Counties and cities spent millions to lobby legislators in 2021, despite closure of Legislative Building

Even as the Legislative Building in Carson City remained closed to lobbyists for the majority of the 2021 session, counties, cities and local government agencies spent $2.8 million lobbying the Legislature this year, according to a report that also found local government lobbying expenditures hit their lowest total since 2005.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation in mid-July, is the product of a law requiring all local governments — from cities and counties to police departments and school districts — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.” 

The funds represent expenses for in-house as well as contracted lobbyists employed by local governments, whose duties included testifying on bills, arranging meetings with lawmakers and interest groups, tracking legislation and conducting research on issues.

The $2.8 million spent on lobbying activities in 2021 marked the first time since 2005 that spending dipped below $3 million, and represented roughly 72 percent of lobbying expenditures reported during the 2019 session.

The 2021 session kicked off in February closed to all but lawmakers, essential staff and members of the media, with all others — including registered lobbyists — participating virtually. Despite legal challenges, the Legislative Building did not open to lobbyists and members of the public until April 15, meaning the building was closed to lobbyists for 73 days of the 120-day session. Lobbyists were still able to meet with lawmakers via phone calls and video chats and in meetings outside of the Legislative Building.

Many local governments employed significantly fewer lobbyists compared to the 2019 session, when lobbying spending reached its highest total in more than a decade at $3.9 million.

For example, seven paid lobbyists worked for the City of Sparks during this year’s session compared to 14 two years ago. Amid that reduction, the Northern Nevada city spent $70,000 less on lobbying during the 2021 session compared to the 2019 session.

But for other agencies, lobbying spending remained high in 2021. After spending roughly $255,000 on lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session, the City of Henderson reported spending slightly more on lobbying expenses during the 2021 session.

Representatives of local governments, which in some cases manage budgets that rival the size of the multi-billion dollar state budget, say the lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns about allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may contradict the desires of the public — the reported lobbying expenditures from the Legislature in 2021 represent nearly $23,400 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

“It's political activity that the people who are being represented may or may not agree with, but they're paying for it regardless,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), said in an interview. 

Leading the way in spending were local governments in and around densely populated Las Vegas. Agencies based in Clark County, where 73 percent of the state’s population resides, accounted for 59 percent of spending on lobbying during the session. Local governments and political bodies in Washoe County accounted for 28 percent of lobbyist spending, even though the county is home to less than 16 percent of the state’s residents. 

Local governments across Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County, Eureka County, Lander County, Lyon County, Nye County and Storey County — which are collectively home to roughly 8 percent of Nevadans — accounted for the remaining 12 percent spent to lobby Nevada lawmakers this year. Governments in the other seven counties did not report any lobbying expenditures.

Clark County governments

Clark County, which led all local governments in lobbying outlays ($352,000), spent roughly $162,000 less on lobbying compared to the Legislature in 2019 and employed almost half as many lobbyists. 

County spokesperson Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the county tracked hundreds of bills throughout the session, including a bill affecting short-term rental licensing (such as AirBnb or VRBO), because of the broad responsibilities of the county in implementing the requirements of new laws. That bill, AB363, was amended with language provided by Clark County late in the session, and the bill requires Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County to include short-term residential spaces in their legal definitions of “transient lodging” — meaning they are subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests.

Pappa also noted that only two of the county’s four requested bills survived the 2021 legislative session: SB4 (clarified that the board of county commissioners may impose civil and criminal penalties for illegal possession of fireworks) and SB67 (created a pilot job program to gather data on job order contracts for certain public works projects). Counties, cities and school districts each are allotted a certain number of bill draft requests each legislative session depending on their population.

The City of Las Vegas spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying state lawmakers in 2021 (nearly $227,000 less than the city spent in the 2019 session). Though the city had 11 lobbyists registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau during the 2021 session — two more than in the last regular session — city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote in an email that the city spent $181,000 for more than two dozen city staff across 19 departments to help work on bills during the session.

The city spent an additional $154,000 on contracts with lobbying firm The Ferraro Group for the entire year. Radke also noted that the city “engaged on 552 bills throughout the session” covering a laundry list of topics.

The City of Las Vegas — alongside multiple other local governments, including Washoe County and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) — testified in opposition to AB276 in March. The bill, which failed to pass out of committee, would have strengthened penalties for delaying or denying public records requests and aimed to increase transparency and compliance with the state’s public records law.

