Never give up. Never surrender.

Michele Fiore as a candidate for Ward 6

Everybody does it. It’s legal. What’s the problem?

That was more or less the response from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore when she was questioned about the six figures she gave her daughter’s company in exchange for “advertising” and “event planning”. As far as defenses go, it has the honor of being refreshingly honest. Say whatever you will about Las Vegas’ irascible mayor pro tem - she certainly deserves every word of it - but you have to hand it to her, she’s absolutely correct on that much, at least. 

If anything, the truly sad part is how small her potential corruption even is. $109,000? That’s all? Chris Giunchigliani paid her husband’s consulting firm more than $1 million over the better part of a decade. Kelvin Atkinson diverted nearly $500,000 from his campaign account before the U.S. attorney’s office (and, curiously, not the attorney general, despite him being a former state senator) convicted him of violating federal election law. Even the one Libertarian former assemblyman in Nevada’s history, the otherwise lamentable John Moore, almost got a reality show and a house.

No, wait. That’s not right. That’s not the sad part at all.

The sad part is that Nevadans want to know what people are getting in exchange for what their representatives are receiving and the only people who can tell them are the least likely to do so — namely, those very same representatives. The last time Nevada’s august Legislature took up the issue, it demonstrated its commitment to transparency by drafting a bill not only at the last minute but, if Senate bill numbers are any indication, by drafting it dead last and then passing it near-unanimously from the Southwest Airlines boarding terminal in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. 

This sort of nonsense generates a ceaseless stream of complaints about campaign finance laws among Libertarian circles, of course. That said, bouncing rubble upon the rhetorical territory of whether money is speech (ask the CCEA) and under what conditions and incentives our representatives might govern said speech (don’t expect campaign finance rules to be friendly to anyone running against incumbents) is boring and frankly rather misses the point. 

The point is this: We want to know that our politicians aren’t being bought. Failing that, and we’ve been failing that since at least 1864, we want to know who’s buying, what they got for their money, and how much it cost. 

That’s not an unreasonable request. We get that information from publicly traded companies and non-profit organizations via various SEC and IRS forms, after all. Why should political campaigns be any different? Even in the absence of government mandated paperwork, it’d be a rare donor or investor who would blindly give money without a clear understanding of where the money was going. Unfortunately, when we’re talking about political campaigns, we, the people, usually aren’t the investors. We’re the customers. Or worse — we’re the product. 

Sadly, as we all know, politicians will always act according to their interests, chief of which includes getting reelected, and second of which includes ensuring that, once they stop getting elected, they and their families remain in prominent positions of privilege. Consequently, expecting them to govern themselves with integrity, much less govern their colleagues with integrity, must always fail. They have every incentive to fail, do they not?

So why bother? Why should we care?

The answer is simple: Nihilism is a trap.

Nihilism is an attractive trap, to be clear. It’s attractive to us because it means we can evade responsibility. We don’t have to care what politicians are up to. We don’t have to care if they pay their children, their husbands, or finance their dance clubs with campaign contributions from Cegavske-knows-where. We don’t have to expend that energy or effort. In a way, it’s almost liberating. The key word, however, as Reno’s David Chapman points out in his book, Meaningness, is almost. Inevitably, Chapman points out, nihilism leads to anger, depression and denial of reality itself.

Nihilism, meanwhile, is also attractive to politicians. The less we care, the more they can get away with.

To be clear, it’s not just the politicians who get away with more. Those of us in a position to enable politicians also get to get away with more, too. That’s why, no matter which political faction you belong to, there’s always a narrative that your opponents are far more devious and less constrained by ethics than you are. If you adopt a nihilistic stance, this is great news — if your opponents are getting away with murder, why shouldn’t you? 

Ask President Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

When faced with the trap of nihilism, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions. First, what if we’re wrong? Even granting that some politicians are crooked and self-serving, are most of them? Second, even if we’re right about politicians being crooked and corrupt, why should we give up and accept that? 

