The Indy Explains: What's happening to categorical funding under the new K-12 financing plan?

Long before the pandemic thrust online video platform Zoom into the national vernacular, the term held a very different meaning in Nevada.

In 2013, former Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bipartisan bill that ushered $50 million toward students learning English as a second language. The schools that received money, all of which have large numbers of non-English-speaking students, came to be known as “Zoom schools.”

Two years later, so-called “Victory schools” debuted and money began flowing to schools serving a large population of students from low-income households.

These two programs are perhaps the most well-known examples of state categorical funding, which lived outside of Nevada’s old K-12 funding formula. Some operated as competitive grants, meaning school districts needed to apply and be selected to receive the money. Others were distributed via formulas. The arrangement provided school districts little flexibility, given the prescriptive nature of the grants. 

But a new funding formula has changed the money game. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — which was created during the 2019 Legislature and is being implemented for the upcoming biennium — essentially does away with categorical grants by consolidating them and sending the money to school districts through different methods.

Heidi Haartz, deputy superintendent for business and support services within the Nevada Department of Education, explained it this way: 

“If a school district received the categorical grant … they got to hire a specific number of lead literacy specialists. They got to hire a specific number of social workers, this specific number of school resource officers. There were limits on what they could do based on the categorical grant,” she said. “Now, school districts and charter schools receive those funds and they can decide — do I need more literacy specialists than one per elementary school? Do I need more social workers and maybe fewer school resource officers? Or is that different this year than it might be next year? It gives them incredible flexibility to meet the needs of their students, and in real time.”

So what exactly is happening to all the categorical grants? Here’s a breakdown:

A large chunk of categorical funds are being consolidated in the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan and re-allocated through the statewide base and adjusted base per-pupil funding amounts. 

Twenty-six state categorical grants are being “melted” into the State Education Fund, so they will no longer be standalone initiatives. Class Size Reduction, New Teacher Incentives, Nevada Ready 21 Technology, College and Career Ready Diploma Incentives, Read by Grade 3, School Social Workers and School Resource Officers are among the grant programs being consolidated.

Some of those programs weathered pandemic-related budget cuts, although, in the final days of the legislative session, state lawmakers added roughly $500 million to the education budget to restore some of the funding. 

The statewide base per-pupil funding for the 2021-2022 fiscal year is $6,980. The adjusted per-pupil funding amounts — which take into account variation in local costs — range from $7,222 in Washoe County to $33,746 in Eureka County for that same fiscal year.

Three types of categorical state grants will be consolidated in the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan and redistributed as weights.

Those include the Zoom, Victory and New Nevada Funding Plan (SB178) programs. All three will go toward providing extra money — or “weights” — for students learning English as a second language and those who come from low-income households. The weight for at-risk students will go to children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The SB178 funding, which previously served students performing in the lowest quartile academically, will be split between the two weights.

The weights, which are a multiplier of the statewide base per-pupil funding, have been set at 0.24 for English language learners and 0.03 for at-risk students. Given the statewide base per-pupil amount, that works out to roughly an extra $1,648 for English language learners and $209 for at-risk students.

Some have criticized the transition, saying the weights are too low and, thus, is watering down the successful Zoom and Victory programs, which provided support to students through tutoring, extended school periods, reading centers and more. But education officials say the long-awaited transition to weights ultimately will lead to more students receiving services — not just those who happen to attend a school that received Zoom or Victory funding.

The goal is to add to the weights over time, gradually increasing the amount of money sent to students. The Legislature recently passed a new mining tax bill that sends an additional $500 million toward education; meanwhile, the Commission on School Funding, which is the advisory body shepherding the new funding formula into existence, has recommended the state consider changes to property or sales taxes to further expand K-12 funding.

For now, the amount being sent to support English language learners and at-risk students is on par with the existing allotment.

In fiscal year 2020, the state allocated $144 million combined for Zoom, Victory and SB178 categorical funding programs. For the upcoming fiscal year, under the new funding plan, the state plans to allocate $145.3 million toward the English language learner and at-risk weights. About $85 million would go toward students learning English as a second language, while $60.3 million would be sent to at-risk students. 

While most of the categorical grants are moving to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, some will remain outside of it.

Those include federal grants requiring a maintenance of efforts, such as special education, as well as funding for pre-kindergarten, career and technical education, adult education and Teach Nevada Scholarships.

Operational funding for the Nevada Department of Education also lies outside the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. For instance, the department receives funding for the Office of the Superintendent, educator licensure, professional development programs and assessments, among other agency needs.

Regents approve UNR-Renown deal, faculty merit pay policy in marathon two-day meeting

The Board of Regents met for two days this week to hash out a host of higher education issues in the wake of a busy legislative session that saw operational budgets slashed even as personnel budgets were spared. 

The result was a whirlwind of new approved policies, including finalizing a major partnership deal for the UNR School of Medicine, the first dedicated merit-pay funding source for faculty since the Great Recession and the ushering in of new board leadership for the new fiscal year. 

Below are some of the major moves regents made this week. 

UNR Med-Renown Health partnership gets green light after hitting temporary snag on sale-clause

Roughly 10 months after initial negotiations began on a partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health, regents voted 12-1 to approve a landmark agreement that will tie the two parties together for the next 50 years. 