Schaus said the failed bill is a good example of the power imbalance that exists between local governments that have greater access to state lawmakers and citizens and activists who have to work harder to have their voices heard. Schaus pointed out that the transparency bill received support from groups with a diverse range of ideologies — including NPRI, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Press Association — but still failed in the face of opposition from local governments.

“There are going to be instances where governments’ interests don't align with the citizen activists who might be trying to push reforms,” Schaus said. “And that government lobbying can potentially be big problems for folks who are trying to change the status quo.”

Clark County School District also significantly cut back on its lobbying efforts during the 2021 session. After spending nearly $280,000 and employing 13 people to lobby state lawmakers two years ago, the state’s largest school district spent only $45,000 on lobbying efforts and used two paid and one unpaid lobbyist in the 2021 legislative session.

During the session, Brad Keating, an in-house lobbyist for the district, testified in support of SB450. The bill, which passed out of both houses, extends schools districts’ authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval to aid facility modernization projects.

Despite less lobbying spending, the district issued a press release in June stating that the 2021 session “signaled a momentous shift for education” in Nevada and highlighted AB495, which allocates roughly $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars.

Even as overall lobbying spending declined amid the extended closure of the Legislative Building, some local governments in Southern Nevada allocated dollar amounts on par with past years.

For the second straight session, the City of Henderson spent roughly $255,000 on lobbying, including contract expenses with The Perkins Company, a firm run by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins. City spokesperson Kathleen Richards wrote in an email that “Henderson is the largest full-service city” in the state — providing roughly 330,000 residents with standalone police, court, water and other services, unlike other jurisdictions that share resources with Clark County — and that the city tracked “nearly 500 bills'' throughout the session with a potential effect on city operations.

The City of Henderson — which was allowed two bill draft requests during the session — sponsored AB42, which authorized municipalities throughout the state to conduct jury trials for crimes involving battery domestic violence. Richards noted that other priority legislation tracked by the city included two bills that passed out of both houses: AB63, which ensures local government can access certain stabilization funds during any emergency, and SB138, which requires local governments to enact ordinances to conduct planned unit development.

Metro also maintained similar lobbying spending levels across the past two sessions. The agency spent roughly $184,000 at the Legislature in 2019 and nearly $182,000 at the Legislature in 2021, while maintaining a small team of lobbyists that prominently featured in-house lobbyist Chuck Callaway. 

Callaway testified on a wide range of bills throughout the session, including AB440 — a bill that will require police officers to simply issue citations for misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses or violent crimes, rather than allowing officers to decide between detaining the offender and issuing a citation.

In June, Callaway told The Nevada Independent that he was “adamantly opposed to this bill the entire legislative session” because it strips away a police officer’s discretion. The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, with all Republican lawmakers opposed.

Washoe County governments

Though Clark County topped the spending list for the 2021 session, the county government in Washoe — which is home to roughly 1.8 million fewer people than Clark County — spent just $11,000 less than the county government in Clark.

Washoe County spent roughly $341,000 on lobbying the Legislature in 2021 ($40,000 less compared to 2019). Those costs account for lobbyists who worked on behalf of the general county government and the Washoe County Health District, and include nearly $259,000 for employee salaries and nearly $76,000 for contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca and Argentum Partners). 

The county and health district collectively employed five lobbyists during the session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records — down from the seven lobbyists employed two years ago.

County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale noted that Washoe County tracked 600 bills throughout the session, three-fourths of which the county actively worked on.

Meanwhile, large city governments in Washoe County spent significantly less money on lobbying lawmakers in 2021 than they did two years prior. The City of Reno cut lobbying spending by more than $45,000 from the 2019 session, and the City of Sparks cut lobbying spending by $71,000 from the 2019 session.

Rural governments

Some smaller local governments also continued to spend thousands of dollars at the 2021 Legislature.

Churchill County spent nearly $45,000 to lobby lawmakers this year — roughly $2,500 more than the county spent in the 2019 legislative session. The county had eight outside lobbyists registered during the 2021 session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records; all worked at the firm Strategies 360. The county’s seat, the City of Fallon, spent $44,000 on lobbying.

And while several rural county governments completely cut spending — Storey County and White Pine County did not report lobbying expenditures in 2021, after reporting spending $17,000 and $14,000 respectively in 2019 — others kicked up spending. Lander County, for example, reported spending $40,000 on lobbying at the Legislature in 2021, after reporting no lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session. 