Truth is, people self-regulate all of the time. Proctor & Gamble, for example, begged Congress to require NASA-grade food standards for the canning industry in the early 1970s after a botulism outbreak. Similarly, Jack in the Box voluntarily increased meat safety requirements from its vendors after an E. coli outbreak in the 1990s. The history of UL, formerly Underwriters Laboratories and the ones that stamp their mark on light bulbs, was built around people choosing to voluntarily submit their products to UL to demonstrate their safety. eBay works because we trust that, if we give someone money, they’ll put what we bought in a box and ship it to us no matter who they are and no matter where they might be.

Yes, it’s true, sometimes self-regulation leads to regulatory capture, especially once the government gets involved. When Proctor & Gamble asked Congress to require NASA-grade food standards, it certainly didn’t hurt their bottom line that a lot of their smaller competitors would inevitably go out of business because of the inability to implement the costly new reforms. Similarly, Libertarians have been ranting against the evils of the American Medical Association and their cartel’s pernicious effects on doctors’ wages and health care prices (among other things) since the 1960s. Then there’s the issue of occupational licensing, but there’s more than enough ground there to fill another column

Acknowledging that sometimes regulation, whether voluntarily applied or not, goes wrong, however, does not absolve us from the responsibility of regulating ourselves nor from the responsibility of holding others accountable. Jack in the Box held itself accountable because we, as customers, held Jack in the Box accountable by not buying their product. Proctor & Gamble held itself accountable (and the canning industry hostage) because we, as customers, held canned foods accountable by not buying their product. Similarly, politicians will hold themselves accountable when we step out of the trap of nihilism and stop voting for politicians who refuse to even maintain an appearance of propriety, much less the real thing. 

Yes, doing so will require us to be vigilant. Yes, we will be frequently disappointed. Yes, they will be frequently hypocritical. No, those are not excuses to shrug, throw on some Pearl Jam, watch South Park reruns and get high while the world burns. Yes, sometimes those demanding we care are conning us and taking advantage of our empathy. It happens. The alternative, however, is letting those same people con us and take advantage of our apathy and the results of that are much worse. 

I would like to live in a Nevada where politicians at least try to be sneaky when they launder campaign money through family members. I would like to live in a Nevada where politicians have to be sneaky when they launder campaign money through family members. 

It’s time for Nevadans to become a lot less nihilistic about our politicians and start holding them to a higher standard. A good place to start would be the voting booth.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org.

Climate change, conservation and development: Reshuffling the deck on the Las Vegas lands bill

What is the Clark County lands bill really about? It all depends who you ask.

For more than two years, Clark County officials have worked on crafting a proposal to expand the federal public land available for development, while meeting their responsibilities to protect imperiled species such as the Mojave desert tortoise. In 2018, the County Commission voted to send the proposal to Congress with buy-in from developers but criticism from environmental groups.

In recent weeks, that criticism — that the bill would subvert environmental laws and undermine climate change efforts — has reached an apex, most notably during a heated KNPR segment.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is working to change the conversation, especially as it relates to conservation. To do that, the senator’s staff began floating legislative language — known as a “discussion draft” — Tuesday that aims to resolve some of the most controversial aspects of the county’s plan. 

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Cortez Masto said that the purpose of the discussion draft was to foster a new round of discussions that moves groups toward finding common ground. 

“It should go toward a final product that really does allow Clark County to plan for the growth in a sustainable, predictable and responsible manner, while also protecting our pristine lands and environment,” she said. “At the end of the day, the county has to plan. We have a growing community and population there. We need to make sure they have the ability to plan for that [and] be flexible in a state where 85 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.”

The proposal attempts to strike a balance. It aims to satisfy Clark County’s concerns over limits on future growth while addressing concerns from a conservation community with split opinions.

Still, the process is far from over. Negotiations over the proposed bill are likely to continue. The proposal is just draft legislation. It has not been introduced in Congress. Cortez Masto said that she plans to continue working with the delegation, the county and groups to craft final legislation. 

Shaaron Netherton, executive director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, characterized the new draft as an improvement that protects more federal land, but she added that there is more work that needs to be done.

“It's complicated, and it takes time to work through all of the issues,” she said.

Although it could protect more than twice as much federal land from development, concerns remain over what the proposal might mean for growth and threatened species, namely the desert tortoise. The proposal also leaves room for Las Vegas to develop southward along I-15. Such a move, a new coalition of groups has argued, could amplify the effects of climate change. 

