Republican former Sen. Dean Heller officially launched a bid for governor on Monday, attempting to re-enter the political sphere he inhabited for decades before he was defeated in a 2018 re-election bid that found him struggling to navigate a fraught relationship with then-President Donald Trump.
At a launch event in a cramped and low-slung building in the town he grew up in, Carson City, he staked out firmly conservative positions on abortion and suggested a top Clark County election official should have been removed for his decisions in the 2020 election. Heller said he was OK with being done with politics after his loss three years ago but was inspired to return to the fray.
“Something happened, something changed. It was called 2020. 2020 happened, bad politicians started making bad decisions,” he said. “And I said to my family, ‘Enough is enough. We have to do something about this.’ So we're here today because I believe it's time to fire Steve Sisolak.”
His debut raises the stakes in a race considered a referendum on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic. Heller has already centered the lightning rod issue of COVID mitigation measures in his campaign, releasing a video over the weekend denouncing business shutdowns and rules that had his grandchildren playing soccer in masks.
In his announcement speech, he blamed Sisolak for putting Nevada “at the top of every bad list in America,” including for unemployment rates, crime rates, graduation rates and suicide rates, adding that “under this governor, families are being crushed.”
While not directly saying the 2020 election was invalid (he said “I know who the president of the United States is, we're not arguing that. What I am arguing is the process and how we got there), Heller criticized recent voting legislation and said “we made it easier to cheat in future elections.” He vowed that if he’s elected governor, “you're not going to wonder if elections are fair” and that his first order of business would be enacting voter ID by executive order.
“After the 2020 election, most Republicans believe President Trump had won that election. This is chaos and this chaos continues over and over,” Heller said.
He noted that as secretary of state, he removed a registrar who he thought was doing a poor job, and suggested he would have done the same with Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, accusing Gloria of saying “I am going to manipulate our machines” to accept a high number of signatures on ballots as valid.
“I would have been tempted to do that, yes. I would have petitioned the county commissioners to remove this guy," Heller said.
He said he wouldn’t mandate the vaccine against COVID, but noted that he was vaccinated himself, and said “I will emphasize and I will impress upon my fellow Nevadans that I think it's very important.”
Asked if he would support a law like Texas’ that allows private citizens to sue people who facilitate an abortion after six weeks of gestation, Heller said “I like what Texas did.” Polls consistently show Nevadans support abortion rights by significant margins, and voters in 1990 reaffirmed the legality of abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation.
“As governor, I'll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state, regardless with who's controlling the Legislature at the time,” he said.
Heller’s position on abortion has evolved over the years. In 2006, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that “I do back a woman's right to choose abortion. It is the conservative position."
At an event in Las Vegas later on Monday, Heller sought to clarify his comments about the Texas legislation, adding that he would want a ban on abortions past six weeks to include exceptions for rape or incest.
“I probably should clarify — I don't really know everything that was in that law,” he said. “I like the concept of it, but I know that they're going to have some problems, some issues, and frankly, it's going to be challenged, so let's see where it goes from there.”
Heller’s campaign materials cultivate an image of rural masculinity, with the video showing him racing in a stock car, touting his welding skills and hoisting bales of hay on his farm. A narrator describes him as “kind” and with “a smile that never quits,” but also “tough as nails,” and ends with the words, “That’s a governor.”
But to have that title, he’ll first have to triumph in a crowded primary, and without the campaign consultant team that has guided his previous campaigns — that firm, November Inc., was enlisted by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is also trying to chart a more mainstream Republican course through the race. Heller’s video subtly took aim at Lombardo’s complicated position on guns, featuring the former senator target shooting.
Heller’s campaign launch video also suggested that “defunding the police” was happening “right now in Nevada.” Asked about what that was referring to, Heller said, “I'm gonna have more information on that in the next couple of days. So I’d rather wait on that answer.”
Lombardo is focusing his campaign around promises to veto any new taxes, including an income tax. While an income tax has not been a discussion point in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Lombardo said that he incorporated the argument into his campaign because “the governor could advise the public to vote for it.”
“There's a perception, and if there's a perception there's maybe some truth to it,” Lombardo told The Nevada Independent on Saturday during an event celebrating a new campaign office in Las Vegas. “Why not fix it going forward? Why not remove the rumors and the perception and even the ability to commit fraud into the future, if you have the ability to do that.”
Better Nevada PAC, a pro-Lombardo entity, has already started targeting Heller over abortion, including by disseminating a video clip of a 2017 town hall when Heller said “I will protect Planned Parenthood.”
Others in the contest include Joey Gilbert, a firebrand lawyer and former boxer whose face and fists greet motorists from billboards along Reno freeways and in the airport. He was in Washington D.C. the day of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, has challenged the validity of the election and has been trying to persuade rural county commissions to retain him to sue the governor over the ongoing state of emergency.
Heller, for his part, told reporters about the incidents of Jan. 6 that he did not have a problem with people protesting, “but they crossed the line when they broke into that Capitol and did what they did … don't put me in that category of being in favor of what occurred on that day.”
Heller, 61, began his political career in 1990 as a state assemblyman, then served three terms as secretary of state and two terms in Congress before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2011 after then-Sen. John Ensign resigned.
He notched moderate bona fides in an increasingly purple Nevada in 2013, when he supported an immigration reform bill and voted in 2015 not to pursue a bill to unravel the DACA program, which gives legal status to people brought to the country illegally as children.
Acknowledging that it was fair to say he had a tenuous relationship with Trump at times, Heller said in Las Vegas on Monday that “I would love to have President Trump’s endorsement” in the governor’s race.
As a senator, he also struggled to navigate the issue of health care, voting to support a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act but also holding a press conference with then-Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2017 saying he could not support a bill that would take insurance away from tens of millions of Americans.
Following a 2018 campaign in which he was mocked for his fluid policy positions, he lost to Democratic political newcomer Jacky Rosen by a five percentage point margin.
Michael Fletcher, a small business owner and family friend of Heller’s, said he’s worried Sisolak’s connections to unions will lead to increased taxes that will raise prices on consumers and hurt small businesses.
“Sisolak’s not somebody I trust,” Fletcher said. “I think he’s too bought in by the unions. He’s at their will and I think that’s not good for Nevada.”
Josh Groth, a pilot who flies cargo internationally, came to the campaign kickoff with some friends. Heller’s announcement and stance on voter identification laws struck Groth.
“I think those are powerful things to be able to protect ... the right to maintain a democratically representative government, and be able to vote with integrity and ensure that we don't even leave any leeway for people to have skepticism about the integrity of that election system,” Groth said.
Groth said he is also worried about his two children’s education. During the pandemic, he watched as his children who are in elementary school sat in front of a computer screen for six hours a day — a learning method that he described as “not viable.”
“I think [Heller] will try and get to the point where he allows people to make individual choices and decisions for themselves, for their communities, for their families, and for the state,” Groth said. “I hope that we'll be able to get some policies that are enacted that enable us to be able to live the life that Nevada has always represented.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak plans to revive a mining oversight board — with the power to request audits, review regulations, call witnesses and subpoena documents — after state officials let the commission quietly wither in the six years since it held its last recorded meeting.
In 2011, the Legislature approved the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission with a bipartisan vote. But the board, meant to function similarly to the Gaming Commission, never fully got off the ground, even when it had a quorum. The board, housed in the Department of Taxation, lacked resources, former board members told The Nevada Independent last year.
Sisolak’s office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the governor plans to make five appointments to the seven-member panel with the intention of restarting meetings.
Under the statute governing the commission, legislative leaders from both parties are required to submit recommendations for members to the governor’s office. The governor must choose five members from among those selections, and he can appoint two members of his own choosing. Only two members of the commission are allowed to have a connection to the mining industry.
Sisolak plans to appoint Jerry Pfarr, a former vice president with Newmont, and Anthony Ruiz, a senior adviser of government relations and community affairs for Nevada State College.