The final vote Friday came after a months-long process of votes across different bodies, with the deal clearing both Renown’s corporate board and the Legislature. 

Regents, administrators and Renown executives have hailed the agreement as “transformative,” and a major step in expanding the scope of UNR’s medical programs, teaching programs and clinical research. 

“We are one of the last medical schools to be community-based, as we are now,” UNR Med Dean Tom Schwenk said.

Schwenk said the lack of any public-private agreement limited the school’s ability to expand clinical research, expand class sizes and build new residency programs, all reasons why “every medical school in the country has pursued this type of health system partnership.” 

Still, some regents raised concerns over the half-century length of the deal — the first of its kind in Nevada — as well as over provisions that could trigger the sale of the medical school’s clinical research department under certain conditions. 

As written, the deal would allow Renown to terminate the agreement if the sum of state funding and student tuition money dropped by 20 percent or more in a single year. Under those conditions, the clause would give Renown a right of first offer to purchase UNR Medical School’s basic science and clinical research departments. 

Coupled with the lengthy timeline, Board Chair Mark Doubrava said that while he supported the effort from a “medical education standpoint,” the sale clause could prove to be an unintended landmine should economic downturns or unexpected inflation shifts trigger the fine print of the agreement. 

“This could potentially serve as a template for UNLV when they do their associations, so that means we have to get this one right,” Doubrava said. 

Doubrava — an ophthalmologist who earned his medical degree from UNR in 1989 — was ultimately the sole vote against approval, saying afterward that his objection was “just an issue of contracts.”

Still, all other board members expressed approval of the language as written, deferring in part to UNR President Brian Sandoval’s description of the clause as a “safety net” that would protect the school in a worst-case scenario, rather than a mechanism by which Renown would privatize the school. 

“The intent of it was that, in the very unlikely event there was a dramatic reduction in funding which would lend itself to a closure of the clinic facilities — this was an effort on behalf of Renown to try and keep the doors open,” Sandoval told regents. “And it would be subject to the review and approval of the regents, and so I think that was just a safety clause.” 

Regents OK faculty merit pay policy amid concerns over timing 

After four years of deliberations, studies and lobbying between faculty, regents and the state government, regents voted unanimously Friday to set aside a 1 percent pool of institutional funding for performance pay raises. 

It is the first such permanent funding pool since state-funded merit raises were defunded during the Great Recession. 

Faculty advocates — who have long raised concerns that the absence of merit raises was compressing salaries, worsening diversity issues and harming morale — hailed the vote as a success.

“It’s a great victory,” Doug Unger, president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “It’s been four years of work, faculty really want it … it’s been a long time coming.”  

In approving the measure, regents also bumped up the timing for the implementation of such raises to 2023. Amid a bevy of budgetary unknowns and in the wake of steep cuts to operational budgets after the legislative session, the original measure called for implementation no later than 2024. 

Chancellor Melody Rose characterized the timeline not as a “delay tactic,” but as a due-diligence measure that would allow the system and institutions to better grasp budget limits before committing millions to institutional pay-raise pools. 

But that timeline was criticized by faculty, including Unger, who said they “just couldn’t wait any longer” after just one performance pay increase in the last 12 years. 

Friday’s vote also comes in the wake of a controversial move by legislators to approve different cost-of-living raises for unionized and non-unionized public employees. Under the pay bill passed this year, employees without a collective bargaining agreement will receive a 1 percent raise, and those with a CBA in place will see a 3 percent increase. 

Many Nevada faculty — who are not allowed to collectively bargain under Nevada law and saw a bill meant to secure such rights, SB373, die in committee this legislative session — have decried the disparity. 

“I think, as we are looking at these as campuses are distributing merit, that the issue is that we need to maintain that merit is different than cost of living increases or other forms of in-rank salary advancement that we can have,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason told the board. “Because compression is not going to be fixed just by performance pay alone.”

Board votes in Regents Cathy McAdoo, Patrick Carter as new chair, vice chair

Regent Cathy McAdoo will take the reins as board chair for the 2022 fiscal year, taking over for previous chair Mark Doubrava. McAdoo was the only regent nominated for the chair position, and the board elected her unanimously. 

Representing a district that includes most of rural eastern Nevada, including Elko, Nye and parts of Clark counties, McAdoo — who was elected in 2016 — is among the longest-serving regents remaining on the board.

Regent Patrick Carter, also elected in 2016, was narrowly elected to the vice chair position, beating Regent Amy Carvalho in a 7-5 vote. 

The two will take over board leadership after the fiscal year ends at the end of this month. 

Interim president for Nevada State College named for six-week summer gap

Regents appointed Nevada State College Provost Executive Vice President Vickie Shields as interim president Thursday, filling the roughly six-week gap between the retirement of outgoing President Bart Patterson at the end of June and the start-date for incoming permanent President DeRionne Pollard in mid-August. 

The appointment will pay Shields $10,426 in a prorated monthly stipend and mandate that she maintain an “in-person presence” on the NSC campus during the six-week period. The agreement also stipulates that Shields will return to her role as provost and executive vice president once Pollard takes the reins. 