“While there are improvements from the county's disaster of a bill draft, this doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of allowing Las Vegas to sprawl outside the Las Vegas Valley," Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday evening. 

Reshuffling the politics?

The new discussion draft, in many ways, is a response to nearly two years of criticism over the county’s original request, viewed by many groups as favoring development over conservation.

A map showing the boundaries of proposed conservation under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

To offset additional development, the draft language would protect about 308,110 acres of public land as wilderness. It also expands the border of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by 69,201 acres, preserving a popular recreation destination for climbers and hikers.

The bill would expand land for the Moapa Band of Paiutes by 41,228 acres. It floats the idea of creating a new national monument. And it conditionally protects another 353,716 acres of land.

It changed language around the Endangered Species Act that several groups, from the Center for Biological Diversity to The Nature Conservancy, were concerned could undermine the law. 

"It's an improvement, but we still have concerns," Donnelly said.

It removed language that concerned opponents of the Las Vegas pipeline, a proposal to pump groundwater from Eastern Nevada as a way to supplement the city’s Colorado River supply.

“What they have put together is really well-thought out and addresses many of the concerns that the conservationists raised with the draft,” said Justin Jones, a Clark County commissioner.

Map of public land.
A map showing the boundaries of federal public land available for development under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

But some groups remained concerned that the legislation does not go far enough to address climate change. In fact, they argue the legislation could hinder the ability to tackle warming.

In a statement on Tuesday, Brian Beffort, director of the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter, thanked the senator for working to achieve a balance, but said he was concerned about the potential growth. 

The bill would open up more than 42,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley to potential development, while it would reduce the amount open to development in other areas. 

Industry groups, including the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association and the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, see a growing population on the horizon. Las Vegas is expected to add about 600,000 people over the next four decades. And they see themselves as landlocked. 

Federal land managers, namely the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, control most of the land around the Las Vegas Valley. With a growing population, industry groups argue that there is a need to free up new land to lower land prices, and in turn, attract new business and housing.

“We're a growing community,” Amber Stidham, director of government affairs for the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday. “I understand the need for not becoming too much of a sprawled community. But the fact is that 85 percent of the state is public land. We are one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. And we're surrounded by federal public land.”

The legislation would direct growth around the I-15 corridor toward California. 

Yet land use is tied to addressing climate change. And some groups worry directing growth toward the outskirts of the valley, rather than directing growth up, could only make addressing climate change that much more difficult.

“Las Vegas is already one of the fastest-warming cities in the nation, our air quality is among the worst in the nation, and our water future is uncertain at best,” Beffort wrote in an email after the discussion draft was released. “This legislation could be a vehicle for meaningful climate action. But in what we've seen so far, it isn't. We're afraid it's only going to make things worse.”

This tension over growth has been present from the start.

Clark County Commissioners during a board meeting on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A delayed commission vote

In 2017, representatives from conservation and environmental organizations huddled in an office at Clark County’s Department of Air Quality. It’s an agency that has a misleading name. 

For years, it has done much more than help regulate emissions from vehicles and industry. One example of its breadth: It is responsible for ensuring compliance with endangered species rules. For this reason, it is looking to restructure as the Department of Environment and Sustainability.

At that meeting in 2017, representatives from the conservation community were briefed on a new project. For several attendees of the meeting, it was the first time that they were hearing about the proposal. The department was seeking congressional legislation that would secure more land for development by adjusting the boundaries of federal public land within the county. 

Immediately, there were environmental concerns. The county’s plan would direct the trajectory of Las Vegas’ growth for decades. How would it affect federal public land used for recreation and conservation? How would it affect imperiled species, namely the declining Mojave desert tortoise population? Did it comply with the Endangered Species Act? The proposal could protect more federal public land. But was it long-lasting enough to offset the effect of new development? 

The groups were told that the County Commission would weigh the proposal at its next meeting.

That didn’t end up happening.

The groups were successful in delaying the county’s process. It wasn’t until June 2018 that the commission voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal. Once the vote happened, the county continued tweaking the bill as the delegation started looking at crafting its own draft. 

But by the time that vote came around, environmental groups found themselves with differing opinions. Most of them were opposed to the bill or neutral. Other groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, were vehemently opposed. Save added conservation and a few provisions, the Sierra Club said it was “a terrible step forward” (emphasis taken from the group’s comment letter). 

