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.” 

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

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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.”

Blockchains CEO discusses lobbying effort for new city, company funding, efforts to acquire water in rural Nevada, claims about technology

Blockchains LLC CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a new city in Northern Nevada, has hired an array of high-profile and high-powered consultants, some of them connected to Gov. Steve Sisolak, to push his plan through the Legislature. But he has rarely discussed his plans publicly.

In a lengthy interview on the IndyMatters podcast Tuesday, Berns offered insight into the company’s plans, its balance sheet and his relationship with the governor. Berns conceded that there were many uncertainties about the plan and “hundreds of things that could go wrong,” but he believes there is a huge upside for a state economy pounded by the pandemic. 

Berns, who says he developed a friendship with Sisolak and got the governor to embrace his plan, chafed at the idea that he is proposing a company town and insisted he needed legislation to bypass Storey County, which opposed a development on the scale that he is proposing.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,'” Berns said. “This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.”

With Sisolak’s endorsement, Blockchains is asking lawmakers to establish new laws 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.”

Blockchains, which controls about 67,000 acres of land outside of Reno and recently purchased water rights, wants to build a technology park and new city along the Truckee River that would incubate blockchain technology, which offers a decentralized form of information storage that experts say is more secure and could give individuals more authority over their data. 

But there are many questions about how the company would build this new smart city of about 36,000 residents and what oversight the project would have. Where will the water come from? How will the land be developed? And who would have access to the new tech community? 

A “friendship” with Sisolak and a pitch

Berns said he developed a “friendship” with Sisolak after meeting with him to talk about issues related to the overpopulation of wild horses, which roam the property that Blockchains owns.

“So a couple of years ago, right after our governor was elected, I got my way in to see him and talk to him about the wild horses, and we have developed a friendship since,” Berns said. 

Berns, who purchased the land in 2018, said he also met with Sisolak and other gubernatorial candidates during the election. Berns made substantial donations to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sisolak approached Berns to serve on a committee that was handling issues related to personal protective equipment. But Berns said he declined that offer.

In the interview, Berns recounted telling the governor the following: “I’m of no use to you on that committee. Let me work on a concept that I think might be something that will drive additional revenue to the state, because when we come out of this, that’s going to be the focus.”

After that discussion, he started to develop the concept that is now before the Legislature. 

“Around Labor Day, I presented [the idea] to him,” Berns recalled, “and then he made the decision of whether or not it was something that he felt was worthy of his stamp of approval.”

About four months later, Sisolak would include the concept as a major economic development strategy in his State of the State speech, and the governor’s office is sponsoring the legislation.

A spokesperson for Sisolak did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

Evaluating the company’s finances

Sisolak’s proposal to allow Blockchains to create an Innovation Zone is premised on the idea that the company will invest an initial $250 million in land and infrastructure with a promise to spend at least $1 billion over 10 years. Berns said Blockchains is prepared to invest. But the company’s business model remains unclear. To date, Berns said he has funded the company. 

“We have not made any money, and we have not actually figured out where we will extract fees,” he said, though he alluded to products allowing people to control their digital identity. 

The company plans to release products next year, Berns said.

Until Blockchains starts building out the Innovation Zone technology park, Berns said he plans to continue funding the business. But he acknowledged that private investment would eventually be necessary to fully build out the technology park, what he estimates will cost about $10 billion. 

When asked how the company planned to recoup its upfront costs and whether they would be passed down to end-users, Berns offered only vague details about his plans for monetization. 

“If you’re going to be using our vaults to store your information, will there be a fee for that? We’ll figure all of those parts out of it as we go. We don’t know yet,” Berns said. “But when we build out the park, you’re talking about over $10 billion. That is certainly not something Blockchains will do. We will raise private money to build it out. But there won’t be public money.”

Berns talks about vaults the company purchased in the company’s “Global Event Launch Keynote” in 2018. These vaults will store digital backup keys to access digital assets. Two vaults the company purchased are in Wyoming and Georgia. There are also two international vaults in Sweden and Switzerland. According to what Berns said during the keynote, these vaults are nuclear bomb resistant and resistant to electromagnetic pulses.