Sisolak signs bill making Nevada the second state to adopt a public health insurance option

Nevada became the second state in the nation to enact a state-managed public health insurance option on Wednesday, with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature transforming a bill that hadn’t even been made public until six weeks ago into law.

Though Sisolak voiced his intent to sign the bill last week, his signature formally ends a more than four-year-long quest to establish a public option in Nevada, though, in many ways, work on the public option is just beginning. Under the new law, Nevada’s public option plan won’t be available for purchase until 2026, giving state officials time to conduct an actuarial study of the proposal to determine whether it will accomplish proponents’ goals of increasing health care access and affordability and at what cost. It also provides time for state officials to transform the still relatively broad-strokes concept into a workable policy and return to the Legislature in 2023 with any changes that may need to be made to the law.

“I'm always looking for ways to expand health care opportunities in Nevada for Nevadans, and that's what this legislation does,” Sisolak said during a bill-signing ceremony in Las Vegas. “By leveraging the state's existing health care infrastructure and reducing costs, it is my hope that Nevadans will have improved access to comprehensive insurance.”

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, who’s expecting her first child this summer and sponsored SB420, nodded to the effect it could have on the state’s youngest residents.

"This bill will help to open up some more doors in critical investments in prenatal and maternal care and Medicaid for Nevada moms and babies right here in our Silver State,” she said Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) smiles after Gov. Steve Sisolak signed SB420 in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Heather Korbulic, who as head of the state’s health insurance exchange will have a key role in the development of the public option, said in a statement that she plans to “bring all stakeholders together to outline the actuarial study and conduct a meaningful analysis of the public option as it relates to every aspect of health care throughout the state.”

“In the meantime I'm going to continue to focus on getting Nevadans connected to Nevada Health Link where we have an open enrollment period that runs through August 15th and — thanks to the Biden administration — almost everyone eligible is getting financial assistance,” she said, in a nod to the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of exchange subsidies.

Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview last week said the public option isn’t “a single solution” but “does definitely enhance the opportunity for individuals to gain access to health care.”

“I think that as an option for coverage, it definitely enhances that overall framework,” Whitley said. 

Under the new law, insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population will also be required to bid to offer a public option plan, with ultimate decision-making authority left to the state to decide how many plans to approve. The plans would resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the legislation would require the public option plan or plans to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs of the plans by 15 percent over four years.

The public option concept first surfaced during the 2017 legislative session, when former Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle (D-Sparks), introduced a bill to allow Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program, nicknamed Medicaid-for-all. While an amended version of that proposal, instead establishing a Medicaid-like plan, cleared the Legislature, former Gov. Brian Sandoval ultimately vetoed it. 

Sandoval, a health care advocate who earned plaudits from Democrats for being the first Republican governor in the nation to opt into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and fought to protect the federal health care law in 2017, said at the time of his veto that the public option proposal was “moving too soon, without factual foundation or adequate understanding of the possible consequences.”

Sprinkle proposed a narrower version of his vetoed bill during the 2019 legislative session, nicknamed Medicaid-for-some, that failed to advance after he resigned from the Legislature facing allegations of sexual harassment. Cannizzaro revived the proposal in the waning days of that session in the form of an interim study of yet another public option proposal — this time to allow Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program rather than Medicaid.

That study, which was carried out by the health policy firm Manatt Health, was released with little fanfare in January as lawmakers geared up for the legislative session during some of the pandemic’s darkest days. 

The study — which looked at both a PEBP buy-in proposal and a state-sponsored qualified health plan proposal — found that a 10 percent reduction in insurance plan premiums would translate to between zero and 1,500 uninsured individuals gaining coverage in the first year of the plan’s existence, while a 20 percent reduction would reduce the state’s uninsured population between 300 and 4,800 people. There are about 350,000 uninsured Nevadans.

“These enrollment figures highlight that a 10 percent or 20 percent reduction in premiums may not be enough to substantially encourage the currently uninsured to enroll in coverage for the first time,” the study concluded.

For the next couple of months, the public option remained in the background as lawmakers tackled other health care policies. But the public option resurfaced in mid-April when Cannizzaro confirmed she was working on legislation behind the scenes and started meeting with health care industry representatives to present the concept.

In late April, the proposal was introduced as SB420, this time with the goal of leveraging the state’s purchasing power with Medicaid managed care contracts with insurers to compel insurance companies to provide affordable public option plans, too. Unlike some previous iterations of the proposal, the plan would not be offered by a public insurer — such as Medicaid or PEBP — but by private insurers.

Proponents, including progressive groups like Battle Born Progress, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, threw their weight behind the bill, arguing that the proposal would make health care more affordable and accessible. Opponents, including the Nevada Hospital Association, the Nevada State Medical Association and the Nevada Association of Health Plans, countered that it would do just the opposite, going so far as to destabilize Nevada’s already-fragile health care system.

Specifically, health care providers argued that a provision in the bill setting the floor for rates for the public option plans at Medicare rates — which providers say are better than Medicaid rates but not as good as those paid by private insurance plans — would act as an effective cap. They also pushed back on a section of the bill requiring doctors who contract with Medicaid, the Public Employees Benefits Program and workers’ compensation to participate in at least one public option plan.

