Lawmakers accept $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan funds; approve millions for homeowner assistance, education programs

State lawmakers have formally approved accepting Nevada’s $2.7 billion share of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, while also approving a slew of initial spending programs including more than $50 million to help low-income Nevadans pay for housing.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee met Tuesday to authorize the governor’s office to accept the full ARP allotment and designate allocations of more than $76 million in federal aid programs, including $39.5 million in rental assistance, $12.1 million in homeowner assistance and $13.9 million for the Department of Education to ensure federal relief funds are properly administered.

Tuesday’s meeting — the first interim meeting of legislators since the regular 120-day session ended last month — also served to outline how lawmakers and the governor’s office plan to spend the multibillion-dollar federal windfall. 

The vote taken by lawmakers (which also funds the $5 million in vaccine incentive prizes announced by the state last week) will place the federal dollars into an executive budget account, which lawmakers said they will use similarly to a reserve account and to fund proposed programs after gathering additional public input. The state set up an online portal to accept spending ideas from members of the public, members of executive branch agencies and state lawmakers, and IFC Chair Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said it has received about 1,000 submissions since it opened in April.

Lawmakers stressed that the votes on Tuesday were not intended to leapfrog other priorities for the federal funds — including legislation passed just weeks ago requiring the state to spend $335 million of the allotment to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits and $54 million to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

“This is the agreement that we have, and we just want to make sure it's very clear to folks that we can walk and chew gum and fix two or three problems at the same time,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during the meeting.

Brooks said that the $2.7 billion was only a portion of the estimated $7 billion total in federal monies coming to the state in the form of direct grants to school districts, counties and cities, and myriad other programs. With all the different pots of money, he said lawmakers “want to make sure that there's no waste, and that it's going to the best and highest use, and there's no duplication.”

Here’s a look at some of the major funding allocations made by the committee on Tuesday:

Homeowner assistance program

Programs to help tenants catch up on rent have been up and running for the last year, but a vote on Tuesday gets the ball rolling on an entirely new, $121 million program to support struggling homeowners.

The Homeowner Assistance Fund is targeted toward property owners who have faced hardship since late January 2020 or after on account of the pandemic. Because the state needs time to set up a portal and put the project out to bid, it will probably take at least 90 days before applications are accepted.

Instead of being disbursed through the state and local government agencies, the fund will be managed by the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation, which previously had been administering money from the U.S. Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund that supported 18 states affected most by the Great Recession.

The Hardest Hit Fund was a $200 million program that ultimately supported about 8,000 individual homeowners. The new Homeowner Assistance Fund is expected to help about 6,800 households.

Carlton said federal COVID-19 aid had previously been reserved to help renters pay their landlords, on the understanding that tenants were exposed to the more immediate effects of the pandemic and mortgage forbearance initiatives would relieve pressure on homeowners. But she said many homeowners have been asking for assistance.

“Seeing a program come forward for homeowners is very gratifying,” she said.

Lawmakers approved spending 10 percent of the allotment to get the program up and running, with plans to build out technology infrastructure and ramp up staffing at the corporation that officials say is operating with a skeleton crew. The first initiatives are expected to be the Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program — which would bring homeowners who are receiving unemployment benefits current on payments and help support a monthly payment — as well as a Mortgage Reinstatement Assistance Program geared toward people who have returned to work and need to get current with payments to avoid a foreclosure.

The unemployment program is expected to be capped at $54,000 per recipient, with the reinstatement program capped at $35,000 per recipient. But officials are eyeing a complete program limit of $100,000 per recipient, with the understanding that the program might evolve over time and people also could need principal reduction. 

Officials plan to get the word out through partnerships with housing counseling agencies, legal aid organizations and more than 100 mortgage servicers. The outreach involves coordinated mail campaigns that put special emphasis on hard-hit areas.

The program is expected to last for about five years. Some lawmakers questioned whether the estimated $17 million in administrative costs for the program was too high; officials said the costs stem from the complexity of complying with U.S. Treasury guidelines and the fact that applicants may need widely varying amounts of money.

Preparing for education spending

The committee also approved a round of allocations of ARP funds for the Department of Education that included nearly $14 million to ensure that federal relief funds for K-12 schools are properly administered.

“This is a whole new world for us,” said Carlton, who also serves as vice chair of the committee. “So we just want to be able to build in some of that transparency and ongoing communication between the department and IFC on how these dollars are spent in the future.”

In order to ensure the department’s spending of ARP funds is in compliance with guidance from the U.S. Treasury, the agency plans to use $431,000 of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire an “education programs supervisor,” who will help oversee the rollout of ARP funds over the coming years.

The additional funds for the department will go toward other temporary positions aimed at supporting the administration of ARP funds, as well as a few other small programs, including $400,000 to help the department in its transition to the new funding formula.

However, one project included within the department’s allocation of ARP funds was hotly contested during the meeting — a request for $10 million to contract with an external auditor who would help ensure the department remains compliant with ESSER and ARP requirements.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the audit would be needed and how long the contract would take, while others expressed concern over giving the agency the full $10 million for a multiyear contract when the department still needs to reach an agreement with a third party to complete the audit.

“We totally appreciate the audit function,” Carlton said. “Not with the Department of Education, but with other departments, we've had problems where we've given it all to them and found out at the end that none of it worked. And we ended up in a lawsuit, and we had to fund it all over again.”

The committee settled on allocating $5 million for the contract, with plans for the department to come back to the committee when it needs the rest of the funding for the audit contract.

The IFC additionally approved $1.8 million for the department with the goal of identifying and supporting the needs of homeless students.

However, IFC Chair Chris Brooks questioned the breakdown of that allocation across different county school districts. The breakdown was not available for public viewing.

“Why does Carson City — a population of 50,000 people — get $170,000 and Clark (County) — population of two-point-something million — get roughly twice that $342,000?” Brooks asked.

Seng-Dao Yang Keo, director of the Office of Student and School Supports for the department, explained that districts are awarded the grants competitively based on a variety of factors that include percentage of youth who are homeless and county capacity for serving those youth, which is why “one might see the disproportionality.”

Through ARP funding for homeless children and youth, the state will eventually be getting another round of funding of nearly $5.3 million to support that same population.

Other allocations

The committee approved a wide swath of work programs during the Tuesday meeting, including a few smaller allocations of ARP funding.

One allocation of federal funds will grant the Nevada Arts Council nearly $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support non-profit arts organizations and individual artists as they recover from the pandemic.

The committee also approved $2.7 million to improve access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by bolstering the infrastructure of the program, which includes expanding the program’s call center capacity and reducing call center wait times. The allocation is meant to ensure benefits can better reach underserved communities.

Another allocation of a little more than $100,000 in ARP funds, along with more than $200,000 in CARES Act funding, will go towards setting up the Office of Small Business Advocacy, which was established by AB184 during the 2021 legislative session. The office is meant to provide assistance directly to small businesses owners, including connecting those owners directly to economic relief programs.

After some discussion, committee members approved an allocation of around $2.5 million in federal funds aimed at addressing health disparities among at-risk and underserved populations. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) commended the Department of Health and Human Services’ ability to coordinate and work with a variety of stakeholders during the pandemic, but noted that “we also want to do a better job specifically on health equity, specifically on disparate impact.” 

DHHS officials responded that the department is looking at continuing to fund its Office of Minority Health and Equity and support its Minority Health and Equity Coalition. Tina Dortch with the office of Minority Health and Equity said that the office has been cultivating relationships in minority communities and will keep working with those communities. Dortch added that the additional funding will allow staff to continue to develop those relationships and build out existing programming.

Legislators on the committee also approved allocating $283,000 to the Department of Motor Vehicles for computer programming costs associated with legislation approved in the 2021 session, including measures decriminalizing traffic tickets (AB116), changes to special license plates for the Las Vegas Golden Knights (AB123) and the “Divine Nine” Black sororities and fraternities (SB163) and prohibiting the suspension of driver license fees by a court over unpaid fees or fines (SB219).

Updated on June 24, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. to correct the amount of funding allocated to the DMV for implementation of bills passed by the 2021 Legislature.

Analysis: Which legislators had the most (and fewest) bills passed in the 2021 session?

Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature during the 2021 session, and hundreds of high-profile Democratic measures sailed through the Assembly and Senate while a vast majority of Republican-backed measures failed to make much headway in the legislative process.

Out of 605 bills introduced and sponsored by a lawmaker this session, Democratic legislators had 63 percent of their bills and resolutions pass out of the Legislature, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. Those in the majority party were able to pass priority measures, including bills establishing the “Right to Return,” a public health insurance option and permanent expanded mail voting, while many priorities for Republicans, such as a voter ID law, were killed without so much as a hearing.

Which lawmakers had the most success passing their bills? Which lawmakers were least successful? How did Assembly members fare compared to senators?

The Nevada Independent analyzed all bills and resolutions that were both introduced and primarily sponsored by a lawmaker and examined which of those bills passed out of the Legislature and which ones died. Of those 605 bills, 267 (44 percent) were approved by members of the Assembly and Senate, while the remaining 338 (56 percent) were left in the graveyard of the legislative session.

Those 605 measures make up only a portion of the 1,035 bills and resolutions introduced during the session — others were sponsored by committees, constitutional officers such as the secretary of state or governor, or helped implement the state budget. The 2021 session also saw fewer measures introduced than previous sessions, as the 2019 and 2017 sessions each saw closer to 1,200 bills and resolutions introduced.

State law limits the number of bills that can be introduced by any individual lawmaker — incumbent senators and Assembly members can request 20 and 10 bill draft requests, respectively, while newly-elected legislators are limited to six bills in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate. Legislative leadership for both the majority and minority parties are also allowed to introduce additional bills beyond the normal limits.

The analysis revealed that Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) led their caucuses with the highest rate of bill passage, while Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and P.K. O'Neill (R-Carson City) were the only Republicans who had more than half of their bills passed out of the Legislature. Eight Republican legislators ended the session with zero bills passed.

A previous analysis of votes during the 2021 session revealed that most bills passed with bipartisan support, as more than half of all votes included no opposition. But that trend was largely driven by Democrats in the majority passing their priorities while not advancing nearly as many Republican bills, with 175 more Democrat-backed measures passing out of the Legislature than measures introduced by Republicans.

The guide below explores the results of our analysis, examining the successes and failures of both parties and of individual lawmakers this session.

We’ve double-checked our work to make sure we’ve counted every vote and hearing, but if you spot something off or think a bill was missed or improperly noted, feel free to email sgolonka@thenvindy.com.

How did Democrat-sponsored legislation fare? Did any Republican lawmakers find success?