Two groups — the Nevada Conservation League and the Conservation Lands Foundation — commented in support of the proposal, arguing it was only a first step; things could change.

After the vote, groups began directing their concerns toward the delegation, and their positions revealed a significant tension over what environmental goals the bill should accomplish.

Homes under construction about two miles north of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A more sprawling debate

Last week, a new coalition came to the table: the Nevada Climate Justice Coalition.

The coalition, comprising 350.org, Mi Familia Vota, Moms Clean Air Force, Ecomadres, PLAN, Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement, formed in response to the county’s initial proposal. The goal of the coalition was to bring more urgency to the justice and equity issues associated with sprawl. And on Monday, the coalition released a letter to the delegation telling it to slow down.

Former County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani also signed the letter. Giunchigliani, who ran for governor in 2018, originally voted for the county’s proposal but has withdrawn her support.

The coalition recommended the delegation “postpone passing legislation that has the potential to expand Las Vegas’ footprint — and the associated climate and equity impacts — until strong sustainability, climate-resiliency and equity policies are in place at the county level.”

Their ask offers an alternative approach to the course many groups have been taking. 

If the bill is going to allow for the potential southward expansion of the Las Vegas Valley toward the California border, they want assurances in advance that the county will take climate change effects into account. How will more development increase the urban heat island? What will it mean to have more vehicles on the road? Will the county prioritize and incentivize infill first?

The proposed legislation expands the federal land available for purchase by developers. But it does not guarantee that all of that land — about 32,000 acres — will be sold to developers. 

“If this public lands bill moves forward, that does not mean the lands are going to be [sold],” said Stidham, with the chamber. “It means that we are providing more authority to the municipalities."

Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said that it will be up to policymakers to ensure that climate change is taken into account. He added that “there is nothing in here that says the historic trends of Southern Nevada have to continue.”

But others believe that simply expanding the land available to developers, will squeeze natural ecosystems in an area where there is already increased development pressure on public land. 

Shaun Gonzales, who writes the Mojave Desert Blog and is on the board of Basin and Range Watch, said that environmentalists should not rely on politicians to check desert development.

“They can't guarantee who is going to be on that commission down the road,” he said. “Once the land is made available to developers, that begets its own political and economic pressures.”

Most groups agree that climate change should be part of the equation as the Las Vegas Valley looks at a growing population, but they ask whether the legislation is the right place to do that. 

Jocelyn Torres, Nevada director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, noted that jurisdiction is multi-layered when it comes to creating policy for an issue as systemic as climate change.

“I'm not sure all the answers are in this legislation,” Torres said. 

How the bill moves forward

None of this is happening in a vacuum. 

Across the state, counties from Pershing to Washoe are working on bills that would change the status of federal land within their boundaries. Those processes could lead to more conserved federal land for recreation and wildlife. They could also open more public land to development. 

At the same time, the military is proposing significant expansions of two testing ranges — one in Southern Nevada and one in Northern Nevada — that are used to train for modern air combat. 

In an interview with reporters last week, Rep. Mark Amodei proposed combining some of the legislation to make passage before Congress more likely. Amodei, in the interview, also warned that it would be more difficult to pass legislation after July 4th as attention shifted to the election.

When asked how the Clark County legislation could move through Congress, Cortez Masto said she was not sure how the legislation would proceed. Her focus, she said, is drafting a final bill.

“I don’t know how it’s going to move,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s important that we work with the county and local government and the stakeholders who are interested in working together to find common ground to come up with a final product. And then I will work with our delegation in finding a vehicle and figuring out how we pass it through Congress.”

Humberto Sanchez contributed reporting to this article.

New Board on Indigent Defense Services aims to improve the quality of legal defense for people who can’t afford a lawyer

Front of the Nevada Legislature building

The difference in quality between state-provided legal services for those who can’t afford a lawyer and those offered by privately paid attorneys in Nevada is the subject of both a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a new state commission.

In November 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in the First Judicial District Court in Carson City to address the disparity between state and county-provided public defense throughout Nevada. The issue is that counties often provide public defense by contracting out to private attorneys who are overburdened with 400-500 cases and hours of travel to rural courthouses. 