Instead, opponents of the bill argued that the state should focus on targeting people who are uninsured but either eligible for Medicaid or for subsidies through the state’s health insurance exchange. Together, those two groups represent more than half of uninsured Nevadans. To that end, they proposed an amendment in the final days of the session to scale back the bill to just an actuarial study of the public concept proposal and to look further into how to get Nevadans already eligible for Medicaid or exchange plans insured. But that amendment that was never seriously entertained by Cannizzaro.

While many of the groups that testified in support of and against SB420 were Nevada-based organizations, the bill also attracted significant national attention, including support from the Committee to Protect Health Care, the Center for Health & Democracy and United States of Care and opposition from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of some of the health care industry’s biggest names — including the American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — as well as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and LIBRE Initiative. Many of those organizations devoted dollars toward their efforts, sending mailers and running ads in support of or against the proposal. 

Sisolak’s signature on the public option bill comes as interest in establishing a national public option, as President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail, appears to be dwindling. Individual states, however, have continued to pursue their own public option proposals. Washington, the first state in the nation to enact public option legislation, has started to offer plans for sale this year and a bill creating the “Colorado Option” passed out of the Colorado legislature on Monday.

Public option likely all but a done deal after Assembly approves bill on party lines

Nevada’s bid to establish a state-managed public health insurance option appeared all but certain to become a reality late Sunday evening after the Assembly voted on party lines to approve legislation setting the process for establishing such a plan in motion.

The bill, SB420, cleared the Senate on party lines last week and now will return to that body on Monday to concur on an amendment that makes several minor, mostly technical changes to the bill and adds an additional appropriation to cover the costs of implementing the public option. Because the amendment was made with the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor, it is likely to clear the Senate without issue.

Once the Senate approves the amendment, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Steve Sisolak for his signature. If he signs it quickly, Nevada will become the second state in the nation, after Washington, to approve a public option. (Colorado is also in the final stages of approving a public option bill.)

Sisolak has not taken a public position on the legislation, though it would be unlikely for the Democratic governor to veto the bill. Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, vetoed a different public option proposal in 2017 that would have allowed anyone in the state to buy into a Medicaid-like system of health insurance. At the time, Sandoval said the proposal was “moving too soon, without factual foundation or adequate understanding of the possible consequences.”

Since then, the Legislature has continued to consider establishing a public option, including approving an interim study in the waning days of the 2019 legislative session to look into the possibility of allowing Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program.

SB420, now the third iteration of the public option proposal in Nevada, will require insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan. The plans will resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the legislation requires them to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs in the state by 15 percent over four years. The public option will be available for purchase starting in plan year 2026.

Because the concept differs from the prior two public option proposals lawmakers have considered, no one yet knows for certain what kind of an impact the bill might have on reducing costs and expanding accessibility to health care, two goals that proponents have honed in on in advocating for the legislation. To that end, the bill requires an actuarial study to be conducted as part of the four-and-a-half year ramp up before the bill takes effect.

The bill also expands coverage for certain Medicaid services to the extent money is available, including community health workers and doulas.

The Assembly’s swift approval of the bill on Sunday came as no surprise after Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) threw their support behind the bill on Saturday after previously remaining mum on the topic. While health care industry representatives had angled to turn the bill into an actuarial study only — removing the portions of the bill actually setting the public option in motion — both Frierson and Carlton voiced comfort in the fact that the bill offers significant time before the public option is actually offered for purchase.

“This is a good first step. We're trying to get someplace. We know there's an issue. We're trying to address it. This is a long term process to get there,” Carlton said on the Assembly floor. “The part of the bill that I support the most is being able to get that actuarial study done, know where the state stands and for future legislators sitting in these seats to be able to make a decision. I'm not sure if this is the right way to go, but we're not going to know until we get the data, and that's the part of the bill that I truly support.”

Republican lawmakers have staunchly and uniformly opposed the bill, siding with industry concerns that the legislation will not only not achieve its goal of increasing health care access and affordability but that it will destabilize Nevada’s already fragile health care system. 

“If passed, the bill would mandate insurers to offer a public option and mandate physicians and hospitals to accept rates below cost,” Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington), a family practice doctor by trade, said on the floor. “Doctors will leave the state and hospitals will raise rates or cut critical elective services that are widely used by all. The net effect is less access to care and higher costs for the remaining Nevadans, just the opposite of what we should want.”

Mixed signals from governor, election considerations blamed for failure of death penalty repeal effort

After more than 20 years of trying to ban the state’s death penalty, and following former death penalty stronghold Virginia's repeal of capital punishment in mid-March, activists hoped that the 2021 legislative session would finally be the time for Nevada to end capital punishment. 

But in spite of the state's Democratic trifecta, those efforts culminated in one of the biggest heartbreaks of the session for criminal justice reform advocates when the bill was spiked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democratic leaders earlier this month. 

Though no one has been executed in the state since 2006, the Clark County district attorney's office is now pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Advocates said the move made passing a repeal even more urgent this session.

So why did repeal fail?

No single cause of death is named on the legislative coroner's report, but interviews with involved parties suggest a combination of factors — ranging from personal belief, mixed gubernatorial signals, potential election-related considerations and the fact that the two senators responsible for hearing the bill work for the Clark County district attorney — helped kill the measure and keep Nevada as one of 24 states with the death penalty.