Even as spending dropped across the board during the 2021 session, Schaus said those expenses should be “extraordinarily lower” than they are.

“In today's day and age, with the technology that we have … it does not take very much for a local government to get in contact with a lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, here's some of our interests for this session,’” Schaus said. “And that’s stuff that's already taking place, even before you take into account the official lobbying costs of sending somebody off to Carson City.”

Michael Schaus is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Bill allowing school districts to extend bonds for school construction without voter approval advances; Republicans oppose

In 1997, the Legislature allowed school districts to ask voters for approval to issue bonds to help pay for school construction and maintenance for a 10-year period. As that allowance began to expire, the Legislature granted an extension in 2015 that gave school districts the authority to issue general obligation bonds for an additional 10 years, but without going back to the voters for approval.

Six years later, the Legislature is now considering a bill that would again grant school districts the authority to issue general obligation bonds without needing voter approval for a second, additional 10-year period.

As with prior legislation, SB450 allows the school districts to use excess revenues from existing tax rates to fund Pay As You Go capital improvement projects including remodeling and other needed facility improvements. Supporters say the bill will not affect existing debt payments or reserve funds.

“We know our school districts have an ongoing uphill battle to keep their buildings and facilities up to date and in good repair. Anything we can do to help fund these projects without increasing the tax rate is a smart move,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said as she presented the bill to the Senate Committee on Government Affairs on Wednesday. “This measure ensures that our students and staff members are studying and working in buildings that are safe.”

The bill is being fast-tracked through the few remaining days left in the legislative process — it was introduced on Monday, and quickly passed out of committee after its first hearing on Wednesday. The speed of the process irked Republican senators, who voted against the bill and said school districts should have to go back to the voters before extending bonds based on potentially decades-old votes.

“Math in my head is about $15 to $20 billion of spending potential here, we literally just heard the bill, the bill was just dropped,” Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said. “With that kind of volume of dollars, I'm exceptionally uncomfortable with supporting a measure like that, and absolutely something of that magnitude, that is all going to be paid for in property taxes by somebody.”

Because voters approved school districts’ bonds at different times, school districts are not on the same schedule, Cannizzaro said. She noted that the Clark County School District is coming to the end of its 2015 bond extension and already has a list of projects ready to go, while adding that rollover bonds must be reviewed by the oversight panels for school facilities, which were set up by the Legislature in 1997.

Clark County School District lobbyist Brad Keating spoke in support of the bill, noting that the bond funding will help rehabilitate and modernize existing schools throughout the Clark County School District.

“Our schools are aging and many remain overcrowded,” Keating said. “The proposed change simply stops the current district's capital rate from decreasing as bonds are paid off well into the future.”

Keating added that older schools in certain areas have to be fully retrofitted because of infrastructure limitations, which leads to gaps in access to digital learning caused by insufficient wiring for internet connectivity and other issues. The Clark County School District made significant budget cuts during the economic downturns, which led to fewer custodians and fewer preventative maintenance projects. The bond bill will allow the district to complete needed repairs and maintenance, he said.

Washoe County School District also supported the bill. District lobbyist Lindsay Anderson said that on average, most schools in Washoe County are more than 43 years old and need to be repaired and replaced to ensure adequate learning environments.

“As we build new schools, keeping our older schools on a level playing field is important to fulfill our commitment to equity and access for our students,” Anderson said. “Currently, the rollover bond proceeds pay for approximately half of our funds to school modernization and revitalization projects. Losing access to these funds would significantly impact our ability to keep up with these projects.”

A lobbyist for the Nevada Chapter of Associated General Contractors, Alexis Motarex, also spoke in support of the measure, which she said would create thousands of jobs and help the state recover from the economic havoc caused by COVID-19.

Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) pushed back against Republican opposition, pointing out that more than 25 groups, including Chambers of Commerce and Parent Teacher Associations from across the state, called in support of the bill.

“All those people that called in didn’t just represent themselves, they had to have the OK from their groups,” Dondero Loop said. “So I do think our voters are aware.”

Lawmakers approve unemployment benefits for school support staff; DETR says claims backlog has improved

Nevada lawmakers have approved emergency regulations that will allow school support staffers who typically work nine to 11 months a year to qualify for unemployment benefits this summer.

The Legislative Commission voted 7-5 on Wednesday to approve the regulations; Republicans opposed, citing the proposal’s cost to school districts. The provisions are meant to cover staff aside from teachers, administrators and substitute teachers, who generally expect not to work for the school district during the summer but are ineligible for unemployment under normal circumstances because there’s an expectation that they will return to the job in the fall. 