“What I will say is some of the systems that I studied in your state [Nevada], I would really describe it ‘non-systems,’” said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based organization focused on making legal defense available to everyone.

The center derives its name from the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the rights to a trial by jury, to be confronted with witnesses and to provide counsel for the defendant.

The Legislature passed a bill earlier this year, AB81, that created the new Board on Indigent Defense Services (BIDS) to uphold statewide standards of public legal defense. BIDS will have oversight of the State Public Defender’s Office, which is located in Carson City, and all other local and county public defenders.

The state public defender currently only has jurisdiction over Carson City and Storey County where Clark, Elko, Humboldt, Pershing and Washoe counties have their own public defenders. The other counties in the state work with contract attorneys out of their own pocket. 

“As originally conceived in 1971, the State Public Defender was funded through a combination of state and county funding, with the state paying for 80 percent of all public defender costs in the rural counties and the counties paying the remaining 20 percent,” according to the Sixth Amendment Center’s website. “Over time, the state reduced its financial commitment to the point where today participating counties pay 80 percent of the entire cost of the system.”

The practice in rural counties of contracting outside attorneys has caught the attention of the ACLU and the Sixth Amendment Center, which says that the private caseload of contract attorneys isn’t taken into consideration when assigning them public defendants. Without any limit or standards for total caseloads, attorneys are not able to give the appropriate amount of time to individual cases and quality suffers compared with clients who have private lawyers that can devote more time to their case.

The lack of state funding can sometimes result in ineffective legal services in Nevada’s smallest counties. In Clark County, by contrast, there is an entirely separate public defender’s office with more than 200 staff that are able to help those in need of legal counsel. 

When asked what state standards for cases per attorney should be in Nevada, Carroll said it’s important to collect data in making that decision.

“What I do think is necessary is that attorneys should be tracking time so that you can establish what is the appropriate caseload level for each jurisdiction,” he said in an interview.

One of the biggest contributing factors to a decline in adequate legal counsel is that the wealthier counties have more money to spend on attorneys than others. Many counties in Nevada don’t have sufficient funds to hire enough contract attorneys, which is why the state is being asked to oversee the issue and standardize the amount needed for legal counsel.

“The wealthier counties tend to do a better job at providing those services when really a lot of counties, what they need, is help from the state,”  Holly Welborn, policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said in an interview. “It’s a Sixth Amendment state obligation to fund indigent defense services.”

The newly established BIDS was supposed to have funding of $15 million to address any deficiencies between state and county public defenders. Before the bill was passed, the funding was removed and BIDS was only given enough to pay for its offices and the salary for its executive director. 

The board, which is made up of 13 voting members and three non-voting members, will focus on creating a statewide standard for public defense and track data to bring to the next legislative session. Members include Chris Giunchigliani, who served on the Clark County Commission and in the legislature; Robert Crowell, the mayor of Carson City; and Executive Director Marcie Ryba, who was the chief deputy public defender in Carson City. 

Thursday was the first meeting of BIDS where Ryba was present as the executive director and discussed with the board how limited the budget is and what she is doing to work within those limitations. There is no office space as of yet because the board only has $1,500 a month for that expense but the board is currently looking at splitting an office with other agencies. 

With budget constraints continuing until at least the next legislative session, the board will have to find ways to establish statewide standards for legal defense that will address the issues brought up by the ACLU lawsuit. 

“It’s really going to come down to, are the deficiencies discovered, are they creating appropriate caseload standards to meet the needs of rural communities, and is the state funding whatever deficiencies exist in those counties,” said Welborn. “So that’s what we’re looking for when we analyze this and we look at whatever regulations they’re passing through the Board of Indigent Defense Services.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit against the state is still ongoing, with the deadline for discovery in July 2020. The ACLU is continuing with the case to ensure that the changes brought about by the commission address the disparities seen between counties and have some form of standardization throughout the state. 

Carroll said there is still a lot that BIDS can achieve without the state funding. 

“As you’re working toward this next [legislative] session, you could take something like attorney qualification standards that will say these are the level of experience, the type of training that attorneys who want to represent the indigent accused must meet before handling certain types of cases,” said Carroll.