The entire debate takes place against the backdrop of a state still closely divided in party registration, with some top senators — including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — winning election by a single percentage point. Republicans flipped several legislative seats in the 2020 election, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s expected re-election challenger in 2022 is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — a candidate likely to highlight a message of law and order. 

Those political dynamics make public opinion a key consideration, but the data has been somewhat inconclusive. A 2017 poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent indicated that most Nevadans support the death penalty, but advocates have long questioned whether the solid tilt toward capital punishment had to do with the way the poll question was phrased.

Anti-death penalty activists commissioned a new survey released earlier this year that showed much closer results — and even a slight lean toward abolition — when questions were phrased differently.

Past legislative sessions have often seen a small group of progressive Democrats introduce capital punishment repeal bills, but the measures never advanced far, with leadership hesitant to push a politically dicey issue through the process in the face of a likely veto. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled opposition to a repeal bill, and after getting one committee hearing it was never brought up for a vote.

So, when Assembly members this session voted on party lines to abolish the death penalty, with Republicans opposed, activists celebrated the measure’s move out of committee to a floor vote, the furthest the concept had ever traveled in the Legislative Building. They said the bill was essential to doing away with an "eye for an eye" mentality and a practice they say does not help hurting families move on from violence, disproportionately affects people of color and is an expensive endeavor that could lead to killing innocent people.

Opponents, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and individuals who have lost loved ones to violence, however, pushed back against the repeal, saying the death penalty is necessary as a prosecutorial tool and should be an option for individuals who committed atrocities such as the October 1 shooting. 

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

During a hearing on the measure in late March, lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, received a death sentence in 2017.

"He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?,” Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that."

The measure had faced an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate — which is helmed by Cannizzaro, a prosecuting attorney for the Clark County district attorney. Cannizzaro was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether she would allow the bill to get a hearing if it passed the Assembly, including in a Nevada Independent forum ahead of the session in January, and maintained that noncommittal stance for months.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), a fellow prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and the key gatekeeper on the decision to give the bill a hearing, had appeared willing to give the bill a chance. Prior to the session, she had indicated her support for efforts to abolish the death penalty, and said just two weeks before the bill died that she would be willing to hear it if an amendment was brought forward addressing the concerns expressed by Sisolak.

During a brief interview with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Scheible said she would have considered an amendment with a broad base of support, but that nothing came to fruition. 

Schedules are constantly moving, she said, adding that she tries to make sure there is always time to hear a bill, but "it takes a lot of people in this government to make such a sweeping change and so without full consensus, we weren't able to."

Scott Coffee, a public defender, said a proposed amendment that had been drafted but never released publicly tracked closely with what the governor said was palatable — making exceptions for mass shootings and terrorism. The organization Gun Violence Archive has set a definition of mass shooting as four people shot but not necessarily killed in a single event.

That’s partly why an abrupt announcement — memorialized in a series of synchronized press releases from the governor and legislative leaders — that Nevada leaders were scrapping the bill came as a shock to those working on the cause. 

Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU speaks during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in front of the Legislative Building on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Branden Cunningham and Mark Bettencourt, leaders of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that there were ongoing conversations surrounding an amendment to the bill prior to its demise. 

"From everything we heard, [Scheible] was willing to work and hear the bill," Cunningham said. "We had heard that she had set time aside to hear the bill … the calendar was open … and instead of a hearing we got the three statements that came out."

Coffee said the press releases announcing that the bill would not advance were a surprise to him. Up to that point, advocates were actively working on the issue, hoping to connect lawmakers with the pollster commissioned by the coalition to assuage concerns.

"I have to believe the concern was over losing Senate seats," Coffee said. "There's always another election. There's always another excuse."

He said he wishes the governor would have shown more initiative on the matter but ultimately blamed senators for not hearing the bill.

“The Senate got accommodated on everything they asked for,” Coffee said. “It's laughable to talk about how good we did on criminal justice reform when we can't get a vote on a platform issue.”

Shortly after the announcement that the bill was dead, Cannizzaro defended the progress the Legislature had made on bail reform and police use of force, challenging people who say the Legislature was not doing enough. Asked whether she was personally in favor of a bill with a carveout for crimes such as mass shootings, Cannizzaro demurred.

“I don't think that I am opposed to having conversations on this topic. That has been happening,” Cannizzaro said. “Obviously Chair Yeager worked to try to come up with some compromise, and we're just not going to be able to get there.”

Though she supports the abolition of the death penalty, Scheible said the decision to not hear the bill was part of a broader discussion.

"I do work in a team and part of my job as the chair of a committee is to ensure that I am making good policy decisions, not pushing my own personal agenda," she said. "Sometimes I get to do the things that I personally want, sometimes I do the things that we need as a state, the things that my body supports, that our coalition supports, and so it's a group effort."

That group effort started and ended with Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades after his election in 2018, but who also was chair of the Clark County Commission when the worst mass shooting in American history took place in his jurisdiction. Sisolak was at the forefront of the response to the 1 October massacre and has talked about the effect the incident had on him personally and on his views of capital punishment during his 2018 campaign and beyond.