“These families may still have lingering effects in finding work this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic and have in many cases drained that savings and investments, as a result of the economic downturn last summer,” said Jeffrey Frischmann, acting administrator of the Employment Security Division.

Typically, districts would pay the entire cost of such benefits for employees, but federal COVID relief funds will pay for 75 percent of the costs.

Brad Keating, a lobbyist for the Clark County School District, said the district estimates the proposal could cover 8,500 support staff professionals. If the district were to cover them at a rate averaged between the highest and lowest typical payouts, and once the federal government kicked in 75 percent of the costs, the action is projected to cost the district $7.5 million.

Keating said that there are an additional 6,000 workers who fall into a gray area and could possibly be eligible because they are non-year round police officers, paraprofessionals and other temporary staff. DETR officials said they did not include specific job titles in the regulation to avoid missing potentially eligible groups, but the agency’s attorney Troy Jordan said the regulations were meant to be construed liberally.

Another variable is how many of the support staff will be called back to work for what is expected to be a sweeping summer school program geared at remediating students after lengthy periods of remote learning. Keating said it’s unknown how many students will choose to enroll in summer school and therefore how many support staffers and teachers will need to be brought on, but he said surveys showed that 60 percent of licensed personnel (such as teachers) were willing to work over the summer.

To qualify for unemployment benefits, support staff would need to meet other eligibility requirements, such as carrying out a job search, not making too much money from other jobs to qualify for benefits and not refusing “suitable work.” Generally, that means that the staffer could not reject an offer to return to the job and still collect benefits.

Republican Sen. Scott Hammond asked DETR officials how the agency would be able to handle a potential influx of new claimants considering DETR’s well-publicized backlogs and technical problems processing more than 2 million initial claims since the pandemic began. Frischmann said that claimants could be guided en masse.

“If we were to treat it as rapid response, which would mean we could potentially send some representatives out there and help do some hand holding, some coaching and provide help to large groups of individuals that we can have all in the room together,” he said. “We believe we would be able to help smooth that surge, and smooth the application process.” 

He also said DETR is getting a better handle on its backlog. In the last quarter, 63 percent of claimants received a payment within 21 days of applying, and that figure jumped to 81 percent for the month of March, he said.

The backlog of claims to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for gig workers is about 2,000 applications, and the backlog for the regular program is about 47,000. Frischmann noted that the latter receives about 7,500 or 8,000 applications each week, so the 47,000-claim backlog includes fresh claims from the last three weeks.

“We've made great strides over the last six months, as far as returning to a more timely payment of new applications,” he said.

In the week ending April 3, there were 233,492 weekly claims filed in Nevada to four unemployment programs. That’s about half the rate from last summer, when the agency was receiving about a half-million continued claims a week.

Bills reversing 2015 changes to collective bargaining pick up steam in last week of Legislature

Union member stands holding flag

Two bills reversing changes made to Nevada’s collective bargaining law in the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature appear to be finally moving forward in the last week, although the fate of a more ambitious bill extending bargaining rights to state workers is still in flux.

Months after the bills were first introduced and heard, members of the Senate Finance Committee held hearings Monday on SB153 and SB111 — two bills sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Parks that aim to reverse many provisions of a wide-ranging collective bargaining bill passed in 2015 that modified the collective bargaining process for local employees and prohibited principals from participating in collective bargaining agreements. Several labor unions argued the bills would improve the bargaining process and cut down on time spent in arbitration, while the Clark County School District warned that the bills add tens of millions in new costs.

Though their appearance in the Finance Committee is a sign that the bills are likely to start moving through the legislative process with roughly a week to go before the end of the 120-day session, their appearance is likely to spark questions about the future of SB135, which would allow state government workers the right to collectively bargain.

Parks said he didn’t know when or if the bill — entombed in the Senate Finance Committee since mid-April — would move forward. But he said his other two collective bargaining bills would go a long way to restoring the system in place prior to the passage of the 2015 law, which he and only three other Democrats opposed at the time.

“I think that it certainly fell far short of what the intent was when those bills were introduced,” he said. “My attitude is from having many years of labor negotiations and experience in the public sector, we had a system that didn’t work perfectly, but it certainly worked well. What (SB241) did was just make a mess of it, and it’s been that way since.”