Though hundreds of the more than 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the session were sponsored by Democrat-controlled committees, there were only 350 measures specifically sponsored and introduced by a lawmaker from the majority party.

Many were headline-grabbing progressive bills that drew staunch Republican opposition, including expanding permanent mail-in voting (AB321) and setting up Nevada to become one of the first states to have a public health insurance option starting in 2026 (SB420).

Of the 350 bills from Democratic lawmakers, 221 (63.1 percent) passed out of both houses. However, Assembly Democrats fared slightly better than their Senate counterparts, with 65 percent of their bills passing compared with 60 percent for those in the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The success rate of bills introduced by Republican lawmakers was dismal in comparison.

Members of the Assembly Republican caucus had 27 of their 126 introduced measures (21 percent) pass out of both houses, while Senate Republicans had 19 of their 129 (15 percent) pass out of the Legislature. The majority of Republican-backed measures were not even given a chance by the majority party, as 56 percent of 255 bills and resolutions introduced by Republican legislators never received an initial committee hearing.

Failed Republican-backed bills included an effort to create a bipartisan redistricting commission (SB462), a measure requiring voters to provide proof of identity (SB225) and a bill that aimed to limit the number of legislative actions allowed per session (AB98).

Among the 46 Republican-sponsored measures that passed out of the Legislature were a variety of health care-related bills, including legislation from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) that appropriated state funds to the Nevada Health Service Corps for encouraging certain medical and dental practitioners to practice in underserved areas (SB233). Lawmakers also approved a measure from Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) authorizing the Board of Regents to waive fees for family members of National Guard members who reenlist (AB156).

Senate Minority Leader James A. Settelmeyer, left, and Senator Joe Hardy on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

While Republicans fared far worse, Democratic lawmakers still had more than a third of their bills fall victim to the legislative process.

Some bills were overwhelmed by backlash, such as SB452, a bill that aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises but was opposed by a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations and failed to advance out of the Assembly. 

Other bills were watered down or axed after lawmakers deemed there was not enough time to consider the effects of a measure. Such was the case for AB161, a bill that started as a ban on the state’s “summary eviction” process, then was amended into a legislative study on the process but still never received a floor vote. Some measures fell just shy of the support they needed, including AB387, an attempt to license midwives that fell one vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate on the final day of the session.

Which lawmakers were most prolific? Which lawmakers introduced the fewest bills?

Although Democratic lawmakers significantly outpaced Republican lawmakers in getting their bills passed out of both houses of the Legislature, the number of bills introduced by each legislator remained similar between the two parties.

On average, lawmakers from the majority party introduced 9.2 measures during the 2021 session, compared to 10.2 for lawmakers in the minority party. 

Those who led their parties in introductions were typically house leaders or more experienced lawmakers.

In the Assembly, Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) topped the rest of his party with 18 bills introduced and sponsored, while Minority Floor Leader Titus had the most bills introduced and sponsored of anyone in the Assembly Republican caucus with 14.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus speaks to Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced and sponsored 25 bills, which was the most of any legislator during the session.

Four other Senators also stood above the pack: Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) led Democrats with 23 introductions, while Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) and two Republican senators, Hardy and Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), rounded out the top with 20 bills each.

Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who was appointed by the Clark County Commission on Feb. 2, 2021 to fill the seat of Democratic former Assemblyman Alex Assefa, who resigned amid an investigation into whether he met residency requirements, was the only lawmaker who did not introduce a single piece of legislation this session.

The others at the bottom of the list — Assembly members Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), and Sens. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) and Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) — introduced three bills each. Doñate was appointed to fill the seat of former Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D-Las Vegas), and introduced three of her bill draft requests submitted prior to the start of the session.

Which legislators had the most success with their bills?

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) had more success getting her bills passed than any Nevada lawmaker during the 2021 session, as all eight bills that she introduced and sponsored passed out of both houses of the Legislature.

Jauregui had one bill that was passed only with the support of her own party members in both houses. AB286, which bans so-called “ghost guns” and other firearm assembly kits that don’t come equipped with serial numbers, passed through the Assembly and Senate along party lines. 

Other bills Jauregui introduced included measures focused on the environment and residential properties, as well as AB123, which increases fees on special Vegas Golden Knights license plates to help give more funds to charities.

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui arrives on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Five other Assembly Democrats, all based out of Southern Nevada, had at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses, including Assembly Speaker Frierson. Frierson, who saw 15 of his 18 sponsored measures pass, introduced several high-profile Democratic measures, including a pair of big election bills: AB126, which moves the state to a presidential primary system instead of a caucus-based system, and AB321, which permanently expands mail-in voting. 

Other bills introduced by the Assembly leader that passed out of the Legislature included a measure requiring a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent (AB308) and a bill allowing college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness (AB254). Frierson was also the primary sponsor of AB484, which authorizes the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to use $54 million in federal funds to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system.

Frierson had only three bills that did not pass out of the Legislature, including a controversial measure that would have allowed for the Washoe and Clark County school boards to be partially appointed (AB255).

Other lawmakers to have at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses were Assembly members Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) and Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas).

Considine had five of her six introduced measures pass both houses with significant bipartisan support, including a measure that replaces the gendered language for crimes of sexual assault with gender-neutral language (AB214). 

Yeager saw eight of ten introduced bills pass, including AB341, which authorizes the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges, though he also presented several other, sometimes controversial, measures as chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He presented AB400, a bill that removes “per se” limits on non-felony DUIs involving marijuana and that passed along party lines out of the Assembly. And he presented AB395, the death penalty bill that was scrapped by Democratic lawmakers in the Senate.

Though Monroe-Moreno had four of her five introduced bills pass out of both houses, including a measure that reduces the criminal penalties for minors found in possession of alcohol or small amounts of marijuana (AB158), she was also the sponsor of one of the few measures to fail to advance out of the Legislature because it failed to achieve a needed two-thirds majority. Her bill AB387, which would have established a midwifery licensure board, fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Watts, a second-term assemblyman, sparked a variety of partisan disagreements throughout the session, as six of his ten introduced bills passed out of the Assembly with zero Republican support (Watts had eight bills pass out of both chambers). Those measures ranged broadly from a pair of environment-focused measures to a bill that bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools (AB88).

In the Senate, only three legislators had more than two-thirds of their introduced measures pass out of both houses: Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas).

Sen. Chris Brooks on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Brooks was the most successful of the bunch, getting five of his six introduced bills passed, including SB448, an omnibus energy bill expanding the state’s transmission infrastructure that was passed out of the Assembly on the final day of the session. With a larger number of introductions (13), Lange had twice as many bills passed as Brooks (10), covering a wide range of topics from health care to employment to a bill permanently authorizing curbside pickup at dispensaries (SB168).

The majority leader also succeeded in passing a higher percentage of her bills than most of her Senate colleagues, as 12 different Cannizzaro-sponsored bills made their way to the governor’s office. Those measures were met with varying degrees of bipartisan support, as a bill requiring data brokers to allow consumers to make requests to not sell their information passed with no opposition (SB260), while a bill barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees received mixed support from Republicans in both chambers (SB219). Another bill, SB420, which enacts a state-managed public health insurance option, passed along party lines in both the Senate and Assembly.

A few Assembly Republicans stood above the pack, as Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno), P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) were the only members of their party to have at least half of their bills pass out of both houses.

Tolles, who was more likely to side with Democrats on close votes during the session than any other Republican lawmaker, found the most success of the group, as four of the six bills she introduced and sponsored were sent to the governor. Those bills that passed were met with broad bipartisan support, such as AB374 — that measure, which establishes a statewide working group in the attorney general’s office aimed at preventing and reducing substance use, passed unanimously out of both houses. The third-term legislator did introduce some bills that were killed by Democrats, such as AB248, which sought to allow "partisan observers" to watch over elections at polling places.

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Four of O’Neill’s seven bills were sent to the governor. One allows the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum to designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events (AB270). O’Neill was the only Republican present at a bill signing event for Native-focused legislation, after many of those bills passed with bipartisan support.

Half of Krasner and Roberts’ bills passed out of the Legislature, with each lawmaker introducing and sponsoring eight measures during the session.   

Nearly all four of Krasner’s bills that made it out of both chambers attracted unanimous votes, including AB143, which creates a statewide human trafficking task force and a plan for resources and services delivered to victims. Another well-received bill, AB251, seals juvenile criminal records automatically at age 18 and allows offenders to petition the court for the expungement or destruction of their juvenile records for misdemeanors. Both AB143 and AB251 have been signed by the governor.

Roberts, who was among the Republicans most likely to cross party lines and vote contrary to the majority of his caucus, had several bills sent to the governor with strong bipartisan support, including AB319, which establishes a pilot program for high school students to take dual credit courses at the College of Southern Nevada. Another of his four successful bills was AB326, which is aimed at curbing the illicit cannabis market.

Success for Republican senators in passing bills was more rare.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) had one bill sent to the governor and two bills killed without a hearing, giving him a higher percentage of bills passed (33 percent) than any other member of his caucus. Hansen’s one successful measure, SB112, aligns Nevada law with federal law regarding the administration of certain products for livestock. One of Hansen’s failed bills included an attempt to prohibit police officers from using surveillance devices without a warrant, unless there were pressing circumstances that presented danger to someone’s safety (SB213).

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) was the second most successful member of his caucus in terms of getting bills passed, as three of the 14 measures (21 percent) he introduced passed out of both houses, including a measure establishing an esports advisory committee within the Gaming Control Board (SB165). But many of the measures introduced by Kieckhefer still failed, including a resolution to create an independent redistricting commission to conduct the reapportionment of districts (SJR9).

Only three other members of the Senate Republican caucus, including Minority Leader Settelmeyer, Hardy and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), had at least 20 percent of their introduced measures pass fully out of the Legislature.

Which legislators had the least success with their bills?

Despite Democrats controlling both legislative chambers, a handful of Democratic lawmakers still had less than half of their sponsored measures sent off to the governor’s office.

In the Assembly, five members of the Democratic caucus failed to have 50 percent of their bills advance out of both houses, including Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), who rounded out the bottom of the list as just one of her eight introduced bills passing out of the Legislature. Though that one successful bill — AB189, which establishes presumptive eligibility for pregnant women for Medicaid — garnered bipartisan support, many of Gorelow’s introduced measures failed to even receive an initial committee vote. Those failed bills included multiple more health care-focused measures, including an effort to require certain health plans to cover fertility preservation services (AB274).

The others in the caucus to have more than half of their bills fail were Assembly members Bea Duran (D-Las Vegas), David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Cecelia Gonzalez (D-Las Vegas), who each had between 33 and 43 percent of their bills passed.