Sisolak had previously affirmed without qualification that he opposed the death penalty, but he never formally endorsed the legislation. Asked about the bill as the session progressed, Sisolak stuck tightly to talking points — even reading from a prepared statement when asked an impromptu question about the Assembly passing the bill — to emphasize that he opposed capital punishment but believed the measure is necessary for specific situations, such as mass shootings.

Sisolak’s hesitation over the legislation was likely heightened by the coming entrance of Lombardo into the 2022 governor’s race, where Democrats — with Joe Biden in the White House — are generally expected to suffer some midterm losses. Republicans in state and nationwide have used a pro-police campaign message in recent election cycles, so a death penalty repeal may have added more fuel to that campaign fire.

Past governors — such as Brian Sandoval in 2015 and Kenny Guinn in 2003 — opted to wait until their second term in office, post-midterms, to tackle high-profile policy goals.

A protester holds a candle in front of the Legislative Building during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Activists and advocates criticized lawmakers for not giving the bill a public hearing, though, calling the decision "undemocratic" during a protest and vigil last Monday.

"You have to answer to the people," Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project said during the protest. "It doesn't make sense that the death penalty bill is dead now, with no explanation, no checking in with the community."

Cunningham said those pushing for the abolition of the death penalty spoke with various senators and that it seemed as though most of them were open to considering the legislation.

At least one Republican lawmaker was a likely supporter of the bill — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).

"Generally I'm in favor of repealing it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think it makes a lot of fiscal sense, I think it makes a lot of moral sense."

Though she was disappointed and frustrated by the death of the bill, Monique Normand, an anti-death penalty activist whose uncle was murdered in 2017, told reporters after the vigil and protest that the death penalty would not have brought her uncle back and the fight is far from over.

“People's lives are on the line,” she said. “We do have to hold [lawmakers] accountable and we can't just let them get away with, ‘you're gonna vote for us.’ No, we don't have to vote for anyone, we can withhold our votes, our votes matter. Our lives matter.”

Following new CDC guidance, NSHE drops mask-mandate for fully vaccinated individuals on college campuses

The Nevada System of Higher Education announced Thursday that it was adopting new CDC rules on masks that would allow those who are fully vaccinated to stop wearing masks in most circumstances on the state’s college and university campuses. 

Those who are unvaccinated are still required to wear masks, though it remained unclear how or if campus officials would check any individual’s vaccination status. 

Details on precisely how the guidance will be enforced were scarce Thursday. The news was first made available through announcements from individual institutions, not the system, and it was not immediately clear how much guidance NSHE had given those institutions. 

In announcements of their own, university administrators stressed that unvaccinated individuals must — rather than should — continue to wear a mask indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. But in a letter released to the UNR community Thursday, UNR President Brian Sandoval also suggested that the requirement would be left to an honor system and personal judgment. 

“Personal integrity and honesty should guide one’s judgment about the wearing of a mask based on one’s status of being vaccinated or being unvaccinated,” Sandoval wrote. “We also recognize there may be reasons an individual chooses to continue using a face covering even if fully vaccinated, and we encourage people to continue to wear a mask based on their comfort level and risk assessment.”

In a separate statement late Thursday afternoon, NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose also reiterated that the requirement was still in place for the unvaccinated and urged “compassion and patience toward all students and colleagues.” 

Rose said that all additional COVID-19 mitigation measures, including signage, office cleanings and hygiene guidance, will remain in place. 

The move comes at a crucial junction for the state’s higher education system as it looks to seize on improving pandemic conditions and prepare for a return to in-person instruction and events in the summer and into the fall. 

The change also coincides with the upcoming suspension of county-level capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements, which are set to lift in full on June 1. NSHE has announced system-wide plans to return to full in-person operations on July 1.

More broadly, the system has signaled an intent to grapple with the question of vaccination requirements, announcing earlier this month that it would pursue a COVID-vaccine mandate for students returning in-person should the Food and Drug Administration lift the emergency use authorizations in place on those vaccines. 

However, with the FDA authorization still in place, there is no formal timeline yet for the implementation of such a mandate.  

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

Updated, 5/20/21 at 4:38 p.m. -- This story was updated to include details from UNR President Brian Sandoval's announcement of the masking guidance change.

Updated, 5/20/21 at 5:08 p.m. -- This story was updated to include details from a statement on the guidance change provided by NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose.

Sources: Lombardo set to announce for governor

Undaunted by newly minted Republican Mayor John Lee’s announcement, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has made the decision to run for governor, sources confirmed Thursday.

Lombardo will formally announce next month and has hired a trio of high-profile GOP operatives, including a former political director for Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.

The campaign team will be led by Ryan Erwin, a well-respected consultant who oversaw Cresent Hardy’s shocking upset of Rep. Steven Horsford in 2014 and helped Joe Heck win a seat in Congress (and almost secure a U.S. Senate seat). Erwin was involved in efforts to pass Marsy’s Law here and elsewhere and recently was retained by Caitlyn Jenner’s campaign to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom. I don’t know of a more even-keeled, thoughtful and straight-shooting consultant who has been involved in Nevada politics.