Based on recommendations from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sisolak also plans to appoint Jose Witt, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy, and Pam Harrington, a field coordinator with Trout Unlimited who is based in northeastern Nevada, where the state’s largest mining entity, Nevada Gold Mines, operates large mines and ranches.
Sisolak’s fifth appointment, recommended by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), will be Melissa Clary, the office confirmed. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Clary to the commission in January 2018, but her term expired without her attending a single meeting.
The governor’s office is still working with legislative leaders on the final two appointments.
It is unclear how the still relatively new commission will function and what oversight it will provide an industry that carries significant influence throughout state government. Legislators have discussed, on several occasions, doing away with the board, but mining watchdog groups have long argued that there is still a role for the commission to discuss issues with the industry.
Most of the state’s mines operate outside of Nevada’s large metropolitan areas, but they have a significant influence in the state’s rural economy, workforce and natural resources. Reviving the commission comes as state policymakers from both parties are actively pushing for Nevada to become a key destination for mining the critical metals, including lithium, needed in the supply chain for electric vehicles and other technologies that could help address climate change.
In 2021, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy organization, ranked Nevada as the most attractive place in the world for mining investment. The report ranked nearly 80 jurisdictions based on their geologic potential and whether government policies encourage investment.
A cross-section of Nevada gaming operators has voiced opposition to expanding the state’s online gaming regulations, saying any proposed changes should be explored by the governor’s Gaming Policy Committee and ultimately approved by state lawmakers.
In a four-page letter sent last week to the chairmen of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Nevada Gaming Commission, nearly 30 small casino owners, tavern operators and CEOs outlined reasons they believe online gaming would damage their business operations.
The letter originated in the corporate offices of Red Rock Resorts and is viewed by its signers as a preemptive measure even as regulators have delayed any plans to change the state’s online gaming guidelines as spelled out in Gaming Regulation 5A.
Red Rock Resorts CEO Frank Fertitta III and Vice Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, whose company operates the Station Casinos properties throughout the Las Vegas Valley, signed the letter.
A company spokesman declined to comment on the letter. Station Casinos backed Ultimate Poker, Nevada’s online power website. The business folded after 19 months after falling short of projections.
“We want there to be a discussion, not just throw the doors open,” said Andrew Diss, vice president of government affairs for Meruelo Gaming, the company that owns the Grand Sierra in Reno and the Sahara in Las Vegas. Meruelo Gaming CEO Alex Meruelo was one of the executives who signed the letter.
Diss was the only representative from any of the companies listed as signers who would comment publicly. He said the group believes any changes concerning online gaming expansion are policy matters.
“We believe (the Gaming Policy Committee) is the proper venue,” Diss said.
In the letter, gaming executives wrote, “We strongly oppose any expansion of online gaming in Nevada. In your potential consideration of online gaming, we ask that you are deliberate in determining if online gaming is needed to grow Nevada’s economy, helpful to our local communities and consistent with our long-established regulatory framework.”
Among the concerns raised in the letter were fears that online gaming would undermine investments made by gaming developers in physical gaming locations, cannibalize small operator gaming revenue and weaken the state’s public policy and regulatory framework.
Gaming executives also expressed support for restricted gaming operations – 15 or fewer slot machines – believing licensing of out-of-state online gaming companies could damage those businesses.
Former Gov. Brian Sandoval reinstituted the Gaming Policy Committee in 2011 after a nearly 20-year absence. He directed the 12-person panel, which the governor chairs, to create policy advice for the Legislature on four issues during his two terms – internet gaming, daily fantasy sports, eSports and legal marijuana.
Gov. Steve Sisolak has not reinstated the panel, which includes regulators, members of the gaming industry, tribal gaming leaders, lawmakers and other stakeholders.
“We believe the policy committee will be a much more inclusive way,” Diss said.
The Gaming Control Board had scheduled a public workshop in May to discuss 15 suggested changes to the regulations, including removing provisions that limit interactive gaming to just poker and changing the rules requiring in-person registration for mobile sports betting accounts. But the meeting was cancelled, and board Chairman Brin Gibson said at the time the workshop would be rescheduled after the Legislature adjourned in June.
Regulators have scheduled a workshop for Wednesday, but it is focused on “amending the definition of wagering accounts.”
Gibson acknowledged receiving the letter but declined to comment on Monday. On Tuesday, in a statement released by the Control Board, Gibson said he “appreciates the exchange of ideas on topics of importance to the state’s gaming industry.”
The state’s largest casino operators – MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and Boyd Gaming – were not represented in the letter. Other than Las Vegas Sands, the companies have online gaming operations in states outside Nevada, mostly through mobile sports betting.
A spokesman for Boyd Gaming said he was aware of the letter but declined to comment. Boyd, through its partnership with sports betting operator FanDuel, operates legal online casinos in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the company also operates traditional casinos.
Online gaming expansion has become a growing topic nationwide after two states, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, reported higher than normal online gaming revenues last year when casinos nationwide were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan launched legal online gaming in January, joining New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware with full-scale online casinos. Nevada legalized online poker in 2013 but there is just one such site – World Series of Poker, which is run by Caesars. The state’s small population has been one reason cited for online poker not flourishing.
According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), online gaming revenue in the U.S. was $1.69 billion in the first six months of the year, a 165.8 percent increase compared to the same six-month period in 2020.
“Online gaming has been approved in states with a limited number of commercial casinos, some without any commercial casinos at all,” gaming executives wrote. “In states with limited land-based gaming properties, online gaming may capture gaming tax revenue for the state that it otherwise would not receive by providing easier access to gaming entertainment.”
Other signatures on the letter included downtown Las Vegas casino operators Derek Stevens (Circa Casino Resort, D Las Vegas, and Golden Gate), Kenny Epstein (El Cortez) and Jonathan Jossel (Plaza).
Golden Entertainment CEO Blake Sartini also signed the letter. Golden operates the Strat in downtown Las Vegas, casinos in the Las Vegas Valley, Laughlin and Pahrump, and a statewide slot machine route business along with a robust restricted gaming tavern operation.
Northern Nevada casino operators Anthony Marnell III (Nugget Casino Resort), Ferenc Szony (Truckee Gaming), Jeff Siri (Club Cal Neva), Rob Mederios (Boomtown), J Grant Lincoln (Baldini’s) and John Farahi (Monarch Casino Resort), were also among the signers.
Maria Nieto Orta was driving home to Las Vegas last week from a family vacation in Utah when she found out about a federal judge’s decision to close the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, to first-time applicants.
“I just remember being super sad about it, and kind of sitting in silence specifically because I didn't yet want to talk to my parents about it, because I knew they were going to ask a lot of questions,” Nieto Orta, 21, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.
Born in Mexico City, Nieto Orta has lived in Las Vegas since before she was age two. She’s among more than 600,000 DACA recipients in the U.S., including more than 11,000 in Nevada. She’s been protected by DACA for the last seven years, since she was 15. Although the recent ruling doesn’t immediately jeopardize her legal immigration status, she’s still worried about the future of DACA.
“It really sucks, and it’s really disheartening,” said Nieto Orta, who works for Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization in Las Vegas, as the state coordinator.
The ruling marks a big, but not unexpected, blow for first-time applicants who had a seven-month window in the last three years to apply for the legal immigration status since the Trump administration attempted to terminate the program entirely in September 2017.
In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas wrote that the Department of Homeland Security can continue to receive applications for DACA, but it may not process or approve them until a further order from the District Court, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court. Hanen, appointed by George W. Bush during his presidency, said the Obama administration violated administrative procedures when it created DACA in 2012.
The fate of the DACA program and its recipients continues to swing through major court decisions, some offering momentary reprieve and hope for recipients while others bring a harsh reminder of the fragility of the protection offered to adults who were brought to the U.S. as infants or young children.
“For people who haven't had DACA, who were in limbo during previous litigation, this just keeps them in limbo,” said UNLV Immigration Clinic Director Michael Kagan. “Obviously, people are desperate for a solution that will actually last."
Of 53,200 people who filed applications for DACA from the beginning of the year through Mar. 31, only 1,163 of them have been approved by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), according to government data. The agency had denied 513 applications as of that date and more than 55,500 were still pending before Hanen issued his decision last week.