Duran found mixed success with her bills, getting three of her seven introduced measures passed, including a bill that requires all public middle schools, junior high schools and high schools to offer free menstrual products in bathrooms (AB224), but seeing four others fail, including one requiring public schools implement a survey about sexual misconduct (AB353).

One of Orentlicher’s five bills was among a small group that failed to advance at a mid-May deadline for second committee passage. The measure, AB243, would have required courts to consider whether a defendant is younger than 21 when deciding a sentence and failed to clear the deadline after previously passing out of the Assembly along party lines. Orentlicher introduced five bills, but only two passed out of both chambers.

While Flores introduced several measures that received broad unanimous support throughout the session, such as a measure that established a new, simpler Miranda warning for children (AB132), he also proposed several controversial measures that failed to advance out of the Assembly. One of those bills, AB351, would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication, and another, AB131, would have required all uniformed police officers to wear body cameras when interacting with the public. Only four of Flores’s ten introduced bills passed out of both legislative chambers.

Assemblymen Edgar Flores, center, and Glen Leavitt, left, speak inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Gonzalez, a freshman, had four of her six introduced bills die at different times over the course of the session. Two of her bills died without ever being heard. Another bill she introduced (AB151) was never voted on by the Assembly because a Cannizzaro-sponsored bill took almost the same approach in barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees. 

Gonzalez even had one piece of legislation, AB201, fail in its second house. That bill, which would have required more tracking and reporting on use of criminal informants, failed to advance out of a Senate committee after passing out of the Assembly along party lines.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) was the only member of his caucus to have more than half of his bills fail. Though seven of his sponsored measures passed out of the Legislature, eleven other bills and resolutions from Ohrenschall failed to advance. Those bills often focused on the criminal justice system, including a measure that aimed to eliminate the death penalty for people who are convicted of first degree murder (SB228), though some stretched beyond that scope, such as an attempt to make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system (SB134) that failed to be voted out of committee.

Across the Senate and Assembly, eight Republican lawmakers had zero bills pass out of the Legislature. Those eight were Assembly members Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks), Annie Black (R-Mesquite), Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), Jill Dickman (R-Sparks), Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas) and Sens. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pickard.

All eight of those Republicans were also among the least likely in their party to break from the majority of their caucus and vote with Democrats on legislation.

State Senator Keith Pickard on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Those eight legislators introduced 70 measures combined, of which 58 died without ever receiving a committee hearing. Pickard was particularly unsuccessful, as he introduced 20 bills, and only one received a committee hearing before failing to advance past the first committee passage deadline in early April. The Henderson-based senator was previously derided by Democratic lawmakers, after backing out of a deal with Senate Democrats centered on a mining tax during one of the 2020 special sessions.

When were bills heard and when did they pass?

Throughout the session, lawmakers often waited until the latest possible days to complete the work needed for certain legislative deadlines.

In the week leading up to the first major deadline — bills and resolutions without an exemption were required to have passed out of their first committee by April 9 — lawmakers voted 336 bills out of committee. In the roughly nine weeks prior to that, only 236 bills were passed out of their first committee.

The other deadlines of the legislative session followed a similar pattern.

In the week leading up to and the week including the first house passage deadline (April 20), 340 bills received a vote in their first house, while just 71 bills were voted out of their first house in the 10 previous weeks.

The busiest week of the session was the week ending May 21, which included the second house passage deadline (May 20). During that week, 337 bills and resolutions were voted out of their second house, while a couple hundred more measures were acted on in some other way, including committee hearings, committee votes and first house votes.

The final shortened weekend of the session, stretching from May 29 through May 31, was also chock-full of legislative action, as lawmakers passed more than 150 bills out of their second house during those three final days.

Secretary Granholm on Nevada’s role in the energy transition, lithium mining, rooftop solar

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Last Thursday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sat down for a roundtable with Gov. Steve Sisolak, Rep. Steven Horsford and other Nevada leaders. 

The roundtable was part of Granholm’s multi-state tour stumping for the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan and its efforts to speed up the energy transition. 

And if there was a theme for the day, it was the economy and jobs. 

Not long before the roundtable, Sisolak signed a massive energy infrastructure bill, SB448, at IBEW Local 357. The bill, dropped in the final weeks of the legislative session, focuses on NV Energy’s build-out of its Greenlink transmission line and the deployment of electric vehicles. 

Granholm touted the bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who participated in the roundtable with other renewable advocates. NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon was also there. 

Other states Granholm has visited recently (Texas and West Virginia) have played central roles in producing fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. But Nevada is in a different position. In Nevada, the fossil fuel industry is small compared to other states, where it has historically been a dominant and powerful political player. 

In Granholm’s remarks, she recognized what Nevada’s economic development planners have said for years: When it comes to energy, the opportunity for Nevada is not in fossil fuels, but as an exporter of renewable energy across the West and a key player in the battery supply chain.

From Granholm’s perspective, Nevada has everything “soup to nuts.” She pointed to the ample land for solar projects, the Tesla Gigafactory, geothermal capacity and deposits for critical minerals. 

“When I say ‘soup to nuts,’ Granholm said during an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday, “that's really referring to the full supply chain of clean energy products that we should be building and manufacturing in this country, as well as installing and exporting.”

But doing that won’t necessarily be easy. New development in Nevada, from large-scale solar projects to mining, has, at times, faced opposition from Indigenous communities, conservation groups and local residents concerned with how projects could harm ecosystems and change the landscape.

In a brief interview Friday, as Granholm prepared to tour the Townsite solar project in Boulder City, she discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing Nevada amid the push to place more renewables on public land and secure a domestic supply chain for the materials needed to produce electric cars.

On the need for domestic solar-panel production: Granholm stressed the importance of manufacturing solar panels in the United States, saying that “other countries have cornered the market on some of this, and we need to get it back.” She specifically singled out China, noting that President Biden had just delivered remarks concerning China’s use of forced labor.

“Nevada could be manufacturing solar panels, as well as installing them,” she said.

Land for utility-scale solar projects: Early into the interview, Granholm said that Nevada’s “comparative advantage is this massive amount of land that could be used to generate solar.” 

Nevada is one of the least densely populated states, and about 85 percent of the state’s land is managed by federal agencies, from the Department of the Defense (military bases) to the U.S. Forest Service (national forests). Most of the utility-scale solar would likely be sited on land managed by the Department of Interior, specifically the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

The bureau oversees about 65 percent of Nevada’s land — and they are often charged with permitting energy projects (solar, geothermal, wind, etc.). But the bureau must balance multiple (and often conflicting) activities: conservation, recreation, grazing, mining, etc.

Even with plans to prioritize energy development in low-impact areas, energy developers are still eyeing projects in sensitive areas. In Southern Nevada, projects have run into opposition over their impacts on imperiled species, such as the Mojave desert tortoise, recreation activities and sacred sites for Indigenous communities.

As a result, many environmental groups have called for better federal and state planning to direct projects into areas with fewer impacts. We asked Granholm about this and how she is working with the Department of Interior.

“I’m really enthusiastic because Secretary [Deb] Haaland and the president are really prioritizing renewable energy on public lands, and that’s onshore and offshore,” Granholm said. 

“Our team is actively working with her team to figure out how to do that,” she added. “What are the most optimal places we should be prioritizing? How do you streamline the permitting without jeopardizing the reviews that need to happen to ensure that you are protecting the resources?”

Granholm said lithium mining should have the support of Indigenous and local communities: The Energy Secretary’s visit came just days after the Biden administration released a report looking into the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries and other products needed to address climate change.

The report underscores the need for securing critical minerals both domestically and from allies. But as new mines are proposed in Nevada and across the American West, Indigenous leaders and conservation groups have raised serious concerns about how certain projects to extract key minerals, including copper and lithium, would irreparably harm the environment. 

When thinking about where to permit mines, Granholm stressed the need for community buy-in.

“The view of the administration is that mining that is done here — in the U.S. — must be done responsibly, sustainably, and with the buy-in of local and indigenous groups,” she said. 

Granholm said Indigenous communities who have been on the land for generations “have to be at the table” during mine planning. She said that companies could engage in partnerships, such as community development agreements, to direct benefits to Indigenous and local communities.

Granholm on the role of rooftop solar: NV Energy’s CEO was at the roundtable with Granholm on Thursday, and the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility is playing a driving role in transitioning the state’s power sector away from fossil fuels. 

But what about renewable energy infrastructure that is not owned directly by the utility?

We asked Granholm about “distributed energy resources,” a very technical (and dry) phrase for electric infrastructure that is installed on-site (think rooftop solar), rather than by the utility. 

She said utility-scale and distributed generation are both “incredibly important pieces of the pie.”

Granholm noted that although the roundtable focused on NV Energy’s Greenlink transmission line (a utility-scale project), “there’s also a role for distributed transmission too — microgrids to help with resiliency — and certainly in more remote areas that are powered by solar.” 


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

THE COLORADO RIVER

‘An earthquake in people’s sense of urgency:’ That’s a quote from The Arizona Republic’s piece about Lake Mead declining to its lowest level since the 1930s. “The lake's rapid decline has been outpacing projections from just a few months ago,” reporter Ian James wrote. 

The real-world effects of Lake Mead’s low elevation: Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar writes that the Lake Mead boat launch area closed on Friday last week. 

Saving the Salton Sea: The Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde published an excellent, in-depth story on the proposals to fix the issues in the Salton Sea by importing water from the Sea of Cortez. 

DROUGHT HITS THE WEST

Wildlife managers drop water for bighorn sheep: Review-Journal science reporting fellow Stephanie Castillo writes about the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s efforts to replenish water sources for bighorn sheep amid severe drought conditions. “We have had to haul water on an emergency basis, but not anywhere near approaching this magnitude, this scale of severity,” said one wildlife biologist for the agency. 

Life on the edge in the Amargosa River Basin: The Amargosa River is a unique landscape that has carved out a biodiversity hotspot. But the climate change and groundwater overuse are adding new stresses to the area, as National Geographic’s Stefan Lovgren reports. 

These visuals, compiled by the New York Times, show just how bad the drought is. 

LITHIUM SUPPLY CHAIN 

Battery recycling firm is expanding: The Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo writes about Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based battery recycling firm that was started by a former Tesla executive. 

A Panasonic mining partnership: Neolith Energy, a venture from oil services company Schlumberger, is partnering with Panasonic on a lithium extraction project near Tonopah. 