Erwin will be joined by his former partner, Mike Slanker, who has been a consultant to the likes of Brian Sandoval and Dean Heller and is a media expert whose ads have been known to cut (and cut deeply), and Chris Carr, an ex-Trump and RNC operative who will oversee the grassroots/ground game and is as well-regarded as anyone I know across partisan and geographic lines.

It’s a formidable team enhanced by ex-Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who was interested in running for governor but has agreed to chair Lombardo’s campaign. Hutchison is a formidable fundraiser; his PAC helped the GOP pick up legislative seats last year.

I am reliably told that some gaming companies have informed Lombardo they will give him substantial support, although some will have to play both sides because Gov. Steve Sisolak has such power over their enterprises. It will be interesting to see, especially after a legislative session controlled by Democrats and one that has intermittently infuriated the Strip, whether any companies give only to Lombardo. (This would surprise me.)

The industry’s campaign contributions could well hinge on how the session ends and the resolution of a so-called right to return bill that is the Culinary union’s main objective and has caused a serious rift with and within the industry. 

Lombardo would have to be seen as a favorite in the primary with this kind of firepower and Lee's recent entry into the Republican party. The North Las Vegas mayor also has baggage, including a raft of votes as a Democratic legislator. But Lombardo’s two terms as sheriff notwithstanding, the sheriff’s ability to perform statewide and handle non-law enforcement issues remain uncertain. And he will have to deal with his own record as sheriff, too.

Filing does not open until next March, and I am still not persuaded that candidates who announce this early will actually file. And I am not convinced that Lee, who has floated more trial balloons than anyone in Nevada history before they lost ballast, will sign on the dotted line next year. At least, that is, for governor.

Sisolak is seen as vulnerable by the GOP here and nationally because of criticism he absorbed during the pandemic for health care protocols that were deleterious for the economy. But Democrats are banking on a rebounding economy to put some wind at Sisolak’s back, and a potential GOP primary is not optimal for Republicans. And who knows whether a Trumpian contender (who has not recently switched parties) might get in, making it even more interesting.

Lombardo’s decision, though, ensures this is going to be a very interesting year in Nevada politics, which, as one who has followed it for three and a half decades, almost goes without saying.

Money protections for UNR’s Extension may clear the way in land-grant debate

With the last-minute addition of an amendment gutting several provisions that could have affected funding to UNR’s Cooperative Extension, the Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to approve SB287, a measure that would formally recognize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) as land-grant institutions alongside UNR.

In adding a provision that would limit the law from affecting the Extension’s appropriations or expenditures, the amendment removed a fiscal note totaling nearly $3.8 million, including $1.7 million in lost federal funding and more than $2 million more in lost personnel and operating money. 

Those potential lost dollars had been a major sticking point for UNR, whose administrators have complained for months that the legislation would decimate funding for popular programs run through the Extension without providing the means to replace those programs elsewhere. 

“We've said that all along,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said in an interview with The Indy last week. “To dilute any of that federal funding, to interrupt any of the programming that's going on, could be very harmful.” 

This week’s movement on SB287 comes after years of debate on the issue of land grant status. Most recently, UNLV and DRI were nearly cemented in state law as land-grant institutions in 2017, though then-Gov. Sandoval vetoed the measure on the grounds that it would do more harm than good — again — by gutting Extension funding. 

UNLV and its backers have argued that the issue is one of funding equity, saying in part that the lack of federal recognition of land grant status — despite legal opinions in their favor — have prevented efforts to pursue some lucrative research grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And while Extension funding may have proved a key sticking point for UNLV in past debates on the issue, proponents of the bill — namely the business-backed non-profit Council for a Better Nevada (CBN) — signaled Tuesday that that position has softened. Speaking before the committee, CBN lobbyist Warren Hardy said the primary policy goal now remains a preservation of section 6 of the bill, the core provision that formally recognizes UNLV’s land grant status. 

“I will tell you, Mr. Chairman, it has not always been the case that Southern Nevada and UNLV have felt good about the direction of the Cooperative Extension in Nevada,” Warren Hardy, a lobbyist for CBN, told the committee. “That is not the case today. We think they've done an amazing job.” 

With the fiscal note resolved, the bill will next head to a vote on the Senate floor. 

The committee vote on SB287 was just one part of a slew of activity this week on a handful of higher education issues still kicking around Carson City. Among the others: 

  • In a major boost to the currently-in-construction Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, a 19-1 vote in the Senate will send SB434 — a $25 million appropriation to help fund that school’s construction that was cut during last year’s special session — to the Assembly. 
  • After cruising through the Senate 20-0, SJR7 — a measure that would mimic the failed 2020 Ballot Question 1 by removing the Board of Regents from the state Constitution — hit its first opposition in the Assembly on Tuesday when 11 Republicans voted against it, leaving the final tally at 30-11. With passage secured in both Houses, however, the resolution will move on to the next legislative session, where it must be approved again before heading to the ballot.
  • SB347 — a bill that would create a sexual misconduct task force for NSHE and authorize a system-wide climate survey — received a major amendment Tuesday in Senate Finance as its language was merged with a similar measure from the Assembly, AB384
  • After passing through the Assembly on a near party-line 28-14 vote last week, AB450, a bill from the governor’s office that would create a study committee tasked with re-examining community college funding and governance structures, received its first hearing in the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections committee. 
  • One higher education bill that still lives — but has not moved — is SB373, a measure that would grant collective bargaining rights to NSHE faculty. The measure was re-referred to Senate Finance with fiscal notes attached in April, but as of Wednesday, it remained unclear if the bill will receive a hearing to resolve those notes before the session ends.

