solar-power facility in southern Nevada," reporter Jonathan Thompson writes in his Land Desk newsletter.

Using drones to develop geothermal power: “Geophysics faculty and graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno, announce new exploration for blind geothermal systems with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) magnetometry.” (via sUAS News)

CLIMATE CHANGE 

New rules for making energy efficiency codes: This could be a big setback for efforts to tackle climate change. “The private consortium that oversees the model building codes for much of the United States and parts of the Caribbean and Latin America on Thursday stripped local governments of their right to vote on future energy-efficiency codes,” Alexander C. Kaufman reported in the Huffington Post

Oil and gas legislation: Sen. Jacky Rosen and Cortez Masto introduced legislation over the past week that’s aimed at reforming oil and gas drilling on public land. The bills come as the Biden administration reviews the federal oil and gas leasing program, which accounts for a sizable portion of U.S. emissions. More on the legislation in a story I wrote on Wednesday.

Climate change in the rescue bill: “In little-noticed ways, the rescue bill is going to reshape several areas of American climate policy,” Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic. “It will revive a number of crucial, pandemic-hammered institutions central to the country’s climate response. More important, it shows how the prevailing atmosphere of American governance has shifted.”