President Joe Biden declared in a statement last week that the Department of Justice intends to appeal Hanen’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and urged Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, which includes a years-long pathway to citizenship for DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients and undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. In his first week as president, Biden ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “preserve and fortify” the DACA program.
The American Dream and Promise Act was approved by the House of Representatives in March, but faces challenging circumstances in the Senate as Democrats hold a slim majority well shy of the 60 votes often needed to pass legislation. Advocates and supporters have been calling for Senate Democrats to include the pathway to citizenship in a large infrastructure bill, which can be approved through the budget reconciliation process, waiving the requirement to get at least 10 Republican lawmakers on board to avoid a filibuster.
“All eyes are on Congress,” Kagan said. “There is a glimmer of hope in Congress, which is not usual. It's been a long time since there was a real political prospect of passing any immigration legislation. There is a real prospect right now through the reconciliation process. But I don't think anyone knows how likely it is. And of course, in the past, people have been repeatedly disappointed.”
The decision to halt the program drew words of support for DACA recipients from Nevada officials, including Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, Democratic Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, and UNR and UNLV presidents Brian Sandoval and Keith Whitfield, respectively.
“The U.S. is the only home that Dreamers have ever known, and they should not be forced to live in fear of deportation. DACA empowered undocumented youth to come out of the shadows and contribute to our communities in immeasureable ways — from serving in our military to being on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic,” Cortez Masto said in a statement, adding that she will continue to lead efforts in Congress to provide “permanent relief” to DACA recipients.
“We must pass the American Dream and Promise Act without delay,” she said.
‘There’s a lot of fear’
Nieto Orta said her “headspace is all over the place” since the ruling as she attempts to stay connected with first-time applicants who are unsure of the status of their applications or next steps, all while managing her own disappointment.
She’s always seen DACA as a “Band-Aid,” she said — as something that allows her to work legally, but doesn’t expand to many benefits beyond that, such as a stable and dependable legal immigration status with a path leading toward citizenship for herself or her family members.
Although she’s among hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who remain protected under the recent ruling, she’s thinking ahead about worst-case scenarios, such as losing her status.
“Now I have to save money just in case they do take DACA away, because what's going to happen to my studies?” said Nieto Orta, who is in her second year at UNLV studying political science and criminal justice.
“School is so expensive out of pocket, you know? I personally love school, so it's like, I want to continue going to school, what if I can't afford it? And what if I, unfortunately, can no longer work because I no longer have an employment authorization card? It's just a lot of questions going on in my head.”
Applying for DACA or renewing it every two years costs nearly $500 in application fees, and recipients are encouraged to submit renewal applications every 180 days in order to prevent lapses caused by backlogs or slowdowns in processing, which amounts to a $1,000 annual payment.
It’s uncertain whether people who applied to DACA but were not yet approved during the brief months-long window will receive refunds for their application fees.
Based on the number of initial requests it received from the beginning of the year through March 31, USCIS received $26 million dollars from first-time applicants since the program reopened in December. The agency is funded largely through fees, such as the application fees needed to apply for DACA. Of the $495 to file an application, $85 is used for biometric processing, or a criminal background check. The rest, $410, goes to USCIS.
“It’s definitely been a lot of questions from the community,” she said. “‘Do I get my money back?’ I mean, we're still in a pandemic ... the economy has not recovered yet.”
There’s also concern about sensitive information included on DACA applications that USCIS will receive, but not process, and whether that information could be used to target applicants.
“There's also a lot of fear,” Nieto Orta said. “[Applicants] are like, ‘OK, well, can you use this information against me?’ Or what's going to happen? Does my application just stay there?”
Hanen clarified that nothing in the ruling requires the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Justice to “take any immigration, deportation, or criminal action against any DACA recipient, applicant, or any other individual that either would not otherwise take.”
Amid the persistent turbulence DACA recipients have experienced since the Trump administration first moved to terminate the program four years ago, Nieto Orta said the community is focused on banding together for support amongst themselves and urging their elected officials to fight for a permanent solution.
“No one's going to offer better support than someone that isn't documented, because we know what we've been through,” she said. “And that's the best way to help each other.”
‘Dark clouds on the horizon’
As an immigration attorney, what stood out to Kagan in Hanen’s 77-page opinion and court ruling was that the judge identified DACA as an illegal program, signaling potential future action to terminate it.
“There are ominous signs in the court from this decision, although it was not unexpected in that Judge Hanen ruled that he thinks the entire program is illegal,” he said. “So obviously, this is dark clouds on the horizon. Nothing we did not know, but ominous nonetheless.”
Kagan noted that both courts the decision could be kicked to — the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court — are conservative courts and that the Fifth Circuit Court has ruled against DACA in the past.
“That sends a very strong signal that judges on that circuit are skeptical of DACA,” he said. “If you're a betting person, I don't think the government's odds are difficult.”
He noted the risk of putting hundreds of thousands of people’s futures in the hands of the courts.
“We really do not want people's lives to depend on the courts in these cases, because it's going to be difficult to save DACA through the courts this time,” he said. “I'm not saying it's all over. But I think we have to be realistic.”
Manuel Ortiz’s introduction to a program for prospective first-generation college students started with a lunchtime meeting featuring pizza.
While the food won him over initially, his more than two-decade journey with the Dean’s Future Scholars (DFS) program has resulted in two postsecondary degrees, a marriage and now a full-time job. It’s an arc he never could have predicted as a sixth-grader receiving an invitation to join the program affiliated with UNR. In fact, Ortiz wasn’t even sure he wanted to accept the opportunity.
The DFS program comes with a big ask for potential recruits: Forgo a big chunk of summer break in exchange for academic support and mentorship that could open a pathway toward high school graduation and higher education.
“Do I really want to give up some of my time?” he recalled thinking.
College had not been on Ortiz’s radar. He grew up in public housing with his five siblings and single mother, who fled Nicaragua for political asylum in the United States. She worked at factories, a daycare and, later, the Washoe County School District as a teacher’s aide. Ortiz said his mother pushed her children to do well in school despite only having a sixth-grade education herself. But her understanding of education beyond high school was limited.
That’s the void the Dean’s Future Scholars program has tried to fill for the past 21 years. It’s not just the application and financial aid process that can stymie first-generation students’ attempts to enroll in a college or university. Their academic choices building up to that moment can also play a role. So the homegrown program deploys a long game, building relationships with selected students starting in sixth grade while injecting academic enrichment along the way.
“I always say, ‘We are in the business of relationships,’” program director Mariluz Garcia said. “Everything we do is focused on social-emotional (development). We do hit the academics really hard, but the way it’s delivered and the wraparound services that are provided are always done through the near-peer-mentoring model.”
Since its inception in 2000 — when 50 sixth-graders joined the first cohort — the program has served more than 1,400 students, while, in some ways, flying under the radar. The group occupies a modest lounge at UNR, where students come and go as they please. Grants, private donations and in-kind contributions form what Garcia describes as a “piecemeal” approach keeping the program alive year to year.
But in the final days of the 2021 Legislature, state lawmakers tucked a $4 million windfall for the DFS program into SB461. The bill disburses federal American Rescue Plan funding to a variety of causes, such as programs addressing food insecurity or helping people with disabilities. The education-oriented program is the sixth priority in the bill, which says the money should be used to “establish a statewide program modeled after the Dean’s Future Scholars Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, to assist pupils who are in grade 6 or higher, are prospective first-generation college students and have been negatively or disparately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Garcia had made a presentation about the program to an education committee early on in the session. At the time, she said, lawmakers were mulling another bill that would have encouraged other higher education institutions to create similar programs. The days ticked by with no word until late May when her phone rang.
“This all came as a big surprise to me,” she said. “I almost fell over.”
Now, Garcia plans to conduct a needs assessment across the state with hopes of launching a “Nevada First-Gen Network.” The new umbrella organization would support other programs that, while maybe not identical to DFS, also help a similar demographic of students. Her rationale is that Nevada is too large and diverse to expect a one-size-fits-all approach. Slightly different programs may work better in other places. But as plans materialize, Garcia said she will share the “secret sauce” that sets DFS apart.