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

Commissioner's resignation gives Sisolak chance to appoint nearly all of state's gaming regulators

Nevada Gaming Commission member Deborah Fuetsch resigned Tuesday, giving Gov. Steve Sisolak the opportunity to name seven of the eight regulators who oversee the state’s largest industry during his first term.

Sisolak has appointed three members of the Gaming Commission, Steven Cohen, Ogonna Brown, and Rosa Solis-Rainey – all attorneys from Las Vegas. He has also appointed all three members of the Nevada Gaming Control Board - Chairman Brin Gibson and members Brittnie Watkins and Philip Katsaros.

Fuetsch’s term expired at the end of April. 

In a letter to Sisolak, the Reno-based former commercial banking executive, said it was “a true privilege to serve the State” and “I hope I have been an asset to the industry.” Fuetsch said she would remain on the five-person commission until June 1.

The panel has its next monthly hearing on Thursday, where one of the items up for consideration is the licensing for the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas.

In addition, the term for Gaming Commission Chairman John Moran Jr., a Las Vegas attorney and the panel’s longest serving member, also expired at the end of April. Sisolak named Moran chairman last July, three months after the resignation of then-Chairman Tony Alamo Jr. 

Moran, who was first appointed to the Gaming Commission in 2004, served as acting chairman following Alamo’s departure.

In an email, Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said the governor had received the resignation letter.

“The Governor thanks the commissioner for her dedicated service to the state,” Delaney said, but did not provide a timeline for an appointment.

Fuetsch, who spent 17 years with Wells Fargo, was appointed to the commission in 2016 by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval.

“These past 18 months have been the most unexpected and difficult time in our state’s history,” Fuetsch wrote. Her letter did not include any mention of possible reappointment. She said she decided to “seek other opportunities.”

In her letter, she credited Sisolak, former Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan and Gibson with guiding “our state with urgency and determination to keep Nevadans safe and healthy.”

The three-member Control Board makes recommendations on licensing and other gaming policy matters to the part-time Nevada Gaming Commission.

Watkins, a Las Vegas attorney, was appointed to the Control Board last month, replacing Terry Johnson, whose second four-year term expired in February.

Last year, Sisolak appointed Gibson as chairman after Morgan resigned to accept a board position with Fidelity National. Sisolak also appointed Katsaros to the board in 2019.

PHOTOS: In-person graduations cap-off a year of tumultuous online learning for Nevada college students

When Nevada college students moved their classes to Zoom last March, they — like many others — did so with an expectation of a temporary inconvenience. 

A few weeks stretched into several months and eventually more than a year. Now, roughly 14 months later, that return to normalcy appeared a bit closer as thousands of students across Nevada’s seven degree-granting higher education institutions eschewed the virtual pomp and circumstance and were handed their certificates in the flesh. 

Things were still a bit different than the pre-pandemic “normal,” though. Most ceremonies were held outdoors in non-traditional venues including massive football stadiums where distancing, masking and other COVID-precautions could be more easily enforced, and certain limitations — such as the number of guests permitted per graduate — remained. 

But the week of commencement ceremonies both north and south provided the first tangible sign in more than a year that the college experience can return, even if a bit more waiting may be in store.

Continue scrolling to see a selection of photos from commencements at UNR and UNLV from Indy photographers David Calvert in Reno and Daniel Clark in Las Vegas.

2020 graduates from the Colleges of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resource; Education & Human Development, Science, and Engineering; as well as the Reynolds School of Journalism, the School of Medicine’s speech pathology program and the Orvis School of Nursing participate in one of eight University of Nevada, Reno commencement ceremonies this week inside Mackay Stadium in Reno on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Students from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduating class of 2020 participate in a make-up graduation ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)
University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval enters Mackay Stadium with members of the procession, including Gov. Steve Sisolak, before one of the eight University of Nevada, Reno commencement ceremonies this week inside Mackay Stadium in Reno on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Play Roberts, an Urban Affairs major from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduating class of 2020 greets his brother Tre Owens as he arrives to watch a make-up graduation ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)
A University of Nevada, Reno graduate during commencement inside Mackay Stadium in Reno on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Jennifer Haley from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduating class of 2020 holds a photograph of her late father Brad Haley during a make-up graduation ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)
Two University of Nevada, Reno graduates following commencement inside Mackay Stadium in Reno on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Students from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduating class of 2020 participate in a make-up graduation ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)
2020 graduates from the Colleges of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, Education & Human Development, Science, and Engineering, as well as the Reynolds School of Journalism, the School of Medicine’s speech pathology program and the Orvis School of Nursing participate in one of eight University of Nevada, Reno commencement ceremonies this week inside Mackay Stadium in Reno on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Students from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduating class of 2020 participate in a make-up graduation ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)