Thacker Pass mine work delayed, via Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder. And over the weekend, more than a hundred demonstrators, including many Indigenous leaders and advocates, gathered in Reno to protest the mine (photos from the Reno Gazette Journal).

WATER AND LAND

Biden to reverse Trump’s Clean Water Act rollback: President Joe Biden’s EPA is planning to restore certain federal protections for streams and wetlands after the Trump administration weakened protections associated with the Clean Water Act, the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman reports.

Lawmakers want wild horse investigation, halt on adoptions, the Review-Journal’s Gary Martin reports.

Why does snow turn pink? The answer has to do with microalgae. But there is also an important feedback loop involving climate change — with implications for snowmelt. KUNR’s Noah Glick has more. 

Coming up: The Clark County Lands Bill is getting a hearing in Congress. 

Legislature live blog: Lawmakers pass bills expanding mail voting, authorizing cannabis lounges, short-term rental taxes

The clock struck midnight, and Nevada lawmakers finally adjourned the 2021 Legislature after a frantic final few hours that saw the passage of major election, budget, tax and other big-ticket bills.

By the end of Monday evening, lawmakers had advanced bills decriminalizing traffic tickets, moving the state to a presidential primary, authorizing cannabis consumption lounges and permanently expanding mail voting. Legislators also approved a major transmission and clean energy bill, approved a new tax structure for short-term rentals and set spending priorities for the state’s coming windfall of $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds.

The final hours of the Legislature traditionally see a host of last-minute amendments, compromises and changes to legislation — something already readily apparent on Monday, with lawmakers authorizing nearly $8 million in funding to pay back DMV fees recently declared unconstitutional, and an amendment keeping special tax districts in play for Clark County but without the ability to use them for a potential major league baseball stadium.

The Nevada Independent is covering all the final moves, votes and maneuvers of the 2021 Legislature. Here’s a look at some of the major votes and last-minute developments on the final day of session:

$15 million earmarks on American Rescue Plan funds

One last-minute addition was $15 million in earmarks for federal COVID-19 relief money. An amendment added to SB461 in the Assembly includes:

  • $6 million to the Collaboration Center Foundation for services for people with disabilities. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) had proposed a bill to support the foundation, but it never got a hearing.
  • $5 million to the state treasurer’s office for the Nevada ABLE Savings Program. The program provides seed money in tax-advantaged accounts for people with disabilities; a bill passed this session to enable the program but did not fund it.
  • $4 million for a statewide program modeled after UNR’s Dean’s Future Scholars Program, which provides mentoring, tutoring and other support for prospective first-generation college students. Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) had a bill that supported first-generation students, but it died. She crossed over and supported a mining tax along with Democrats before the amendment was revealed.

— Michelle Rindels

Requiring public buildings/accommodations to have inclusive single-stall restrooms 

On a 15-6 vote, members of the Senate voted to approve Assemblywoman Sarah Peters’s AB280 — a bill requiring any single-stall restroom in the state to be designated as gender neutral.

The bill, which wouldn’t affect existing bathrooms but would govern future construction, was amended before passage to more narrowly define the types of bathrooms affected by the bill, and removed language allowing for civil litigation if people felt they were denied access to or punished for using a single-stall restroom.

— Riley Snyder

Closing ‘classic car’ loophole

An effort to close the ‘classic car’ loophole by limiting the types of older vehicles exempted from smog checks has passed out of the Senate on a party-line 12-9 vote.

The bill, AB349, is sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) and seeks to fix a loophole created by a 2011 law that redefined a “classic car” to include any vehicle over a certain age that drove less than 5,000 miles. It resulted in a sharp increase in the number of classic cars registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

— Riley Snyder

Permanent expanded mail voting and ballot initiative withdrawals

Nevada will move to permanently expand mail voting and send all active registered voters a mail ballot starting in the 2022 election, after members of the state Senate voted along party-lines to approve AB321 on Sunday evening.

The bill will make Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely mail voting system, though voters will be allowed to opt out and vote in person if they choose. Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, the legislation has been embraced by Democrats as a way to enshire expanded voter access to elections, but pilloried by Republicans as not having enough safeguards to prevent fraud while making what they say are unnecessary changes to the state election structure.

Though amendments to the bill still need to be agreed to by the Assembly, passage of the bill will largely cement the pandemic-induced temporary election changes used in the 2020 election as a permanent fixture of elections moving forward.

The bill does modify aspects of the rules in place for the 2020 election, including shortening the deadlines for fixing issues with signatures on mail ballots and for when a mail ballot can be counted after Election Day from seven to six days.

It also explicitly authorizes election clerks to use electronic devices in signature verification, require more training on signature verification and adopt a handful of other provisions aimed at beefing up election security measures. 

Prior to the vote in the Senate, however, lawmakers adopted an amendment explicitly authorizing the withdrawal of initiative petitions 90 days prior to an election. That law change is intended to address a lack of clarity in existing law about when a ballot initiative can be withdrawn and is intended to give the Clark County Education Association a chance to pull back two initiatives raising the sales and gaming taxes.

Another amendment, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader James Settelmeyer, sought to require statewide elected offices including the attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and controller to follow the same fundraising blackout rules that members of the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor are required to follow during legislative sessions. But the amendment failed on a 10-11 vote, with all Democrats save Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) voting against the measure.

The bill appropriates about $12.1 million to the secretary of state’s office over the budget cycle to help with costs of the legislation.

— Riley Snyder

Authorizing cannabis consumption lounges

Senators voted 17-3, with one abstention, to authorize cannabis consumption lounges where people can legally consume marijuana after a similar effort failed in the last session.

AB341, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), aims to resolve the conundrum that recreational cannabis is legal in Nevada, but consumers are technically not allowed to partake of it anywhere outside of a private residence. It also has been framed as a way to diversify the ownership of Nevada’s relatively homogenous cannabis industry by offering certain incentives to applicants who were adversely affected by the War on Drugs.

Before passing the measure, senators added an amendment that allows local governments to establish rules for the businesses that are stricter than the statewide regulations.

Republican Sen. Ira Hansen and two Democrats — Sen. Dina Neal and Sen. Fabian Donate — voted against the measure. Donate said that while he supports the concept, he had public health-related concerns including about how employees would be protected from secondhand smoke.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) abstained because his wife is a member of the Cannabis Compliance Board.

— Michelle Rindels

Taxing and regulating short-term rentals

Senators voted 15-6 for a bill from Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) that subjects short-term rentals such as Airbnb to the taxes that hotels face and other regulations.

Opponents of AB363 were all Republicans, including Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who said that while he wants to combat the nuisance of illicit “party houses,” he thinks land use planning “is fundamentally a local issue.”

“I certainly understand the impetus to do this,” Pickard said. “The reason, however, that I can't go far enough to support this bill is because I believe that it's an intrusion into the proper operation of local government.”

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) has pointed to taxation of vacation rentals as a route for bringing more revenue to schools.

— Michelle Rindels

Bill removing citizenship requirement for higher education scholarships revived

An amendment added to a bill sponsored by Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) during an Assembly Ways and Means Committee meeting Monday evening proved that nothing is truly dead until the clock strikes midnight on sine die.

The amendment, attached to SB347, revives AB213, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) that died before it received a vote on the Assembly floor because of a concern over a 5 percent allocation from a grant program for creating an alternative to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The bill passed out of the Assembly on a 28-14 vote.

Flores told The Nevada Independent during a short interview that the proposed amendment removed the 5 percent allocation, stipulating instead that an alternative to the FAFSA program could be established as money is available.

"I'm excited that we at least have accomplished the step of getting it to the floor," Flores said. "The bill is sending a very clear message that regardless of status, so long as you graduate you're going to get in-state tuition."

The amendment would remove de facto citizenship requirements for higher education scholarship programs and secure access to in-state tuition for any graduate of a Nevada high school.

It also addresses other higher education inequities by:

  • Removing the requirement to complete the FAFSA, which requires a Social Security number, in order to receive a Silver State Opportunity Grant (a state-support financial aid program for low-income students attending community or state colleges within the Nevada System of Higher Education)
  • Guaranteeing that any graduate from a high school in the state can receive a Silver State Opportunity Grant or a Nevada Promise Scholarship (a scholarship for Nevada high school graduates attending community college)
  • Eliminating a rule that the Board of Regents must distribute scholarships first to students who complete the FAFSA
  • Prohibiting a prepaid tuition program or college savings program from excluding a person or his or her family from participating in the program based solely on immigration status.

Access is at the heart of the amendment, Flores said, adding that the measure will lower barriers to higher education and address fears brought about by the college application process and having to share information regarding immigration status.

“An undocumented student has these added layers to be able to pay for college that ... a lot of other students don't have to go through,” Flores said. “So that it's often a deterrent for a lot of very highly talented,qualified students.”

— Tabitha Mueller

Deportation defense funds

A bill that will allocate half a million to the UNLV Immigration Clinic’s work defending people against deportation got a party-line vote in the Senate, with Republicans opposed.

AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would create a “Keeping Nevada Working Task Force” to support immigrant entrepreneurship as well as making the appropriation.

But Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said he opposed a provision that requires the attorney general to develop model policies that seek to limit the collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. Agencies must report back whether they adopt the policies.

“The standards that are to be developed by the attorney general and then imposed upon ... all other areas of the state, I think, are inappropriate,” he said.

The bill was significantly watered down from its original form, which directly called for limiting collaboration between police and federal immigration enforcement officials.

— Michelle Rindels

Transmission build-out, electric vehicle charging infrastructure bill passes

State lawmakers advanced the Legislature’s marquee clean energy bill, SB448, on a 32-10 vote on Monday.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), will clear the way for completion of a major intrastate transmission line sought by NV Energy as part of the utility company’s planned $2 billion transmission infrastructure upgrade project. It will also require the utility to invest $100 million in electric vehicle charging stations, and makes a host of other energy policy changes aimed at boosting carbon reduction efforts in the state.

The measure previously passed unanimously out of the Senate. 

— Riley Snyder

Minimum energy efficiency levels for appliances

Members of the Senate passed out an energy efficiency measure, AB383, on a party-line vote on Monday.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), sets minimum energy efficiency levels for certain residential and commercial appliances and products, ranging from water coolers and air purifiers, to commercial fryers and ovens.

During a bill hearing in April, Watts said that less energy expended would result in less pollution and that using more efficient appliances and devices could also mean lower utility bills. The standards set in the bill would not apply to appliances sold after the bills goes into effect until July 2023, giving manufacturers time to adjust to the new regulations.

Previously, the bill passed out of the Assembly on a 26-13 party-line vote, with Republicans in opposition.