The continual mentoring. The long-term approach. The family feel. The desire to stick with students through good times and bad.
Entrance into the DFS program starts with a tap on the shoulder. There is no application process. No minimum grade-point-average or test score requirements. Each spring, a combination of counselors, teachers and principals from select Washoe County School District schools nominate students. The schools are all considered Title I, meaning they serve a large number of students from low-income families.
The recommended students must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, show an interest in attending college and preferably come from families in which they would be the first to earn a bachelor’s degree. The selected students’ journeys begin the summer after their sixth-grade year with a three-week program and continue throughout middle and high school. During the school year, paid college-age mentors — many of whom went through the program themselves — regularly meet with students. The conversations often address stressors students may be experiencing related to family or friend dynamics, coursework, employment and time management, among other issues.
Over time, the summer programs gradually become more academic-focused, giving students enrichment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects as well as dual-credit coursework during high school. There’s also an eight-week summer bridge program before they enter college featuring two UNR classes and a paid internship.
During the summer going into eighth grade, Ortiz balked at the time commitment. He wanted to sleep in and play video games. His mother dragged him to the UNR campus anyway.
“At the end of the day, I was so glad my mom did that,” he said.
What he found that day kept him going: He immediately reconnected with fellow DFS students and mentors. The now-32-year-old recalls the experience as something akin to summer camp. Yes, they took difficult math courses, but they also swapped laughs and personal stories. Years later, he still maintains contact with friends made during those summer sessions.
Plus, they were on a college campus — in a giant lecture hall inside a distinguished-looking building — soaking up an environment unavailable to their non-DFS peers. The experience launched Ortiz to a private college in Alabama after high school. But he returned a year later, largely because of financial reasons and the lack of a support system there. He enrolled at UNR, the familiar place that had become home, and started working as a DFS mentor. His path did not directly lead to a college degree, though.
Three semesters shy of obtaining an undergraduate degree, Ortiz dropped out. Family and financial issues had created some obstacles. He lost focus, stopped turning in assignments and attending classes.
It was DFS that reeled Ortiz back in when a former program director walked him to the university’s financial aid office. Ortiz — who met his now-wife through the program — went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in higher education administration. After a stint working for the Washoe County School District, he has returned to work as the DFS assistant director.
“With DFS being so present in every aspect of your life, they kind of see you in those moments of sadness, in those moments of anger when you’re feeling most vulnerable,” he said. “I feel like that’s what builds the bonds closer.”
Ortiz knows his return to school — and degree completion — meant nearly just as much to the younger generations looking up to him. He said the hypocrisy of being a mentor, encouraging younger students to persevere but then dropping out himself, weighed on him.
They’re students like Chayenne Neyra, 15, a DFS member who attends Spanish Springs High School. She credits the program with helping her stay ahead academically, especially after the pandemic heavily affected students’ grades. Mentors are always a phone call or text away, she said, whether the need is for life advice or academic help.
Put more simply: “It’s nice having someone even when you feel like you don’t,” she said.
While relationships make up the backbone of the program, the mission is academic and career empowerment. Only 62 percent of DFS students’ fathers and 59 percent of their mothers graduated from high school, according to the organization’s 2020 report.
The program aims to foster upward social mobility, giving students a boost to not only graduate high school but also continue into college — a trajectory that can increase their job opportunities and overall career earnings.
It’s a situation Garcia, the program director, knows firsthand. Her father left Basque Country in Spain after being recruited to Nevada as a sheepherder. His formal education ended somewhere around eighth grade. Her mother, meanwhile, immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a young child. She grew up attending schools here, but her family didn’t know the ins and outs of the American education system.
Garcia’s first brush with college life came when she and her siblings packed into the family’s Aerostar minivan and left Elko, bound for San Francisco. They were dropping off her older sister at a university — a concept Garcia didn’t quite understand until she saw the campus, the academic buildings, the dormitories and the general hustle and bustle. Later, it was that same sister who helped Garcia navigate the college application process.
“I didn’t know how to apply for college. I didn’t know what financial aid was. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it all,” she said. “All I knew was that my sister did it, and I wanted to, so it was kind of crazy how my sister had this, like, positive ripple effect on my whole family.”
Ever since, she has been drawn to giving children like herself similar opportunities. On the day Garcia defended her dissertation en route to a doctorate, she wore a T-shirt that said, “Your test scores don’t define you.”
It’s a message she imparts early and often to DFS recruits.
“There’s not one type of student. You do not have to look like them, breathe like them, come from the same background as them,” she said. “You can pretty much achieve anything that you put your eyes on as long as you show up, get your butt in the seat and you keep working hard.”
A report highlighting the program’s 20th anniversary in 2020 found that DFS students had averaged a 95 percent graduation rate over the prior five years, outperforming their school district peers. And 66 percent of DFS high school graduates earned an advanced, college and career readiness or an honors diploma.
The program also created a direct pathway to UNR, with a college retention rate of 86 percent. As of the 2020 report, 160 students had earned bachelor’s degrees; 13 had earned two bachelor’s degrees; 32 had earned a master’s degree; and five had earned two master’s degrees at UNR.
Not all students continue on to UNR, though. Some wind up at community colleges, private universities, out-of-state institutions or trade schools. Others have joined the military.
Garcia acknowledges there’s room for growth. The program has averaged a 70 percent college enrollment rate since its first cohort of students. Still, she said the success stories matter.
“Every single college graduate that we have, every student that enters into the workforce successfully — that is having huge implications for the whole state,” she said.
On a recent summer day, former Gov. and UNR President Brian Sandoval visited DFS students along with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. Their visit signaled a growing spotlight on the homegrown program, which aims to broaden students’ horizons. If they can now see themselves on a college campus, what more could they envision? Life as a teacher, engineer, doctor? Or perhaps a federal lawmaker?
“I may be the first Latina in the United States Senate, but I’m sure not going to be the last,” Cortez Masto told the students. “And we are going to make sure that happens.”
For DFS students, that’s partially happening because of the partnership forged between local schools and the university. Garcia wants to further topple the invisible walls that exist between the state’s K-12 schools and higher education system.
“There’s a lot of good work happening,” she said. “Why are we not talking?”
She hopes the Nevada First-Gen Network can foster more dialogue among people and groups that have similar goals, even if different approaches. These groups have often viewed each other as competition, she said, fighting for the same grant programs and funding sources.
The $4 million federal infusion could change that. Garcia envisions offering other organizations microgrants, which would provide COVID-related relief through efforts to address food insecurity, learning loss, technology gaps, mentoring and paying for college.
The potential ripple effect goes back to the very essence of the DFS program — building relationships.
“It’s not rocket science, right?” Garcia said. “You just bring people together and get to know each other so you can build trust and, you know, build more of a collaborative thing.”
The beneficiaries will be students like Chayenne Neyra. She’s eyeing a future in real estate or forensic science. She could be the first in her family to graduate from college, and it all started with a tap on the shoulder several years ago.
This story was updated at 5:35 p.m. July 25, 2021, to add a missing word to a quote.
Top administrators from UNR and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced a new partnership Tuesday afternoon, a collaboration aimed at improving regional research into the effects of climate change, sustainable energy and water scarcity.
Leaders from both of the institutions said the agreement was complementary, bringing together a research university with a national laboratory under the U.S. Department of Energy. The agreement, they said, would provide for joint faculty-appointments, create more research opportunities for students, access to specialized research tools and facilitate workshops.
“The complexity of challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and energy resilience demand that we forge partnerships between states, between organizations and agencies, between research disciplines,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said during a virtual meeting Tuesday commemorating the agreement, which was signed in March.
“This also demands that we ask more of ourselves to broaden our perspective and to involve more voices from the academic and scientific community in what we are doing,” he added.
Although climate change is a main priority of the partnership, UNR officials who detailed the plan Tuesday afternoon said other common research could focus on quantum information science, machine learning and national security.