Investors have contacted the company since 2018, Berns said. 

Berns noted that the company’s land is considered an “opportunity zone,” a federal designation that offers a tax break to wealthy investors who develop in economically-distressed areas. The decision to give the land special tax status in 2018 came under scrutiny. Nevada politicians and lobbyists pushed for designating the area, despite nearby areas having lower income brackets.

The designation, Berns said, “offers some very unique abilities to raise money.” He also cited the state’s nascent infrastructure bank as a source for potential private or pension investment. Berns said another possibility was using blockchains technology to help fund buildings. 

“I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that far.”

Looking for water in six different places

To build out a new city with about 36,000 people, Blockchains will need water. The company has water rights through an existing water district within Storey County, but that water district does not serve the area of land where Blockchains has said it plans to build a residential community. 

As The Nevada Independent first reported in February, the company is looking to import water from rural areas. Not long after Berns pitched the concept to Sisolak, the company closed on a more than $30 million deal to purchase water from the area around Gerlach, a small town that sits at the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man festival is hosted each year.

When developers proposed a pipeline to move that water in the 2000s, environmental groups, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and local, state and federal entities filed legal protests. At the time, the tribe told state officials that exporting the water could harm Pyramid Lake, hindering decadeslong restoration efforts after water was diverted from tribal land in the early-1900s.

In February, a lawyer for the tribe said the tribe is watching the “water rights very closely.” Berns has not yet consulted with the tribe. He said it was a “bit premature” to engage with water users.

Berns believed he could find a “win-win” solution, but indicated that he would respect the tribe’s sovereignty, saying that “if the answer is the door is closed, there’s nothing we can do.” 

“But if the answer is, ‘look, we all have issues with water,’ let’s look at the ways in which maybe we can all work together to not just solve our issue, but to solve your issue and your issue and try to find that win-win. That’s my approach with everything,” he said. “That’s what I hope to do here.”

Berns said he recognized the environmental and economic concerns of piping water from rural Nevada, and he said that “we’re not going to do something that is going to hurt the rural counties,” but he provided few specifics. Berns said the company is investigating water in six different places in multiple counties, but he would not disclose the exact locations. 

“I can just tell you that we know that water is an issue in all Western states,” he said. “We know it’s a serious issue. Stakeholders have very serious, legitimate concerns. And the hope would be that we can get together and figure out a way that takes into accounts all of these concerns.”

Having moved from California, Berns called the water issues a “harsh learning experience.”

Top consultants and a full-court press

In working toward obtaining and entitling the water a city would need, Berns said the company hired Jason King, a former top water regulator. Berns described King, who retired as the State Engineer in 2019, as “the best person” the company could hire “to figure all of this out.”

Since the company first purchased land in 2018, Blockchains has contracted with top lobbying firms and economic consultants across the state. At one point in the interview, Berns said the company “hired the best people in Nevada to do an economic impact analysis on what it would mean to the state,” referring to the Innovation Zone concept and Blockchains concept. 

Berns identified the company’s economic consultant as Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst with Applied Analysis. Aguero presented the Innovation Zone concept at a panel that Sisolak hosted. Berns also said Guy Hobbs, managing director of Hobbs, Ong & Associates, helped conduct an economic analysis. Kathy Ong Sisolak is listed as a director and the co-founder of the firm.

In the Legislature, the company is deploying a full-court press strategy to convince Democratic and Republican lawmakers to support the proposed bill. Blockchains has hired R&R Partners, a political powerhouse, to lobby lawmakers. In addition to launching a fact-page for the Innovation Zone plan, the campaign sent a video pitch to lawmakers and purchased ad time in Las Vegas.

Despite these efforts, Berns downplayed the idea that the proposed legislation was a big ask.

“All we’re saying is give us a chance to prove this out,” Berns said. 

The company, he noted, is not asking for money and is working to absorb risks. Once the new government structure is established, Berns said that it would operate similar to other counties.

Storey County said no. Will the state say yes?

Last week, Storey County voted to oppose the proposed legislation because of the concerns associated with carving up the county and establishing “separatist governing control.” Many have asked: Why can’t Blockchains develop on its land within the current county structure?