The biggest fight on Monday came over Parks’ SB111, which reduces the amount of funds a local government can exempt from their ending fund balance in collective bargaining negotiations from 25 percent to 16.67 percent, and a new requirement that any money appropriated by the Legislature for salary and benefits be part of a negotiation during collective bargaining and considered by a fact-finder or arbitrator when determining a school district’s ability to pay compensation.

That last section of the bill sparked opposition from the Clark County School District, which placed a massive fiscal note on the bill saying that implementation would cost $36 million a year, and $72 million in future budget cycles in order to comply with annual pay raises without sufficient funding. But it could also play a critical role as lawmakers look for ways to fund a promised 3 percent teacher pay raise without having the district use the funds for other purposes.

Stephen Augspurger, head of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, gave legislators a copy of the last budget’s legislative allocations showing that the state had appropriated $164.8 million for a 2 percent merit increase for educators and staff, and said that the provisions in SB111 would ensure that the money would actually be spent for merit increases as opposed to filling gaps in the district’s budget.

“The Legislature has provided that money to the school district,” he said. “They have that money. It should be spent for normal movement on the salary schedule. It hasn't, it would be disingenuous to say now that there's a fiscal note on this bill.”

Brad Keating, a lobbyist for the school district, said the fiscal note was accurate and that the district often faced unexpected and huge costs (such as an extra $18 million needed for special education) and that the state’s antiquated and byzantine funding formula made it hard to draw a straight line between money appropriated by state lawmakers and actual dollars going to educators for merit pay increases.

“When dollars go into the formula, they don't come out to the same amount and nothing is broken down by line item,” he said. “So how are we supposed to give out at guaranteed raises when we don't know how much we truly receive as a district?”

Parks said he didn’t believe the school district’s fiscal note was accurate.

“I have a strong opinion about fiscal notes, and I think that if you want to kill a bill, you put a fiscal note on it,” he said in an interview. “I think that in this particular situation, I think it’s an unsubstantiated fiscal note.”

The other portion of the bill — lowering the reserved ending fund balance that could be walled off from collective bargaining negotiations — was supported by union representatives and Mary Walker, a lobbyist for several rural counties who said the change would still ensure governments had at least two months in a reserve balance while having enough financial flexibility for personnel costs during times of an economic downturn.

“I believe this is sound fiscal policy, and that SB111 will provide local governments financial stability in times of recession,” she said. “This will help minimize layoffs during cutbacks.”

The other bill, SB153, makes several reversals and repeals sections of former Republican Sen. Michael Roberson’s bill from the 2015 session that added several restrictions toward the ability of school principals and administrators to collectively bargain.

The bill repeals three sections of the 2015 law, including provisions requiring that employee organizations offer concessions for the full cost if an employee takes leave to perform duties or services for their union, and two sections requiring school principals to be at-will employees and for certain school administrators to re-apply for their positions every five years. It also allows school principals and other administrators below the rank of superintendent to participate in a collective bargaining unit separate from school teachers — undoing another provision of the 2015 law.

The measure also revises certain rules on arbitration for impasses in collective bargaining negotiations, including a requirement for four (rather than eight) negotiating sessions and time limits on holding hearings after selecting an arbiter. It also would allow for “evergreen” clauses in collective bargaining agreements, which are provisions that allow regularly scheduled pay raises and other parts of collective bargaining agreements to continue after an agreement expires.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a similar bill last session that attempted to make many of the same changes to the 2015 collective bargaining law.

Professional Firefighters of Nevada lobbyist Tom Dunn said the lack of those clauses hurt workers and incentivized local governments to delay negotiations as long as possible.

“All it's going to do in the long term is cost both local government and more importantly the bargaining units that we represent time and money,” Dunn said. “All it's going to do is drag out the process further than it was prior to 2015, and there is going to be a harm to local government employees because every day that this process gets dragged out is potentially a benefit or more importantly a PERS retirement contribution that has been decreased. And it's a complete and total budget savings for local government.”

As introduced, the Clark County School District said implementing the bill would cost around $36 million per year to implement, raising similar concerns to Parks’ other bill that would require additional spending for merit pay increases without any increase in funding.

Chris Daly, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Education Association, said that the current bargaining rules were “cumbersome and unworkable,” and said the district’s assumptions in the fiscal note were a worst-case scenario and unlikely to actually occur.

“We think that this fiscal note is not real in terms of how this would play out for that school district,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who chairs the Senate Finance committee, said she hoped to bring both bills up for a committee vote sometime later this week.