On Tuesday, Mridul Gautam, UNR’s vice president for research and innovation, said the collaboration was designed to be interdisciplinary, bringing together faculty from across both institutions. He said the approach would encourage “new thinking, new ideas, new solutions.”
One collaboration, looking at the intersections of climate change, water and land management, is already underway. The research aims to study the effects of climate change in areas that rely on water supplies that originate from snowpack.
When snow melts, it runs off into streams and rivers that are, in turn, used as a water supply. But across the West, climate change is affecting how much snow is banked in the mountains and how it melts. Those changes can have big consequences, not only for ensuring reliable water supplies but also for the broader forest ecosystem — and how we manage the land.
“The wicked water problem that we’re trying to address here is the connection between our water supplies and our forests,” Adrian Harpold, an associate professor at UNR who is leading the project, said on Tuesday. “How we manage our forests affects our water supplies.”
Harpold said the existing paradigm for forest management, including how we control wildfires, is often siloed off from the management of water supplies. He said the new paradigm should look at the connections between water supply and forest heath to reduce extreme fire risk, drawing on Indigenous knowledge of how to manage forests, including through cultural burning.
The project with the national laboratory will study a section of the Sierra Nevada that overlaps with the Truckee River watershed, a primary source of drinking water for the Reno area. The project, with funding from the U.S. Forest Service, as part of an initiative to improve restoration within the central Sierra Nevada, which includes the forests that surround Lake Tahoe.
In particular, the research will look at how management, including forest thinning, might affect the water supply. The researchers will then send their data to economists, who will look at the issue from an economic perspective. The study will rely on a model that was developed by Mark Wigmosta, a chief scientist for watershed hydrology at the national laboratory.
“What really excites me about this collaboration is it’s already paying dividends with this new project,” said Wigmosta, who is also serving as an adjunct faculty member at UNR.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is based in Richland, Washington and has about 5,000 employees. The facility, one of 17 Energy Department labs, focuses on a range of subjects, from fundamental science to energy and national security.
“The U.S. government right now could not be more committed to understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change,” Tony Peurrung, a deputy director for science and technology at the national laboratory. “So the aims of this partnership are timely and noble.”
When the Sierra Nevada University Board of Trustees voted last week to approve an agreement that would allow SNU to become part of UNR, it came as something of a surprise — a major move with wide-reaching implications that would give Nevada’s oldest university a campus practically on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
According to UNR president Brian Sandoval, that is because the initial agreement — the first step in what officials say will be a long and winding process — came together not over the course of months, but in a matter of weeks.
“I was first approached about the opportunity, maybe less than a month ago,” Sandoval said in an interview. “So this was something that happened very recently. And the first question was, ‘Would the university be interested in perhaps accepting a gift from Sierra Nevada University of its campus?’ And of course, I answered, ‘We'd be interested.’”
A private liberal arts college tucked into the middle of Incline Village, SNU is a rarity in Nevada as the only such institution in the state.
Nationwide, many private colleges have been flagging in the face of steadily dropping enrollments driven in part by subtle demographic shifts over the past 20 years — shifts that have only deepened long-term financial pressures.
Janet Lowe, vice chair of the SNU Board of Trustees, told The Nevada Independent that the university is no less immune to those forces than many of the hundreds of other small, private liberal arts colleges dotted across the U.S.
“The Harvards of the world have a waitlist 10,000, 20,000 people deep,” Lowe said. “But when you're smaller and less selective, you don't have that. So we've been under a little bit of increasing pressure for years.”
Even with those pressures, Lowe said SNU could have continued to survive under the same conditions.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic.
A gut punch to the institution that halved freshman enrollment in 2020, Lowe said the years-long effect of the pandemic — while not so dire as to threaten an institutional closure — still created a “risky” environment for SNU to continue operating as it had, even as enrollment numbers began to recover in 2021.
“So here we are, a board of trustees, and we're entrusted with this asset, we're entrusted with the livelihood of our students, our employees,” Lowe said. “And this [acquisition] seemed like a more stable, brighter future for them than — what if there's another COVID outbreak? Or what if there's another shock to the system? And we just are now at a point [where] we couldn't take another shot.”
Lowe said the option to integrate with a major research university was helped by the proximity to UNR, just 36 miles away from SNU via Mt. Rose Highway.
“If you look at combinations between institutions, the ones that tend to succeed tend to be in close proximity,” Lowe said. “So for example, Sierra Nevada has a very close relationship with UC Davis. But we're quite a way away from UC Davis, we're across the state line. And would that kind of a relationship work? That would be much more politically difficult.”
Sandoval said the addition of SNU’s facilities would provide a host of benefits, including close access to Lake Tahoe for environmental research, a small “intimate” campus that could prove a draw for UNR students and degree programs that could be melded into similar programs at UNR.
“When I had my conversation with my leadership team and deans from across the university, I told them to let their imaginations run wild in terms of what the potential for the campus could be,” Sandoval said. “And most of them said their heads were spinning.”
‘A first step in what will be a very long process’
Speaking to The Nevada Independent last week, Sandoval stressed multiple times that the final agreement — and whatever form that final agreement will take — is far from completion.
The first hurdle will come later this month, when UNR will seek permission from the Board of Regents to continue pursuing an agreement with SNU. Only then, Sandoval said, would the university ask for permission to engage with regulators — including both the U.S. Department of Education and the regional accreditation body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
“When it goes to the regents [this month], this isn't for any type of final approval,” Sandoval said. “This is a first step in what will be a very long process. I suppose the best comparison would be the affiliation with the Renown Health system … that process began with a letter of intent that was approved, and then informational meetings, and then the review of a proposed agreement, and then eventually the adoption of a final agreement.”
The precise details of the agreement approved by SNU and the documents heading to regents have yet to be made public, though they are expected to be included in the regent’s meeting board packet later this week.
The Board of Regents will meet July 23 to vote on the initial measure, and some individual regents have already expressed optimism about the proposal and the additions it would make to UNR.
That includes Reno-area Regent Jason Geddes, who said that — pending the release of documents detailing the acquisition to regents — the agreement presented “so many opportunities” that “we need to try and get it if we can.”
“I don't really know until we see all the documents, but I do think it is a great opportunity,” Geddes said. “You don't get campus and like Tahoe offered up very often, so if there's no roadblocks that jump in our way, I think it's a great deal.”
Still, there remain a number of open questions that must be resolved ahead of any formal conclusion to the process. Chief among them: What will happen to the students already at SNU?
Sandoval said he wouldn’t describe the issue of student and educational continuity as a “problem,” but rather an “opportunity.”
No matter the outcome, officials on both sides of the deal said that operations of SNU will remain unchanged through the 2021-22 academic year, and that all current SNU students would be offered paths to receiving a degree from either SNU or UNR.
Still, Sandoval also said “it's very premature to be able to respond to that question,” and “we're aware of the issue.”
“Our priority is going to be to take care of those students,” he said.
Amid a broader higher education landscape largely defined by the budget cuts made over the course of the pandemic and as university officials continue to pore over the specifics, both Sandoval and Geddes remained optimistic that the move would not negatively impact UNR — still just weeks after lawmakers approved tens of millions in yet more operational cuts.
Sandoval described the agreement in formal terms as a “transfer of assets” and informally as an “integration,” though Lowe ultimately characterized the deal as an acquisition in the corporate sense — one that would give UNR both SNU’s assets and its liabilities.
Though he said UNR is continuing to evaluate the financial impact of such an acquisition, Sandoval also said he was optimistic that the agreement would provide not only a self-sustaining addition, but a net-positive to the university's balance sheet.
“[It is] better than self-sustaining, we really see it as an opportunity to strengthen the portfolio of the university,” Sandoval said.
Geddes — who was still awaiting formal documents detailing agreement when he spoke to The Nevada Independent — said that the “verbal confirmations are that everything looks good, everything looks okay.”
“I think the important thing is that the vote that we take on the 23rd, the board packet we see [this] week is step one,” Geddes said. “And then we've got months — to years — to make this merger go through.”