Storey County’s entire population is about 4,000 people. The company’s development proposal involves building about 15,000 dwelling units and establishing a city of about 36,000 residents. When Berns pitched the idea to the county, he said officials did not want to grow to that scale. 

With the proposed development, Berns said the company would be “forcing a change on them, on who their leadership is, on how their government runs, on how everything is structured. And they indicated two years [ago], they had no interest in letting us do that… The max amount of houses that they would authorize would be 3,500 houses, which effectively means you cannot build what we are doing because you need to have that many residents to make this work.”

Apart from the homebuilding and zoning issues, he said other aspects of the proposal — like collecting sales tax instantly, direct democracy through blockchains technology or mandating a higher minimum wage — would not be feasible under Storey County’s government structure.

“This is for people that they don’t even represent yet because they don’t live there,” he said.

Large-scale developers are often frustrated with a county’s decision on zoning or how private land can be entitled. With the county rejecting a full build-out of Blockchains LLC’s development, the company asked the state to endorse creating a new type of local government, Berns said. 

Berns said he approached state officials because the company’s plans, if successful, could have a significant fiscal impact on the state. With plans to launch a digital currency tied to the dollar, Blockchains said it would charge a micro-fee on transactions that could generate revenue.

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,” Berns said. “‘This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.’”

A company town?

Because of the company’s involvement in lobbying for the Innovation Zones and the set-up of the new local government, critics have said Sisolak’s proposal would allow for the creation of new company towns. Last week, late-night host Stephen Colbert did a segment on the proposal, comparing it to feudalism. Berns, a fan of Colbert, said the company’s goal is to do the opposite.

“It’s using technology to take away the power from the tech companies,” he said. “The narrative out there isn’t the narrative that should exist with the legislation. As soon as the bill comes out, and the governor gets out there and all of those kinds of things, I think that narrative will change.”

Throughout the interview, Berns emphasized the decentralizing features of blockchains and its potential to break up big tech and businesses that have a stranglehold over individual privacy and data. A main feature of blockchains, he said, is that it allows businesses to have more control over their data. Berns described it as the “most anti-Big Tech thing there is.”

“This isn't a company town,” Berns said. “We already own the land. We already could build the city. There's nobody living there. Once there are people living there, [the residents] take control.”

Once the city is populated, there will be elections. For now, Berns said the company is asking this: “please replace the three county supervisors that oversee us, because they are responsible to the voters, with three people that the state will [appoint] to oversee the development.”

The plan, Berns said, is that multiple companies would move into the Innovation Zone. 

“The goal is to show how this technology could allow the community to have control,” he said.

When asked about housing affordability and distributing the land, Berns said that the goal is to lease, rather than sell the land Blockchains owns. Berns said the community would control what happens on the land, but provided few details. He said his concept is “not ready to roll out yet.” 

The technology and international interest 

Throughout the interview, Berns offered vague sketches of how the city might operate and how it would test Blockchains technology. He emphasized the opportunities that come from starting from scratch — that it could change the way infrastructure is built and decisions are made.

“My vision for this is a place where people can come to create,” he said. “In innovating new ideas, you are failing. That’s just the nature of innovation. We have failed probably 50 times already on what we’re trying to develop. So I want to create a place where that’s OK.”

The goal with the Innovation Zone is to create a place to develop new blockchain technology. 

Berns said his vision for the city is “to incubate these different ideas like using blockchains as the foundation for transparency, for payment, for all the ministerial things that companies don’t trust each other with, and then create this place where people can live, work, play, vote — do everything they do in their normal communities — but testing out all of these new technologies.”

Exactly what that technology would look like and what companies are interested in coming to the park remains an open question. Berns said he had nondisclosure agreements with some companies and he could not disclose details, but he added that “we have interest from some very large multinational companies that have indicated they’re interested in projects out here.”

Berns said countries and cities have reached out to the company about working on projects. One country, Berns said, is the Republic of Korea, but he declined to provide other examples.

When asked about how Blockchains planned to market its technology, Berns said that it is not a primary focus for him right now as he concentrates on getting the proposed legislation passed.