— Tabitha Mueller

Overhauling interim legislative structure

Members of the Senate voted 18-3 to approve a bill from Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) overhauling the interim structure of the Legislature to match the committee structure used during 120-day sessions.

Rather than the current slew of more than a dozen interim committees, AB448 would repeal and replace almost all of them with interim joint standing committees, a change aimed at increasing continuity and policy expertise between legislative sessions.

Not all of the old interim committees are going away — the bill was amended on Friday, shortly before passing out of the Assembly, to revive an existing Legislative Committee on Public Lands to now serve under a joint interim subcommittee on natural resources.

— Riley Snyder

Fifth time’s the charm to decriminalize traffic tickets 

After four failed attempts in prior sessions, AB116, a bill decriminalizing traffic tickets, cleared the Legislature with a 20-1 vote in the Senate. 

The bill would make traffic violations civil infractions and not punishable by jail time. It adjusts current practice where, if unpaid, minor traffic offenses become warrants that can lead to arrests and are punishable by up to six months in jail. 

Although Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said he is in support of the policy behind the bill, he was the only senator to vote against the measure for certain concerns regarding rural counties’ ability to implement it. 

“This is the fifth session that I can think of where we've attempted to do this, so it's definitely a step in the right direction,” Hansen said. “But we need to keep in mind there's some very small counties with very limited budgets and for them to be able to implement this is going to be very, very difficult.”

— Jannelle Calderon

Nevada joins and leapfrogs primary states

The Senate voted 15-6 to pass AB126, which would end Nevada’s presidential caucus and replace it with a primary election, and also aims to make the state first in the presidential primary calendar — ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who voted against the measure, had introduced a similar bill, SB130, this session to convert Nevada from caucus to primary but it died in April. During the Senate vote on Monday, Pickard said that as he was preparing his bill, constituents said that they would not be happy with moving the primary to the beginning of the year as campaigning efforts during December holidays may be “intrusive.”

“I was told pretty consistently by my constituents that they did not like the idea of moving the primary up to the beginning of the year because it meant that we'd be campaigning, we'd be knocking on their doors and we'd be disturbing them during the holidays,” he said. 

Six of the nine Republican senators voted against the bill, which had previously received a 30-11 vote in the Assembly.

— Jannelle Calderon

Allocating federal COVID aid

With time up in the session, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Monday advanced SB461, a so-called “waterfall” bill that sets priorities for spending billions in American Rescue Plan funds. 

Many of those goals — which include backfilling the general fund to compensate for revenue loss and shoring up health care and education — were laid out months ago in a framework document released by the governor and legislative leadership.

“It's day 120, those dollars are not here, but we still know that we have priorities in the state that we want to make sure that can be addressed and that the legislature doesn't slow the process down,” said Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas). “We don't necessarily need to come back and come together for a day or two to do, that there is a process by which we can set this up to set our priorities to allow these dollars to hit the ground running as soon as they're here.”

Carlton’s comments suggest at least some of the work of distributing the federal dollars will take place through work programs that come through the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, as opposed to a special session.

“It doesn't mean we have to do it that way. Nothing stops us from coming in and doing a special session,” she said in a subsequent interview. “But ... getting 63 of us together and queuing up this building is not a small feat ... so this is just a way to make sure that those issues are dealt with.”

In the meantime, the bill allocates $335 million of the state’s $2.7 billion allocation through the American Rescue Plan to the unemployment trust fund. That was depleted after the pandemic-related shutdowns pushed Nevada’s unemployment rate to around 30 percent.

The amount will bring the trust fund essentially to the point where it is not taking out a loan, fiscal analysts said. Following the Great Recession, employers had to pay higher tax rates for years to pay back a debt to the federal government; the allotment will ensure tax rates won’t be going up for debt service.

“This will be one of the small things that we can do to not have that one more thing added on to that bill, as everyone is trying to climb out of the pandemic and get back to square one in the future,” Carlton said. “This will be one way to lessen those impacts of the pandemic on everyone who pays into this month.”

The Treasury allows states to use American Rescue Plan money to pay back their unemployment trust funds back to pre-pandemic levels, but Nevada’s trust fund was nearly $2 billion before the pandemic — meaning the state could potentially use nearly all of its federal allocation for that purpose.

But, Carlton said, “this is a balancing act and there was a lot of harm done across the state and all different sectors and we're trying to make an impact on all of the different sectors.”

— Michelle Rindels

DMV repayment

A feisty debate about how to repay $1-per-transaction DMV technology fees that were found to be enacted unconstitutionally has finally been resolved in the form of an amendment to another bill.

Members of the Ways and Means Committee over the weekend sparred over whether allocating $7.8 million to pay back $5 million in fees to Nevada motorists needed to be done immediately or could wait until something more cost-efficient could be worked out. Lawmakers are seeking to refund the money after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that an extension of the fee in 2019 needed to be passed on a two-thirds majority (it was one vote shy of that threshold).

They opted to add an amendment with the allocation to SB457, a bill that otherwise allows more of the state Highway Fund to be used for administrative costs and has now passed both houses.

“Last night, with time constraints and with the people digging their heels in on stuff it was like, ‘we can't wait, we have to pay for this,’” Carlton said. “This is not a political discussion. You can't make hay out of this anymore. We just need to move on and get our jobs done.”

— Michelle Rindels

Clark County gets STAR bonds exemption; A’s stadium talks nearly derail

An effort to finally phase out oft-criticized special tax districts that use a portion of sales tax for bond repayments received a last minute amendment sought by Southern Nevada governments — though lawmakers took steps to ensure that they can’t be used for a potential major league baseball stadium.

AB368, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), would require the Department of Taxation to report information on existing Tourism Improvement Districts — geographical areas where a public-private partnership is created using a portion of sales tax dollars to help finance construction and bond payments.

Those agreements, financed through Sales Tax Anticipation Revenue (STAR) bonds, were used in the mid-2000s to help finance construction of several Northern Nevada developments including Cabela's and Outlets at Legends — agreements later criticized, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, for not building in enough accountability measures into the projects.

Benitez-Thompson — who said her mother was laid off by the City of Reno after the municipality was forced to use general fund dollars to make bond payments on a STAR bonds project — submitted a conceptual amendment to the bill phasing out all language for STAR Bond tax financing, in effect sunsetting the program.

But that raised concerns from representatives of Southern Nevada local governments, who on Monday morning held an unusual back-and-forth with the six members of the conference committee on a request to exempt Clark County from the bill. Conference committees are appointed when the Assembly and Senate disagree over an amendment, but often are also used to push last-minute changes to legislation on the final day of the session.

Lobbyist Warren Hardy, representing a consortium of Southern Nevada governments, said there was interest in allowing STAR Bonds and tourism improvement districts as a potential “tool in the toolbox” for developers — including potentially the Oakland A’s, who have publicly floated moving the professional baseball team to Las Vegas.

But the idea of using STAR Bonds for a stadium rankled lawmakers on the conference committee.

“I’ve been very clear on how these things need to be done … if we’re going to do Huntridge (Theater), small nonprofit, things along that line, I think that’s where these funds really could possibly work,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said. “But if we’re talking about a stadium and trying to pay for that, I have a lot of concerns about moving forward at that level.”

After a small amount of debate, the conference committee (with the implicit blessing of Southern Nevada lobbyists) agreed to move forward on the bill with an amendment only allowing STAR Bonds to be extended in Clark County, and striking existing language that allows the bond proceeds to help pay for a professional sports stadium.

— Riley Snyder

Bill setting guidelines for spending $2.7 billion from feds prioritizes backfilling lost revenue, paying unemployment loan

State Senator Chris Brooks notifies the Assembly that the Senate has convened the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature on Friday, July 31, 2020 in Carson City.

A bill introduced in the Senate on Saturday would set the guidelines for how Nevada should spend $2.7 billion in federal aid coming through the American Rescue Plan, including compensating for lost revenue by backfilling the general fund and paying back money borrowed to keep unemployment benefits flowing.

The measure, SB461, first calls on the state to determine how much revenue the state lost because of the pandemic and putting that amount into the general fund. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said guidance from the U.S. Treasury provides a formula for determining that amount, but the final figure has not yet been calculated, and he said it’s not necessary to know that before the session ends.

“It's quite a big number,” Brooks said. “Our revenue folks are putting all the different streams of revenue that we had losses in, putting that together now, to try to get through that calculation.”

Next, the bill calls for spending $335 million to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits. Heading into the pandemic, Nevada had nearly $2 billion in its unemployment trust fund, but burned through the money when hundreds of thousands of Nevada tapped into the benefits.

Traditionally, such borrowing would be paid back through a tax increase on employers.

The bill then sets aside nearly $21 million for public health expenditures such as mental health treatment and enhancements to public health data systems, and another $7.6 million to address food security.

“Those are two priorities that we have during the pandemic that are needs and still need to be met for Nevadans,” Brooks said. “And so that shows where our priorities lie.”

From there, the bill sets a variety of broad spending categories that align with a framework the governor and Democratic leaders released earlier this spring, but no specific expenditures. Those categories include increasing access to health care, strengthening public education and investing in infrastructure.

Brooks said it’s still not clear that lawmakers would be finishing the work of disbursing the federal funding through a special session; disbursement can also be accomplished through work programs coming through the Interim Finance Committee.

“I don't think it's guaranteed by any means,” Brooks said about a special session. “I think this gives us the authority to work on it in the interim.”

The bill, which is sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Lawmakers approve adding more than half a billion dollars to public education to implement new K-12 funding formula

State lawmakers are adding more than a half a billion dollars in education funding to help stand up the new K-12 funding formula over the next two years, marking one of the largest legislative investments in school funding without a tax increase in state history.

Legislators in a joint budget committee on Wednesday unanimously approved allocating $275 million in the 2022 fiscal year and $227 million in 2023 fiscal year to boost base funding in the state’s new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” the long anticipated upgrade of the state’s decades-old public school funding formula set to go into effect this summer.

Lawmakers have spent recent weeks working to close K-12 budgets and complete the complex implementation and transition to the new funding formula, including meeting late Tuesday to approve appropriating $67.2 million to hold rural school districts harmless moving into the new funding formula.

But the meeting Wednesday morning was the first time that education advocates and the public got an answer to the question of how much lawmakers would be willing to spend to stand up the new formula — more than $502 million.

“I'm going to say it: I've been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said.

Sen. Chris Brooks, who co-chairs the committee, said a lot of work happened overnight to get the additional funding and numbers squared away. The financial flexibility to move forward on enhanced funding was undoubtedly also boosted by the better-than-expected taxation revenue projections approved earlier this month by the state’s Economic Forum — giving lawmakers a $586 million upward revision in projected tax revenue, much of which is now being allocated to the funding formula.