Correction, 7/14/21 at 8:50 a.m. - In one reference, this story mistakenly referred to Sierra Nevada University as Sierra Nevada College. The reference was updated to use the institution's acronym, SNU.
For decades, Native American remains have been stored at the state’s flagship university, with only some returned to their homelands and little consultation with Indigenous leaders about the fate of the others.
But over the past few months, after a tribal member brought the issue to a Nevada Indian Commission meeting last year, the university has taken greater steps to correct the historic injustice.
Nevada tribal leaders and community members have been processing the news of human remains at UNR and working with UNR officials on the issue as outrage has spilled over across the U.S. and Canada over the way institutions and governments have treated Indigenous communities.
Last month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, announced a full review of federal boarding schools, and Native people across the country are still reacting to the news that investigators discovered hundreds of bodies at former boarding schools in Canada run by the Catholic Church.
At a two-hour meeting last week, tribal leaders and historic preservation officers joined UNR President Brian Sandoval and representatives from the anthropology department regarding various collections of Native American remains housed in the university.
“This is just long overdue,” said Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres, who attended the meeting. “Our people need to be put back in the earth in a timely manner so they can be at peace.”
Various summaries of findings obtained by The Nevada Independent through a public records request identify fragments of bones to partially or nearly complete skeletal remains from across the state housed mostly in the Research Museum of the Department of Anthropology, along with cultural artifacts such as moccasins and basket remnants.
Some human remains and cultural items were discovered by Nevadans in the 1990s and were donated to the university, while others were excavated and taken by archaeologists who taught anthropology and archaeology classes at UNR.
According to the summaries, the materials are placed on acid-free tissue paper in a metal drawer for “inventory and storage purposes.” The human remains are kept in polymer bags to prevent damage.
A couple of the collections are labeled as “mystery assemblage,” and the summaries indicate that when found during inventory protocol in 1994 and 1995, UNR professors had “no recollection of the unique artifacts or skeletal material.”
While it is unclear why the university has housed the human remains and cultural artifacts for decades, institutions have historically kept Native American remains in order to study them.
Debra Moddelmog, the dean of the UNR Liberal Arts College, told The Nevada Independent in an email on Tuesday that the university has in the past worked with tribes to repatriate human remains that belong to them, though she didn’t say when or how often that has happened in the last 20 years or how many human remains have been returned.
“Although we have repatriated a number of Ancestors and sacred items to Tribal Nations, we are committed to improving the process to make it more consistent,” Moddelmog said. “COVID slowed the current process of repatriation, but we are now re-commencing with this process.”
The meeting last week was the most recent step taken by UNR regarding the human remains. A Nevada tribal member first raised the issue to the Nevada Indian Commission in December 2020 during a meeting, asking the commission to intervene in order for the human remains to be returned to their tribes and homelands.
On April 5, Sandoval, who became UNR’s president last year, told The Nevada Independent that the university was working closely with Indigenous faculty on the issue, had hired a national expert to investigate the campus for inventory and said it was “truly a sensitive issue.”
“I want to ensure that this campus is absolutely and in complete compliance with any federal laws, and that we are very sensitive to the concerns of the Native leaders in the tribes throughout the state of Nevada,” Sandoval said.
Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth first met with Sandoval on April 6, joined also by Native UNR faculty to start conversations about how to meet their goal.
On May 14, Moddelmog confirmed that the university was working with the Nevada Indian Commission to repatriate the human remains within the anthropology department in an email to The Nevada Independent.
But last week’s meeting marked a significant point in the process, as it was the first time Sandoval met with a wide group of leaders from Nevada tribes in person to discuss repatriation.
Markie Wilder, the UNR Indigenous Student Services coordinator and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe member, who attended both meetings, said tribal leaders initially expressed shock last week when they were briefed with more details, specifically about how long the remains have been held in collections at UNR and the few efforts to notify them.
The UNR officials told tribal leaders that a letter had been sent to tribal nations throughout Nevada in the 1990s regarding the remains, Torres said. She doesn’t consider that a meaningful attempt to contact the tribes.
“The one letter was inadequate,” she said. “That was probably close to 25 years ago that they sent that letter out and they’ve had those remains ever since.”
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding are required to repatriate or transfer Native American remains and cultural items. The law also recognizes that human remains or cultural items belong to lineal descendants, tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Consultation with tribes is also required under the law, including protection of and planning for human remains or items that may be displaced from federal or tribal lands, identification and reporting of all human remains and cultural items in inventories or summaries of collections and giving notice to tribes prior to repatriating or transferring human remains or items.
NAGPRA applies to museums, universities, state agencies and local governments. Failure to comply can result in criminal prosecution, civil penalties and loss of grant funding for institutions.
According to Moddelmog, UNR will be sharing a timeline for the repatriation process with Native leaders this week. The university is also looking to hire a Director of Tribal Relations and a NAGPRA Liaison and Project Specialist to assist in its efforts to return human remains and cultural items and strengthen ties between the institution and Native communities.
“These individuals will help us not only execute our responsibilities to federal and state laws and policies related to Indigenous communities but also expand our commitment to developing meaningful, long-standing, and collaborative relationships with Great Basin Tribal Nations and Tribal Organizations so that we can truly be of service to the Indigenous communities,” Moddelmog said.
Earlier this year, UNR hired Cogstone Resource Management, a California-based consulting company, to conduct a full search of the campus for human remains and cultural items. The company specializes in paleontology, archaeology and heritage protection and emergency management services, according to its website. A Cogstone representative has yet to visit the university to conduct the investigation or report findings.
In addition to accurately identifying the human remains and linking them to their original homelands across the state, the university also must consult with the Bureau of Land Management, as some of the human remains were discovered on federal lands, according to Moddelmog.
During last week’s meeting, the question of how to repatriate the human remains was brought up, though Torres said it didn’t generate much debate among tribal leaders.
“We really don't care what that process is as long as our ancestors are given back to us so that we can put them back into the earth in a timely manner,” Torres said. “Right now, they're disturbed.”
Sandoval pledged to distribute information to tribal leaders once the search for human remains and cultural items is completed and documented. Wilder said Sandoval now has a standing item on the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s monthly agenda for the foreseeable future to provide updates on repatriation.
The issue of bringing their ancestors home from the confines of storage within the university evokes complicated emotions for Native people and leaders. Torres said she felt very angry at the beginning of the meeting because the university had previously lacked outreach efforts to consult Native leaders. She also said she felt disheartened that the university hadn’t chosen leaders from Nevada tribes to help conduct the search on campus and help identify the human remains and cultural items.
But the solution-based approach of the meeting helped her feel more hopeful toward the end.
“I felt a little bit calmer as we went on because we really set some things in stone of how the tribes were going to work together to make this happen because, ultimately, people don't understand that when you hold onto remains, or you take things that are not yours or you displace them, that bad medicine can come with that and that's what we're really trying to forewarn them about as well,” she said.
Torres also said she thinks Sandoval will make good on his promise.
“Because he was the previous governor, he knows that tribes mean business and he knows exactly how sacred our ancestors are to us and our cultures and our traditions,” she said. “So I think he will make it happen in a timely manner. I see him following through on it and holding his staff accountable.”
Last month, Sandoval and other leaders within the state’s higher education system drew praise from Indigenous leaders for legislation that waives fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students. Tribal leaders expressed hope that the legislation will expand opportunities for their community members and their ties to the university. Currently, there are 117 students at UNR who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native and 405 who identify as Native and a different race.
Administrators, officials and lobbyists in the orbit of Nevada’s higher education system shared a common refrain coming out of this year’s legislative session: It could have been worse.
“I think relative to where we started the process, we ended up in a much better place,” Nevada System of Higher Education CFO Andrew Clinger said. “Now, I wouldn't say that we're in a great place. We're better than we were.”
When the dust settled, NSHE escaped with roughly $76 million in cuts to operational budgets, after another $93 million had been restored to institutional coffers through federal COVID relief dollars. It was a surprise boon and last-minute addback aimed at lifting a hiring freeze and avoiding the looming prospect of faculty layoffs.