“We need to get the legislation passed to see if we’re going to be able to build a smart city,” he said. “And that’s really all I’m focusing on — is trying to answer the legislators’ questions and make sure that I’m out there explaining what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“This is not Big Tech trying to take over the world,” he added. “This is not a separatist who wants to destroy the government. This is me saying there is a technology out there that would allow for us to shift the paradigm and empower the individual, and I want to try to create that here.”

Cortez Masto introduces Clark County lands bill to expand Las Vegas footprint, designate public land for conservation

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

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Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced long-awaited legislation Wednesday that would change the way public land is managed in Clark County, creating a path to grow the Las Vegas metro area toward California while setting aside land for conservation and recreation.

The introduction of the legislation comes almost three years after the Clark County Commission, then-chaired by Gov. Steve Sisolak, asked the state’s delegation to introduce a public lands bill. 

For years, elected officials, county staff and real estate developers have predicted a demand for more developable acreage with the Las Vegas area, encircled by federal public land, forecast to grow. In an interview, Cortez Masto said the bill looks to balance new growth with conservation.

Cortez Masto said she worked to answer the question: “‘How do we find a balanced approach?”

She said the goal, drafting the bill, was “that we actually look to diversify our economies through this bill, that we build more affordable housing but that we also then continue to preserve the outdoor spaces that we have across Southern Nevada for outdoor recreation and conservation.”

“That’s why it took us some time to really talk with folks, engage the cities, engage the county and make sure that everybody had an opportunity to weigh in,” she added.

The bill, as introduced, would open up a large stretch of federal public land, running south along the I-15 corridor toward Jean and the California border, for potential commercial and residential development. It also opens up public land near Indian Springs, Laughlin and the Moapa Valley.

At the same time, the legislation proposes conserving about 2 million acres of public land. The bill would establish 337,406 million acres of wilderness in the county and protect about 1.3 million acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. The refuge is the largest in the contiguous United States and has faced recent threats with the Air Force looking to expand a training range. The bill would also set aside about 350,000 acres of land for wildlife habitat.

In Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees about 67 percent of the land. As a result, the federal government — and Nevada’s congressional delegation — play a role in how land is managed. Accordingly, the bill proposes changes to land management across the county.

It would convey 41,255 acres to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose lands originally consisted of more than two million acres in 1874 and were substantially reduced by Congress one year later. The bill would also convey public land currently leased for municipal use (parks, schools, etc.). 

How the legislation came to be is the result of a long, arduous and often controversial process. The county’s original proposal took heat from environmental groups. It protected a fraction of the acreage that Cortez Masto’s bill does and was viewed by several groups as subverting the spirit of the Endangered Species Act. In October 2019, 14 groups sent a letter of concern to the delegation.

Then there was a wait. A discussion draft came out in January 2020, and Cortez Masto signaled that the bill would be introduced in December. In that time, Cortez Masto’s office reached out to dozens of groups to make changes to the county’s original proposal. When the legislation was introduced on Wednesday, my inbox is proof that many groups, though not all, were in support.

The county put out a supportive press release. The homebuilders. The commercial real estate developers. The Nevada Conservation League. Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Save Red Rock. 

Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that the bill “would be the single largest designation of wilderness acres in the state’s history, ensuring continued public access to these lands and critical wildlife habitat and cultural resource protection.” 

But some environmental groups remain skeptical of the tradeoffs in the bill: future sprawl for conservation. Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center of Biological Diversity, said the bill was an improvement over what the county had originally proposed. But he said he rejected the premise that conserving more land would offset the environmental impacts of increased sprawl.

Donnelly said in an email that the growth pattern contemplated in the bill “perpetuates a pattern of development that has brought our society to the brink of ecological and climate collapse.”

Dexter Lim, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement Las Vegas, echoed these concerns.

“Our current reality of environmental crises have intrinsic roots in the irrevocable effects of urban sprawl,” Lim wrote in a statement. “Continuing this practice over more sustainable and land-efficient strategies such as infill development is ignorant of the intersectional climate, housing, and transportation injustices that already plague residents of Clark County.”