Though lawmakers are ending the 120-day legislative session with the financial wind at their backs — between the Economic Forum’s projections and the coming $2.9 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan — several noted that the actions taken on Wednesday will apply more pressure on future Legislatures to continue funding education at higher levels.

“It will certainly put some upward pressure, rather than downward pressure, on future sessions and future executives to continue funding education at an increased method, and I think that's the point,” Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said. 

The average base per-pupil funding will be $9,096 in the 2022 fiscal year and $9,185 in the 2023 fiscal year. Those figures do not reflect other money that flows to students, including special education money that is outside the funding model.

Eight of the state’s 17 school districts, plus the Davidson Academy and all charter schools, will be transitioned to the new funding formula over the biennium, with nine mostly rural school districts remaining in a “hold harmless” budget status. Legislative fiscal staff said that the new K-12 funding scheme covers about 93.6 percent of public and charter students.

“I don't think we can express our appreciation more than we already have, but we are going to continue to try,” said Hawah Ahmad, a lobbyist for the Clark County Education Association. “And at the end of the day, we just thank you for supporting our educators and supporting our students to give them every opportunity to succeed.

Chris Daly with the Nevada State Education Association lauded the move but acknowledged the public pressure to continually move the needle on K-12 funding in the coming years. The Commission on School Funding — the advisory body ushering the new funding plan into existence — has said Nevada needs more than $2 billion over a decade to achieve the national average of per-pupil spending. The commission has recommended changes to property and sales taxes as a means to generating that significant amount of new revenue toward education.

“I just want to point out there is a collaborative, sometimes contentious but ultimately necessary process between inside the halls and corridors of power and outside the halls and corridors of power,” he said. “People raised their voice to ask those who are elected to address their concerns and remedy their issues.”

Without naming names, several legislators offered thinly veiled responses to pressure by education advocates to increase education spending through raising taxes — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said that lawmakers last session faced 119 days of criticism before moving to substantially boost per-pupil funding, and that the “historic support for public education… doesn't happen on the sidewalks and also doesn't happen on social media.”

Carlton, who is serving her final term in the Legislature, said she anticipated additional criticism of the Legislature to come over the final two weeks of session but stressed that putting a substantial amount of money into base education funding would have a profound effect on public school teachers and students.

“No matter what we do, it's not going to be good enough for somebody,” she said. “They're going to criticize us for not solving this problem or that problem or another problem. But the fact of the matter is that we are adding a half a billion dollars to education, and we're putting most of it into the base, which will help every single student and every single teacher succeed.”

What it means

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the new infusion of funds would raise the amount of money Nevada spends overall on education per student. Teacher union activists have worn buttons around the Legislature with the number “48,” referring to how the state’s approximately $9,400 in spending per pupil per year ranks 48th in the nation.

“I am confident it is certainly higher in both regards — both the state money that's going into education per pupil as well as the overall investment in education from the state outside of the funding formula,” Frierson said. “I'm confident it’s certainly more than we did in 2019, which was a record increase ... So we're continuing to make progress towards funding, prioritizing public education and we'll continue to do so.”

Because the additional funds are layered on top of a budget that already had deep cuts to class size reduction, the “Read by Grade 3” program and other initiatives, some of the money is simply digging the state out of a hole.

Kieckhefer acknowledged “it's not going to make a huge dent” in how the state ranks nationally, but also said that he thinks the metric is “a really blunt instrument to try and figure out how our education system is functioning.”

“I've always thought that we did ourselves a disservice by saying we're 48 or whatever we are in education, because I've got four kids in the public school system and I know that there's really good teaching going on,” he said. “Is this just massive growth in our education spending? No, it's not. But it is a commitment to seeing through the promise we made last session by the implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. And it's ensuring that the majority of kids in the state … are being funded based on some reflection of their need. And I think that's important.”

Beyond the education add-backs on Wednesday, the state has to account for a hit of about $200 million because the Supreme Court ruled a payroll tax increase was unconstitutional, and has already increased Medicaid general fund spending about $110 million above the governor’s recommendation. That consumes much of the $910 million in unexpected money the state has to work with because revenue forecasts were rosier than originally planned.

That could mean the budget does not have a 5 percent cushion in the “ending fund balance,” which is a target for lawmakers. Kieckhefer said he expects the Legislature will want to plug COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan to further shore up the budget.

Carlton said that the state isn’t yet done with the budget.

“We're just working with general fund right now because we don't have that money yet,” Carlton said of the federal aid. “Now once we get a very solid feel for what that is, then we can go ahead and add it in and then we can make some other decisions."

She said she’s waiting for fiscal analyst Russell Guindon to get comfortable with guidance from federal officials on precisely how the money can be used. 

“We're comfortable with getting the money but is the guidance clear enough that we don't put ourselves in harm's way and we end up with a clawback?” Carlton said.

But it appears the amount of base per-pupil funding finalized on Wednesday will stand.

“I think we are where we need to be with the base. You have to remember it's going to grow over time. The whole goal was to give it a really good sound footing, so that it can grow over time,” Carlton said. “If you start too high … you'll have expectations that you may not be able to meet. This base, we believe, is just at the right level to allow the model to stand up and run on its own ... and then the legislators that come back in [2023] will be able to evaluate it.”

Updated at 8:03 p.m. on May 19, 2021 to add further comments from legislators.

Fire managers prepare for summer blazes as the state faces severe drought conditions

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

I’m writing this newsletter from Winnemucca. For the past month, I’ve been reporting out a story on the Thacker Pass lithium mine, which the Trump administration approved in mid-January. 

I’m getting a lot of community perspectives about the project, which would be located outside of Orovada. On Monday evening, I attended a public meeting about having the mining company relocate and rebuild the Orovada Elementary School because of safety concerns with more trucks hauling materials and driving through the area. A lot of perspectives from parents. My story should be coming out in a few weeks. In the meantime, send me any thoughts you have about the project.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Nevada is facing its worst drought in two decades. 

Nearly 95 percent of the state is facing severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In April, most of the Great Basin experienced above-normal temperatures with little precipitation. As with much of the West, Nevada saw well below-average rain and snow for the water year, which begins in October. Snowpack peaked early, and snow is melting quickly. 

Gina McGuire Palma, a meteorologist who forecasts fire in the Great Basin, presented those statistics at a media wildfire briefing last week. The dry conditions, she said, are important for the forecasts facing fire managers as they start planning for the warm summer months.

When it comes to fire and drought in the Great Basin, the story is complicated. Although drought means less moisture, it also means that low-elevation grasses are less abundant and productive. That’s important because those low-elevation grasses fuel many of the large-scale fires across the Great Basin. The amount of acreage burned and drought are not always related in the Great Basin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean less potential for a bad fire season. 

What it means is that in a drought year, like the one we are seeing, the fire risk tends to be in mid-to-higher elevation areas, McGuire Palma said at the briefing. Another big factor is where the fire is. A smaller acreage fire in a highly-populated area or in sensitive wildlife habitat can have long-lasting effects. And there have been notable fires during drought years before. 

Prior to the media briefing, state, federal and local agencies briefed Gov. Steve Sisolak about fire risks facing the state. At the briefing, Sisolak described wildfire as “one of Nevada’s most challenging issues,” but he said agencies are “better coordinated than ever before.”

Kacey KC, the state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry, said that better coordination is important in the Great Basin, where much of the land is managed by a variety of agencies. The federal government manages about 85 percent of land within Nevada, and one agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, manages about 65 percent.

“We learned through many years of being jurisdictionally challenged that we had to work better together,” KC said. “And we actually also realized, awhile back, that not only do we have to be highly effective at wildfire suppression, but also need to work harder at really targeting our limited resources and funding at the areas that are most critical to reduce risk in.”

In all of this, humans play a big role.

Sisolak, in his remarks, underscored the effects that climate change is having on fires: “While wildfires are a natural part of Nevada’s landscape, the fire season is starting earlier each year and ending later. Climate change and cycles of drought are considered key drivers of this trend.” 

In addition to climate change, the vast majority of fires — about 67 percent — were linked to human activity last year. Sisolak implored residents to be aware of the risks of starting a fire.

“What we can do as residents in Nevada is be aware,” Sisolak said. 

More reporting on this from KNPR and the Associated Press. And tips for preventing fires.

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


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

A massive energy bill drops at the Legislature: Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) dropped a major energy infrastructure bill last week with less than three weeks left in the session, as my colleague Riley Snyder reported. The legislation, presented at a roundtable with Sisolak and NV Energy, aims to increase the state’s transmission capacity (crucial for putting more renewables on the grid) and to require more investment in charging for electric vehicles. Both are central to the governor’s climate strategy, and backers of the bill argue that it is vital in order to ensure the state plays a central role in the transition from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. 

  • Most environmental groups support the broad components of the bill: They want to see more deployment of renewable energy, and transmission is going to be an important element of that. At a hearing Monday, several groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nevada Conservation League, came out in favor of the legislation. 
  • But some groups believe the legislation shortcuts comprehensive planning: For months, environmental groups have been pushing state agencies to identify land where energy development is appropriate and where it conflicts with other priorities, including recreation and wildlife habitat. They want to see policymakers working to prioritize new energy development, such as solar fields, on already disturbed land. The transmission lines matter, they say, because their alignment and siting often dictate where projects go. These groups want to see more comprehensive planning when it comes to building out a more renewable grid. Based on my reporting, they are not alone. Public land has many constituencies, and permitting conflicts are not limited to environmental issues.
  • There is also the question of regulatory oversight: The legislation dropped with only a few weeks left in the session. But given the presence of the utility at the unveiling of the complex bill, it is clear that it came out of negotiations between legislative leaders, NV Energy and the Sisolak administration. It’s worth noting that the Nevada Resorts Association came out in “technical opposition” because of the late bill introduction and sought changes that “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”

Swamp cedar bill passes both houses: The Senate on Monday passed legislation to grant state protection to unique stands of low-elevation Rocky Mountain juniper trees in Spring Valley (known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone). The legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), would protect the trees, known as the swamp cedars, that stand as a sacred and spiritual place for Shoshone and Goshute communities. Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) was the only Republican senator who voted in favor of the bill, despite making remarks that questioned the accuracy of accounts of massacres that occurred at Bahsahwahbee and angering Indigenous advocates, as my colleague Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reported.