Even now, optimism remains high that lawmakers will use some of the roughly $2.7 billion in federal aid allocated to Nevada through the American Rescue Plan to erase some or all of the outstanding $76 million cut — though exactly how or when that could happen remains unknown.
While the budget drew much of the attention during the session, lawmakers also passed dozens of higher-education related bills, including measures that formalized land-grant university status for UNLV, created fee waivers for Native students and began the process of amending the Board of Regents out of the state Constitution.
Budget woes blunted, but not erased
When the legislative session began in early February, vaccinations had only just begun in earnest. Among the many unknowns at the time, it remained unclear when — and by how much — the state’s precarious revenue outlook would rebound after a devastating 2020.
Amid that uncertainty, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a two-year budget that skimmed 12 percent off state agency budgets. That included NSHE, where 12 percent over two years amounted to a cumulative $169 million in cuts.
At the time, the 12 percent figure, combined with several key restorations of tens of millions in capital project funding, was seen as something of a win. Budgets fell by roughly 19 percent in 2020 by the end of last year’s special legislative session, but several administrators, system officials and lobbyists expressed relief at the time that the governor and lawmakers declined to go even further in dipping into higher education coffers to fill severe budget holes elsewhere.
Through the course of the 2021 session, higher education advocates were concerned that legislators might use higher education budgets as a release valve. And at multiple junctures, lawmakers on key budget committees pressed higher education officials for more information on individual budget accounts, and asked why formula-based funding tied to student credit-hours, referred to as caseload growth, was increasing even as enrollment numbers fell.
“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during a May committee meeting. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”
Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose argued to legislators that the increase came because formula budgets lagged the current budget cycle by roughly two years, and the increase was in essence a built-in “catch-up” mechanic.
That question came in addition to claims from committee members that NSHE was better positioned to absorb cuts in large part because of federal aid dollars set aside specifically for colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF).
Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted twice by federal relief measures in December and again as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), HEERF ultimately funneled more than $369 million to NSHE institutions, with a little less than half — $160 million — set aside for student financial aid.
In documents presented to the committee in the waning days of the session, Clinger argued that the HEERF money had only offset deep revenue losses at individual institutions, essentially covering massive budget holes created by empty dorms, unfilled stadium seats and unbought parking passes. Clinger said the HEERF allocation would not cover the sum total of expected revenue losses and a 12 percent across-the-board cut.
Even now, as the widespread lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the expansion of vaccination programs are buoying state and local economies, Clinger told The Nevada Independent that revenue projections have yet to change. The latest round of HEERF money allocated through the ARP will still be set aside to cover expected losses in non-state funding.
The biggest budgetary win for NSHE came in the final days of the session, when budget committees opted to fully restore personnel budgets and added back roughly $93 million dollars in an effort to unfreeze hundreds of vacant positions across all eight institutions.
However, lawmakers left another $76 million in operational cuts in place while also instituting a handful of fee waiver bills. Most notable among the waivers was AB262, which essentially waived tuition and fees for members and descendents of any federally-recognized Indian tribe or nation in Nevada.
The fee waivers were hailed by Native leaders as critical expansions of educational access, and saw support from both UNR and UNLV. After AB262 was signed by the governor, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadened” the futures of the state’s Native Americans.
But NSHE officials and members of the Board of Regents have raised concerns that such waivers were delivered to the system as “unfunded mandates” with fiscal impacts that are difficult to quantify because of the impact on future revenues, ultimately compounding operational cuts.
“So [the Legislature] cut the budget, and then tell higher ed that they have to give certain students free or reduced tuition,” Regent Jason Geddes said in an interview. “And most of [the waivers] I'm very favorable about, and I've supported, like AB262, but it is tough to balance.”
Faculty labor priorities see mixed results
As lawmakers mulled the budget, faculty advocates sought action on a number of their own labor priorities with mixed results.
In the win column, legislators approved language that allowed regents to implement the first permanent merit-based pay raise funding pool in more than a decade.
Under a policy later approved by regents during an early June meeting, institutions will use a 1 percent pool from their budgets to fund performance-based pay increases, functionally replacing a state-funded 2 percent pool that was eliminated as part of Recession-era cuts 12 years ago.
Representatives with the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), including UNLV’s Doug Unger, called the change “a victory” and “a long time coming,” pointing to the pool as a key factor in helping address issues of salary compression and worsening faculty morale.
Even so, the NFA’s main priority, SB373, struck a logjam in the Senate Finance Committee, where it ultimately died without receiving a second hearing.
A measure that would have granted Nevada higher education faculty collective bargaining rights under state law, SB373, was pitched by NFA leaders as a necessary step toward removing control of the current bargaining process from NSHE and the Board of Regents.
“The problem with that is that our employers, who are the Board of Regents, both write and interpret the rules of engagement for collective bargaining,” Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “And we have no way of going to an outside group for mediation or arbitration for efficient resolution of any disputes.”
Under the current system, faculty can collectively bargain under NSHE code, just as CSN faculty did last year. However, such bargaining units are unable to directly negotiate with the state for pay and benefits, leaving them unable to ask for the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise offered to certain state employee unions.
“It’s rather ironic that at the same time, our collective bargaining bill, to give us the right to negotiate under the state system, was not passing through the Legislature, we were told that, ‘well, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with the state, you can't get this higher COLA, you have to have the agreement first,’” Ervin said. “And yet, we have no way in statute to have that agreement.”
And while faculty fears over impending layoffs were allayed by the restoration of personnel budgets, other compensation cuts remain in place. That includes deep cuts to the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP), including reductions in life insurance benefits and the wholesale elimination of long-term disability insurance.
The expected pain from those cuts was partially mitigated with the surprise addition of a premium holiday. But with the enrollment period for the current fiscal year already come and gone, Ervin and other faculty advocates are still “cautiously hopeful” that lawmakers could use federal relief money to plug holes for the 2023 fiscal year.
The Accountability Question
Each of the last three legislative sessions has had a similar yet distinctive throughline: a visible lack of trust between key legislators and NSHE, its chancellor and the Board of Regents.
The history of tension between the Legislature and the regents spans decades. Unlike many other states, the Board of Regents that govern higher education in Nevada are written directly into the Constitution with the power to control not only universities, but also community colleges. Critics of the board have often charged that it and NSHE at large have wielded that constitutional status as a legal shield, at times casting itself as a fourth branch of government in legal disputes with the Legislature.
The relationship deteriorated quickly and severely in the wake of a 2016 scandal that saw then-Chancellor Dan Klaich ousted over the revelation that his office had misled legislators during the high-stakes revision of the system’s funding formula in 2012.
The incident and other lingering divisions between legislators and the regents finally led to 2017's AJR5, which sought to expand legislative oversight by pulling the Board of Regents from the state Constitution entirely.
After four years of winding through the legislative process, AJR5 became Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. But after all those years, including a year of full-throated public campaigning, Question 1 was rejected by voters by a narrow margin of just 3,877 votes out of more than 1.2 million ballots cast.
Just five months after the ballot question failed, lawmakers introduced and passed SJR7, a legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, in essence mirroring Question 1 with a handful of small tweaks.
Like AJR5 before it, SJR7 would need to secure passage from both houses in another legislative session before it could head to the voters for final approval in 2024. The measure cruised easily through both the Assembly and Senate, encountering only a bit of late-session resistance from a small bloc of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans — far short of the 22 votes needed to block the measure.
Question 1’s backers have coalesced around SJR7, now armed, they say, with the knowledge of why Question 1 failed at the ballot box.
“I think there's just significant evidence that can't be ignored that the public was very, very confused about it,” said Warren Hardy, a former state senator and lobbyist with the nonprofit Council for a Better Nevada, which funded efforts supportive of Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. “And so being as close as it was, I feel like having a question clarified and very specific about the fact that it just simply looks at taking the regents out of the Constitution, but yet doesn't change any of the statutory provisions related to how they're elected or anything.”