While the earlier iterations of the legislation did not address climate change, Cortez Masto’s bill does include a provision aimed at climate action. The legislation would allow funds generated through the sale of public land to benefit projects to address climate change in Clark County.

What’s next? Cortez Masto said that the entire delegation supports the proposal. The senator said the bill could potentially move as part of other congressional legislation or independently. 

She also said she expects to continue hearing from constituents about the legislation. 

“This draft that we're going to put out now, I'm sure there are some people that have not had a chance to see it,” Cortez Masto said. “We're open to making sure it gets in front of them, and if they have thoughts on something in this draft, we're open to listening to them as well.”

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


THE LEGISLATURE

Blockchains, Sisolak and a new city: During a roundtable on Friday, my colleague Michelle Rindels asked the governor about environmental concerns, specifically related to water, in his administration’s legislative effort to create Innovation Zones. The proposed legislation would allow a technology company to develop a self-governing community near Reno. Sisolak said the company would be required to find water for the project. The company has, as we reported. The plan is to import water from rural Nevada, raising several environmental and equity concerns.

Where the wild things are: April Corbin Girnus writes in the Nevada Current about legislation, backed by the state’s natural resource agency, that would limit the public release of information on sensitive species: “State officials contend they are trying to protect species. Environmental groups fear the state is aiming to protect proposed industrial developments from public scrutiny.”

Fixing injustices in geographic naming: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give Indigenous communities more representation in naming geographic places. As my colleague Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez wrote in our legislative newsletter Monday, “Native voices could be given more prominence in such decisions if the Legislature approves AB72, which would add a Nevada Indian Commission member to the state geographic names board.” On a related note, if you are not already subscribed to our biweekly legislative newsletter, you should sign up here.

Is the mining industry paying its fair share? My colleague Riley Snyder talked with Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray about efforts to change limits on the mining tax. 

Spending big: Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont, donated $500,000 to a PAC affiliated with Sisolak. The PAC gave money to Senate Democrats as the Legislature is looking at increasing mining taxes. My colleague Jacob Solis has a story on it. 

WATER AND LAND

Supreme Court rules on domestic wells: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nevada’s top water regulator in a long-running and closely-watched dispute over domestic wells in Pahrump, Robin Hebrock reports in the Pahrump Valley Times. For background on the issue, I wrote a piece back in 2018 looking at some of the complexities (and misinformation) around the issue.

The Colorado River negotiating table: Colorado River water users are set to begin discussing how to manage the watershed as the climate changes and populations continue to grow. Luke Runyon reports for KUNC on the conversations about what the negotiating table might look like. 

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

A Nevada lithium mine and a new rush: A second lawsuit was filed last week challenging the Trump administration’s decision to permit the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca, Brian Bahouth reports for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Last month, High Country News reporter Maya Kapoor and photographer Russel Albert Daniels wrote about the project in the context of a rush to develop lithium mines in the Western U.S. and Nevada. This story is definitely worth reading. 

  • Reuters reporter Ernest Scheyder explores the tensions around permitting mines and supplying the raw materials needed to transition the economy away from fossil fuels.
  • USDA puts brakes on land transfer for Arizona mine, the AP’s Felicia Fonseca reports.

Could it happen here? Is Nevada's power grid prepared for more extreme heat waves? Is it prepared for climate change? Utility regulators are investigating that question, my colleague Riley Snyder reports following the winter storm in Texas that led to a devastating power crisis.

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Outdoor recreation hit by COVID-19: Despite anecdotal evidence that more and more people are turning to the outdoors during the pandemic, the recreation industry in Nevada ended last year with 3,600 fewer jobs, according to a new report. Mike Shoro reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “State officials had previously suggested the pandemic had accelerated the growth pattern. The new report suggests that may have been true in some cases, but not all.”

Lake Tahoe ski resort sued over 2020 avalanche: “The widow and a friend of a man killed in an avalanche at a Lake Tahoe ski resort last year have filed separate lawsuits accusing the resort of negligently rushing to open the slopes in unsafe conditions for a holiday weekend that’s typically one of the busiest of the season,” Scott Sonner writes for the Associated Press.