A few pieces of legislation I’m watching as the session nears a close:

  • AB356: Banning Colorado River water from use in irrigating decorative turf
  • AB349: Ending a loophole allowing “classic cars” from evading smog rules
  • AB148: Preventing “bad actors” from getting a new mine permit
  • SCR10: Creating an interim study on hydrogen and lithium as energy sources 
  • SCR11: Creating an interim study on Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal
  • AB95: Adding an Indigenous representative to the interim public lands committee
  • AB146: Establishing a right to clean water, aims to better regulate indirect pollution 
  • SB285: Better integrating bikes into our road infrastructure
  • AB97: Creating a working group to look at “forever chemicals” known as PFAS
  • SB430: Restructuring the State Infrastructure Bank to fund climate-related projects
  • SJR1, AJR1, AJR2: The mining tax resolutions. Anything could happen. 

(This is by no means exhaustive. Let me know what I’m missing here — daniel@thenvindy.com. h/t to the Nevada Conservation League, which puts together a weekly list of bills to watch). 

Reauthorizing the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation last week to fund environmental protection at Lake Tahoe. The legislation has the backing of the entire Nevada delegation, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported last week.


WATER AND LAND

“We’re going to have one of the lowest runoffs that we’ve seen:” SFGATE’s Julie Brown writes about low elevations at Tahoe, with an interview from the Truckee River Water Master. 

Diving to clean-up Lake Tahoe trash: “A team of scuba divers on Friday completed the first dive of a massive, six-month effort to rid the popular Lake Tahoe of fishing rods, tires, aluminum cans, beer bottles and other trash accumulating underwater,” the Associated Press reports. 

Biden considers new sage grouse rules: Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown reported last week that the Biden administration is considering a temporary ban on new mining across certain areas of public land in the West as part of efforts to recover the imperiled Greater sage grouse, which has seen significant population declines over the last half-century. From the story: “The Interior Department review comes in response to a federal court order and is expected to cover millions of acres of sagebrush habitat considered crucial to the bird’s long-term survival.”

Tracking a federal wild horse adoption program: “...records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction.” Incredible reporting from the New York Times’ Dave Philipps.

Federal regulators to rule on Tiehm’s buckwheat: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to make a determination on the listing of a rare Nevada wildflower as an endangered species by the end of the month,” reports Jeniffer Solis with the Nevada Current.

Water data is as important as ever: An example from California. 

For the mappers out there: A new, peer-reviewed Colorado River map is out. 

For the mappers out there (Part II): What is a summit? Great New York Times piece.

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

Google’s big geothermal announcement: Google is partnering with energy startup Fervo to develop a “next-generation geothermal project” that would help the company power its data centers and infrastructure in Nevada. Fervo expects to begin adding geothermal energy to the Nevada grid in 2022, according to a Google blog post, and the company views the project as a crucial part in its transition toward meeting its “moonshot” carbon-free energy goals by 2030.

  • From Google’s blog post: “Not only does this Fervo project bring our data centers in Nevada closer to round-the-clock clean energy, but it also acts as a proof-of-concept to show how firm clean energy sources such as next-generation geothermal could eventually help replace carbon-emitting power sources around the world.” 
  • “Next-gen:” In the blog post, the project is referred to as “next-generation” geothermal, distinguished from conventional geothermal because it uses advanced drilling, fiber-optic sensing and data analytics (the press release mentions AI and machine learning). But the project appears to be one step in the company’s larger plan to make geothermal more viable. At a keynote for Google I/O, an annual developer conference, CEO Sundar Pichai said geothermal “is not widely used today, and we want to change that.” 
  • That last quote is a big deal: As I’ve written in this newsletter before, developers have long seen an opening to deploy more geothermal, and Nevada is uniquely positioned. It has expertise, with a top geothermal developer headquartered here, and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, high potential for more geothermal development. Having a major company make a high-profile investment in geothermal is pretty significant.

Bury power lines? News 4-Fox 11’s Ben Margiott asked a top NV Energy executive.

An important utility debate is brewing: Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth writes about a national debate over whether utilities should be allowed to charge their ratepayers for trade association fees, especially when those trade associations engage in advocacy activities. 

Lawmakers close K-12 education budgets, gear up for more work on school funding in coming days

A small group of kindergarten age children sitting on a floor

A joint budget committee took a host of steps Tuesday night toward finalizing the K-12 education budget for the upcoming biennium, though more work remains in the less than two weeks left in the legislative session.

Beyond long asides on the technical elements of changes ahead for school funding, including how to make sure charter schools and special education programs are funded fairly, lawmakers approved some of the hallmark changes coming from the transition to a new formula with no substantial discussion. 

“It's almost like Christmas Day,” said Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who co-chaired the joint committee. “You work really, really hard to get it done and then you have the vote, and it's all over.”

The series of votes during the two-hour meeting on Tuesday laid the groundwork for another day of education funding-focused meetings on Wednesday, including another joint budget committee meeting and a hearing on the policy side of the plan to move to a new funding formula through the bill SB439. Those funds will support the nearly 485,000 students expected to enroll in Nevada schools in the coming fiscal year.

The committee’s first act Tuesday occurred when members approved a general fund appropriation of $67.2 million to hold school districts harmless as the state transitions to a new funding formula called the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. That amount would keep funding levels for the upcoming fiscal year in line with Fiscal Year 2020 levels.

The joint committee also appropriated $50 million of general funds to serve as a loan for the Education Stabilization Account, which is essentially a rainy day fund for the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. The money would be repaid in annual installments equal to amounts entering the account. 

Asked whether a massive influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan money could be used to shore up that account, chairs of money committees brought up different points about the money. The Nevada Department of Education, along with other state agencies, suffered budget cuts associated with the pandemic-caused dip in state revenue; however, the state and individual school districts are receiving a large wave of federal funds to address education challenges created by the health situation.

“The chair’s concern is spending money that I don't have in my hand yet,” Carlton said.

Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said that while he wants to fund K-12 education “with whatever monies we possibly can get our hands on,” the federal funds are not allowed to shore up reserve accounts such as the stabilization fund.

Lawmakers also took local special education funding out of a larger statewide pot of base education funding to ensure it is not diluted and spread out across all students. It may give the perception of lowering the per-pupil base funding amount, but that special education money would be transferred to a specific fund to ensure it stays with special education students.

“We’re not talking about less money, we’re just redirecting it so that there’s more clarity and transparency when you look at it,” Brooks said, referring to the changes with special education funding.

Lawmakers also accepted a long list of changes approved by budget subcommittees as preliminary steps to moving toward the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. That included reducing class-size reduction funding and sweeping that into the general funding account, partially restoring the Read by Grade 3 program but sweeping it into the larger pot and sending money for a variety of other “categorical” programs with restricted purposes into the main fund. 

At least one school district, however, has already indicated it plans to backfill state budget cuts to the class-size reduction program with its share of federal coronavirus relief funding.

Additionally, the committee restored funding slashed during the special session last year for at-risk students or those who are learning English as a second language. The move brings funding levels for those groups back to Fiscal Year 2020 levels, courtesy of a $2.3 million appropriation in each year of the upcoming biennium.

Education advocates who spoke during a public comment period urged lawmakers toward another action that remains conspicuously undone in the waning days of the session — raising new revenue, particularly through changing the taxation structure for the mining industry. Activists have called for advancing the proposed constitutional amendment AJR1 on the mining issue.

“The new funding plan can be touted as this great new thing that will improve education, but a new funding plan with no new funding is doomed to fail,” said Selena La Rue Hatch, a social studies teacher in the Washoe County School District. “I'm asking you to invest. If you believe in this plan, invest in it. Start with new revenue. Start with AJR1.”

Massive clean energy bill expanding transmission, electric car charging stations gets first hearing; resorts opposed

Heralded as a transformative step to move Nevada toward greatly reduced carbon emissions through massive expansions in transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, state lawmakers heard the first details of the legislative session’s biggest energy policy bill with just two weeks to go before the end of session.

Sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), SB448 would expand the state’s transmission infrastructure in line with NV Energy’s multibillion-dollar Greenlink Nevada initiative, along with requiring a $100 million investment in electric vehicle charging stations, expanding rooftop solar to multi-tenant and commercial buildings and proposing a host of other measures aimed at lowering carbon emissions and building up renewable energy infrastructure.

During the bill’s first multi-hour hearing on Monday in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, lawmakers and clean energy advocates were not shy about pouring praise on the legislation — ranging from NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon saying the bill “positions Nevada as energy leader in the western United States for decades to come” to Governor’s Office of Economic Development Director Michael Brown saying “448 will be one of those bill numbers that lives beyond legislative sessions.”

Support was not unanimous — several progressive and environmental groups warned that a large infrastructure project could harm fragile ecosystems, and the politically powerful Nevada Resort Association (which represents many casino resorts that have left regular utility service but remain as transmission-only customers) testified in opposition, wanting the state’s Public Utilities Commission to have more authority over the transmission build-out.

Brooks, who sponsored legislation raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2019 and 2017, said those bills and past efforts were helpful first steps but that this legislation represented an attempt to “take a more holistic approach at carbon reduction planning for the electricity sector.”

“Imagine a world where in Nevada, we are making most of our own electricity with renewable resources, we're putting them in our vehicles, and we're driving our vehicles,” he said. “That closes the loop and keeps billions of dollars in our economy, and also makes it far more affordable for the individual who's driving the electric vehicle.”

SB448 has two main prongs — transmission and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The transmission portions would help finish NV Energy’s proposed “Greenlink” transmission plan, which received initial, partial approval from the state Public Utilities Commission in March. The project would build two major transmission lines aimed at forming a “transmission triangle,” expanding and linking the current 235-mile, 500 megawatt “One Nevada Transmission Line” that links Northern and Southern Nevada. 

Brooks said expanded transmission capacity would not only build up grid resiliency beyond the current One Nevada line — pointing at the 2021 Texas electricity crisis as a warning — but would also allow Nevada to more cheaply import renewable energy produced in other states and help diversify the current fuel mix.

“If we just connect the dots with a few transmission lines, we could realize that economic opportunity of being the hub of the western grid, and we could realize the benefits that come with all of that energy that we can export and all that energy that we move through our state,” Brooks said. “The benefits are billions of dollars of economic activity in our state and billions of dollars of private investment in our state and renewable energy projects.”

The other major portion of the bill would require NV Energy to propose and submit a $100 million spending plan for electric vehicle charging station infrastructure over the next two years, with a strong focus on historically underserved areas, outdoor recreation, transit agencies and fleet upgrades for state, local and federal governments.

Much of the three-hour hearing focused on the transmission aspects — a wide variety of groups testified in support including IBEW; businesses including Google, Ikea, Patagonia and Uber; Battle Born Progress and clean energy development groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Nevada Conservation League and others.