The question of whether the regents should be enshrined in the state Constitution has also been linked to a related but separate question: Should the regents be elected at all?
Both sides of that issue have argued that the possibility of appointing, rather than electing regents — which is not a policy addressed either by Question 1 or by SJR7 — should not be part of the debate over the regents’ constitutional status.
Even so, the two issues have so-far been inextricably tied together, both in opposition rhetoric and in the Legislature.
In the midst of the second round of discussions in 2019, then-Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — a co-sponsor of AJR5 — proposed SB354. It was a sweeping measure that would have completely overhauled the makeup of the Board of Regents (if Question 1 on the 2020 ballot were to pass), dropping the number of regents from 13 to nine and splitting the board between just five elected regents and four appointed by the governor.
Even though the bill failed to pass, it has since served as proof-positive among Question 1 skeptics that Legislators will likely attempt to appoint at least some regents should the legal bar be lowered and the board is removed from the Constitution.
Vocal Question 1 critic and Regent Jason Geddes asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent, in light of moves by lawmakers to slash budgets, enforce fee waivers and audit system finances, “What is the overall intent, if not to make the board appointed, not elected?”
“I think [appointed regents] is still the through line,” Geddes said. “I don't think they should have brought [SJR7] this session. To me, it's somewhat dismissive of the electorate to say, ‘they just didn't understand it. and even though they voted it down, we're going to bring it back.’”
Proponents of SJR7 argue, just as they did with Question 1, that the entire debate is and should be about the accountability of the board to lawmakers. To that end, among the differences between last year’s failed ballot question and this year’s renewed joint-resolution is the addition of a Constitutional requirement for lawmakers to audit the higher education system every two years.
Lawmakers would have the power to initiate an audit regardless of the passage of SJR7, and indeed moved this session to begin just such a process with AB416. But, Hardy said, the enshrinement of a legislative audit in the language of SJR7 was included because “the public overwhelmingly supported that provision.”
“We started emphasizing a little bit because of the public interest that was in it,” Hardy said, citing internal polling and focus groups. “But certainly for the most part, when we were trying to figure out what people did and didn't understand about it, it was pretty clear that those who supported it understood [audits] and wanted it included.”
The broader question of accountability often dips deeper into something more foundational: Should Nevada overhaul the structures through which it governs higher education?
One potential kickstart to discussions about new governance models could come from AB450, a bill backed by the governor and creating an interim committee tasked with examining whether governance and funding structures for Nevada community colleges align with broader workforce development goals.
AB450 was the end result of a promise Sisolak made in his State of the State address in January, when he pledged to call on lawmakers to work with NSHE “to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready.”
“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during the roundtable.
What form such an increase would take is unclear. But should AB450 initiate new talks on a funding formula revision, higher education administrators said it is likely that any community college formula changes would ripple outward to the state’s four-year institutions, too.
And while the bill is in a technical sense merely a study — often the death of lawmaking endeavors — Hardy said key provisions in AB450 mean the study committee will produce an actionable report come the next regular session.
“This is the first step towards modernization,” Hardy said. “And we're very delighted that there's language included in there, this implementation language. That it is not just a study, but there's a provision that requires the group to come back with recommendations for 2023. So we think we can begin implementing these things as early as 2023.”
In the simplest terms, the measure sought to formalize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as federally designated land grant institutions alongside UNR in statute, essentially firming up several legal opinions that held that UNLV and DRI were already land grant schools, as both were already part of the “University of Nevada” as described in the state Constitution.
UNLV administrators and Southern Nevada boosters praised the measure as a necessary equalizer between north and south, a change they said could provide the state’s younger university the same opportunities afforded the venerable UNR.
But many at UNR — including university President Brian Sandoval, who vetoed a similar measure during his time as governor in 2017 — railed against the bill as potentially devastating to the university’s Cooperative Extension, which partners with county governments across the state to provide a host of popular programs.
In the end, the regional push-and-pull was for naught, as last-minute compromises gutted the original draft’s most controversial provisions. SB287’s final form left UNR’s funding for its Cooperative Extension untouched, while still allowing for formal legal recognition of UNLV and DRI as land grant institutions.
For the Council for a Better Nevada, also a major booster of the bill, Hardy said the goal for 2021 was securing formal land-grant status in Nevada law — not pursuing millions of dollars in funding made available to UNR through its operation of the Cooperative Extension, as the original draft did.
“In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would have only included section six that provision related to codifying land grants in the first place,” Hardy said. “Because that was the portion that we were interested in.”
The ultimate financial effect of SB287’s addition of grant application opportunities will likely take months or years to play out as UNLV and DRI faculty apply for the grants at issue.
SB287 was only one of many higher education-related bills that survived the session. Other major legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor includes:
SB434: Restores $25 million in state funding for the medical education building under construction for UNLV’s nascent Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Originally allocated in 2017 but cut during the 2020 special session, Hardy said the money will go toward furnishing the interior once construction is complete.
SB347: A wide-reaching bill that, among other things, directs the regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and create a system-wide campus climate survey, and also removes citizenship requirements for the Millennium Scholarship, Silver State Opportunity Grant and the Nevada Promise Scholarship. The measure was the end result of three bills — two addressing Title IX issues and a third focused on scholarship requirements — merged into one.
SB342: Allows the Board of Regents to give final approval to a 50-year partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health. Hailed as “transformative” by proponents, the deal was approved by regents in a 12-1 vote at their June meeting.
SB128: Directs the state treasurer to conduct a study on the effectiveness of publicly-funded scholarships and grant programs. The study would evaluate a range of metrics, from the administrative costs of these programs to the short and long-term viability of publicly funded scholarships.
SB327: Though not wholly related to NSHE, this bill in part expands definition of racial discrimination to include ancestry, color and certain traits like hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination based on “traits associated with race” for enrollment in Nevada schools, including institutions under NSHE’s umbrella.
Updated, 7/2/21 at 11:30 a.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the Nevada Board of Regents as among the few elected boards nationwide, and to correct a transcription error. NFA Vice President Kent Ervin said "for efficient," rather than "or efficient."
In a coda to more than 10 months of negotiations, officials from the UNR School of Medicine and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health finalized a 50-year-long affiliation agreement during a signing ceremony at Renown Regional Medical Center on Monday.
As written, the landmark deal promises to integrate UNR Med and Renown in an effort to increase teaching capacity and class sizes, expand clinical research programs and bring the school in line with other medical schools nationwide with similar agreements.
Throughout the negotiation process, proponents of the integration — including UNR Med Dean Tom Schwenk and UNR President Brian Sandoval — have characterized the agreement as “transformative” and “historic.”
“I like to say a lot of times, and I said it today, when you're in the middle of history, you don't realize that you're making it,” Sandoval said during remarks Monday. “And this is going to be a new era of health care for Northern Nevada and all of our great state.”
The agreement — the first of its kind in Nevada — places the UNR President on the Renown Board of Directors and preserves the school’s status as a public, state-funded institution.
After being approved by Renown’s board and cruising through the Legislature in the form of SB342, which formally allowed the regents to enter into the agreement, the only public snag came earlier this month by way of the Board of Regents. At the board's quarterly meeting, several regents raised concerns about the longevity of the deal coupled with the phrasing of one of the agreement’s key exit clauses.
If at any point the sum of state funding and student tuition money falls by more than 20 percent in a single year, a clause in the agreement would allow Renown to terminate the deal and grant the group the right to make the first offer to buy the school’s basic science and clinical research departments.
Outgoing Board Chair Mark Doubrava, an ophthalmologist with a medical degree from UNR, said during the meeting that while he approved of the agreement “from a medical education standpoint,” he was concerned the clause could trigger unintended consequences years or decades down the road.
UNR President Brian Sandoval described the inclusion at the time as a “safety net,” to be used only in the case of a dramatic funding reduction that would require such a sale “to try to keep the doors open.”
Doubrava was ultimately the only vote against the agreement’s approval, which passed through the board 12-1 in its final hurdle before Monday’s signing ceremony.