Brown, who heads the state’s economic development arm, said corporations in and considering moving to Nevada were increasingly focused on renewable energy and meeting environmental goals, giving the state a potential leg up on business development if it further committed to renewable resources.

“For the first time, we sat with a manufacturer from the Midwest a few weeks ago, and they looked at us and the first question they had for us is they wanted to talk about renewable energy,” he said. “They wanted to know how we were producing it, how it was transmitted, what the prices were. That's a game changer. We've not had that before.”

Cannon, who helped present the bill, said completion of the Greenlink project would help create a “path forward for us to economically achieve the state's net zero carbon goals,” while opening up new areas for solar and renewable energy development currently cut off from transmission lines.

“We can produce energy in a lot of places in Nevada, but that doesn't do us any good if we can't get that energy from where it's produced to where it needs to be utilized,” Cannon said. “Transmission becomes the backbone that is necessary to fully utilize that energy.”

But that proposed infrastructure expansion attracted opposition from spokesmen for environmental groups including Basin and Range Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity who said they had strong concerns that the legislation allowed NV Energy to rush forward without enough time for environmental review or potential impacts.

“Instead of instructing state agencies to complete a clear-eyed, comprehensive review of where renewable energy might be appropriate in this state, SB448 would throw open the doors to our most wild and pristine landscapes and rely on the tender mercies of the market and fossil fuel companies like NV Energy to decide the fate of Nevada’s wildlands,” Center for Biological Diversity State Director Patrick Donnelly said.

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), a former administrative attorney at the PUC, asked what would happen if the promised economic benefits don’t materialize — and how much risk was being shouldered by ratepayers.

Cannon responded that the Greenlink plan was “not a risk-free proposition,” but said the utility was prepared to move forward with the $2.5 billion infrastructure project immediately, noting that customers would not have to start paying for the project for several years and that any proposal by the utility would go through a contested hearing process before the PUC and ultimately have to be approved by the commission.

“There is no guarantee in this legislation that we will recover the dollars of this investment,” he said. “There's not. We have to proceed reasonably, and then we'll trust in the process on the back end that we have the opportunity to recover our investment and earn a reasonable return. It's kind of the regulatory compact that exists between the utility as a private entity and the state.”

But the proposed process in the bill attracted opposition from the Nevada Resort Association —  lobbyist Laura Granier said the group was in “technical opposition” because of the complexity of a bill introduced with only two weeks left in the legislative session. She said the association had proposed “clarifying changes” to the bill that would not affect the timeline but would ensure that the PUC “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”

“The Commission needs the tools to keep an eye on that,” she said. “We're not saying that they shouldn't earn their return on investment, they should, but through the (Integrated Resource Planning) process they do get to recover costs.”

Both Brooks and Cannon said the bill would not have a sizable impact on utility customers — Brooks pointed to a slide showing the adoption of renewable energy increasing while average electric prices in the state had gone down. Cannon added that opening up transmission markets would help the state access lower-cost power from other areas, and that ratepayers wouldn’t see the cost of the expanded infrastructure until five or six years down the road.

NV Energy, in a filing submitted to the PUC as part of the initial Greenlink filing last month, estimated that customers in nearly all rate classes would see higher base power prices to help pay off the expansion of power lines. Cannon and others said in a previous forum on the bill that those estimates do not include potential benefits from increased transmission access.

Beyond transmission and electric vehicle charging, the bill also creates a Regional Transmission Coordination Task Force, a group of public and private industry officials tasked with helping the governor and Legislature determine the steps needed to join a western states regional transmission organization — an entity that coordinates, controls and monitors a multi-state electric grid. The legislation requires Nevada to join a regional transmission organization (RTO) by 2030, with options for the PUC to delay or waive the requirement.

The bill would also double an energy efficiency initiative for low-income customers from five to 10 percent of the utility’s overall energy efficiency plan, expand a state Renewable Energy Tax Abatement program to cover energy storage projects, reopen a discounted energy rate program that expired at the end of 2017 and require NV Energy to begin including a low carbon dioxide emission reduction plan in its triennial integrated resource plan.

Lawmakers finalize budgets, but expect restoring many of their cuts

After months of review, legislative money committees closed their final budgets on Friday with many of the austerity measures in the governor’s budget, but are teeing up for a more pleasant round of add-backs to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars from revenue streams expected to over-perform earlier projections.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said the outcome of a Saturday budget hearing would depend on what numbers staff arrive at after adding up all the actions taken by the Legislature. But even as lawmakers have voted to approve painful cuts, they have hinted that they’re putting sticky notes on certain accounts with the intention of filling them back up. 

“It's a moving target, until the very end,” Brooks said. “But to the extent there's money available, we're going to try to add it back to everything that's been cut.”

He said K-12 education — specifically boosting a base per-pupil figure “as high as we possibly can” — is a priority. That number will be a key starting point as the state moves to a new “Pupil-Centered Funding Plan,” and future adjustments and weights will be calculated as multipliers of that figure.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers swept funding from a long list of targeted, “categorical” accounts into a larger pot of funding to be redistributed through the new funding. But some of those underlying accounts, such as one supporting class size reduction, were cut by tens of millions of dollars before being swept, and lawmakers and advocates gave dire warnings about the consequences of letting that decision stand.

“The proposed $156 million cut the class size reduction over the next biennium would mean a loss of about 1,000 teachers across the state, meaning even more students packed into Nevada classrooms,” said Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union. “This is not acceptable.”

Lawmakers already voted this week to undo one of the most loathed cuts during the pandemic — cuts in reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers — but budget committees made less-dramatic moves in recent days to shore up the budget in accordance with constitutional deadlines. Below are some highlights from budget closings on Thursday and Friday.

Medicaid and health care

Full budget committees on Friday approved moving forward with recommendations made earlier this week to roll back Medicaid rate decreases approved by lawmakers during a budget-slashing 2020 special session and a host of other add-backs to state health care spending.

Committee members approved recommendations of rolling back a 6 percent Medicaid rate decrease approved last year, as well as to finally enact a 2.5 percent increase in the acute care hospital rate starting in July. The move restores about $300 million in Medicaid funding, including about $110 million from state dollars.

Lawmakers also approved several other adjustments to the Medicaid budget, including significant caseload adjustments estimated to cost the state roughly $320 million in general fund dollars. The governor’s recommended budget had counted on a caseload of about 770,000 in each year of the biennium, now expected to be about 830,000 in fiscal year 2022 and 820,000 in fiscal year 2023.

Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-Las Vegas), who chaired a budget subcommittee, said Friday that her first few meetings “weren’t cheerful,” but that the state’s recent upward revision in projected tax revenue gave lawmakers the flexibility to reverse many of the proposed cuts.

“We're leaving knowing that we've made some changes now with this budget if we close it as it is, knowing we're making a direct positive impact on so many lives,” she said.

Assembly Ways and Means committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said Friday was “one of the good days in the Legislature at this moment in time,” saying that restoring the cuts helped lawmakers avoid tough decisions about which budgets and services to cut.

“The conversations on that were just heart wrenching,” she said. “We're getting back to square one, we still need to build a couple more rungs to the ladder to get out of the hole. We're not out of the hole yet, but at least we're getting close, especially to these vulnerable populations.” 

Corrections

Prison populations have fallen well below projected levels during the pandemic, so lawmakers approved funding for a reduced number of inmates. In the fiscal year that begins in July, lawmakers now expect there will be an average of 11,043 inmates in the system based on projections released in March; that’s about 1,300 people lower than an October 2020 projection of 12,345 inmates.

Another significant change in the last few months has been a delay in an effort to reclassify the  Ely State Prison as a medium security facility, down from its current status as a maximum security facility. The rural prison has long had troubles with staffing, and the status adjustment was aimed at reducing the number of correctional officers needed to supervise the inmates.

The Governor’s Finance Office says it is requesting the Nevada Department of Corrections to conduct an internal study and gather evidence that reclassifying Ely State Prison — and also raising the classification of medium-security High Desert State Prison — is appropriate for the 2023-2025 biennium.

Aging and disability

Lawmakers opted to restore some of the Aging and Disability Services cuts that would hit some of the most vulnerable Nevadans.

The governor’s budget had recommended cutting the rate paid to providers of early intervention services — which are targeted toward young children with disabilities — from $565 to $500 per month. The reduction would have saved $2.9 million over the biennium.

The full committees opted not to approve the recommendation, keeping the rate at $565 per month.

“I think we all share the same discomfort of the long-term impacts of not being able to intervene early that we know increase over time … and also the impact that has on need for state services down the road,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno).

They also opted to reject proposed cuts of six adult rights specialist positions from the long-term care ombudsman program, which was aimed at saving $1.1 million over the biennium. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) noted that residents of nursing homes were among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the staff of the ombudsman’s office were the eyes and ears on the ground about conditions in long-term care facilities.

“It's not quality assurance, it's not licensing, it's very different,” Ratti said. “It's a place where families can go to share their concerns, and I just have significant concerns about not having that resource in place as we are navigating the rest of this pandemic.”

State parks

Lawmakers approved a fee increase for state parks passes to shift costs from the general fund to visitors, saving the state $2 million over the biennium.

Instead of $75, the cost for a day-use annual pass would be $100. There would also be a new $5 out-of-state fee.

Those changes were already imposed effective in April through temporary regulations, with a process set to begin in May to make the regulations permanent by November.

Parks officials do not anticipate that the changes will deter tourists. They said that camping increased 41.2 percent and boating increased by 10.4 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and noted that other neighboring states charge out-of-state fees.

Budget differences

Lawmakers on budget committees also used Friday’s meeting to hash out budget closing differences — situations that occur when the Assembly and Senate differ on budget-related decisions.

This session, lawmakers only faced two relatively minor closing issues — one related to a travel and meeting budget for the Commission on School Funding, and one related to funding for the Knowledge account — the grant program for higher education facilities aimed at spurring the commercialization of research.

There were no knock-down, drag-out fights over either of the two items — lawmakers opted to go with the Assembly recommendation on the Commission on School Funding budget (dollars for two-day meetings every other month, as opposed to every month) and the Senate recommendation for the Knowledge Account — full funding of $5 million over the two years of the budget cycle.

Budget committee chairs and legislative leaders said they were generally pleased that despite the often intense budget review process, both houses made it to this point with only a handful of differences.

“We've had hundreds of budget accounts, countless hours of meetings, and between both houses, and all these members, and two different political parties, and it boils down to these two very simple closing differences,” Brooks said. “This is to me just an indication of how much we have in common, as opposed to what we differ on.”