Updated on Jan. 7, 2020 to correct information in text and in graphic about which counties use contract attorneys for public defense.

Deadly Alpine Motel fire was predictable, but was it preventable?

The Alpine Motel Apartments

Masters of the obvious, public officials and the press are calling it a tragedy. Of course that’s true.

The first-floor fire on Sunday, Dec. 21 at the Alpine Motel at 213 N. 9th Street downtown killed six, injured 13, and left an estimated 75 more homeless. Firefighters on the scene quickly determined that the blaze was ignited by a cooking stove used for warmth on a near-freezing night in Las Vegas.

The incident initially appeared a terrible accident that victimized some of the valley’s least fortunate residents. Without swift action by residents and first responders, many more lives might have been lost. 

Not long after the smoke cleared, Las Vegans did what they almost always do in such a crisis. They began passing the collective hat: The Mob Museum, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other charitable organizations kicked into action, and a GoFundMe page was created.

Officials vowed to gather the facts. Multiple media sources have reported Metro has opened a criminal inquiry. Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg summed up the sentiments of many officials when he offered, “We would like to express our sincere condolences to the friends and families of the victims during this difficult time.” He also reported that it might take at least six weeks to determine a cause and manner of death in what the city is calling the deadliest residential fire in Las Vegas history.

The problem with writing off the deadly fire as an unfortunate event is that it’s really not that at all. The blaze may not have been intentionally set, but the result was predictable. No official speaking with any candor about the Alpine Motel can reasonably argue otherwise.

At least one other dilapidated motel in the area has burned and been demolished, the scorched rubble hauled away. For its part, the Alpine has received at least 70 city code violations in recent years – although some officials are quick to remind skeptics there was nothing pending at the time of the blaze.

After that many violations, the curious might wonder what it actually takes to close a careworn, multi-story structure in an area with a reputation for street-corner narcotics traffic. Many of the Alpine’s neighbors have been wondering that for years as they’ve watched the criminal goings-on and reported suspected safety and fire code violations to the proper authorities. Among those suspected violations, they note: The blocking of an exit to the building by management. They even snapped a photo of it.

Some officials whisper that the neighbors are well-intended gadflies, locals who like their area the way it used to be. But the Alpine’s observers also include members of the clergy whose houses of worship dot the area and serve some of Southern Nevada’s poorest residents. They also have watched the strange happenings take place just a few blocks from City Hall.

Doug DeMasi is a downtown property owner and longtime neighbor. While city officials tout many improvements associated with redevelopment through the Downtown Project, he believes the immediate area has gone downhill as motels once used for low-cost housing have been closed or demolished. 

“The Alpine has been operated for the last five or six years pretty egregiously,” DeMasi says. “We’ve consistently reported problems and complained to every level of authority imaginable. We’ve complained on every level, and we were met with nothing but resistance from the (Metro) area command.”

Not everyone agrees with his harsh assessment. Stand in the neighborhood for just a few minutes and you’re likely to see more than one Metro black-and-white or a red Las Vegas Fire & Rescue vehicle responding to a call. It’s also a place where the cops have had community outreach barbecues and toy drives.

In this tough neighborhood, bedraggled area apartment complexes are often owned through limited liability corporations to passive investors who may have never set foot on the properties. The neighborhood is a confluence of ethnicities and ages with the elderly and disabled clinging to even the most run-down studio apartment and children playing their kids’ games in alleys and litter-strewn lots.

As a longtime assemblywoman and former Clark County commissioner, Chris Giunchigliani represented the area for more than a decade and still lives a short bicycle ride away. At the Legislature she helped push through improvements in code enforcement. She’s seen changes for good and ill, but has watched the affordable housing options decrease during redevelopment.

“It’s about habitability,” she says. “We displaced people who actually could afford to live in those places that in the last 10 years have been bulldozed, fenced, or torn down. Where was the planning in government for affordable and attainable housing with a grocery store and a bus stop?”

The fire was a tragedy that happened to citizens who traditionally haven’t had much of a voice. It’s a nice thing to say that the dead cry out for justice, but that’s just purple prose. The truth is, only the living can ensure meaningful changes are made and justice is done.

It’s long past time we got started.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

To sprawl or not to sprawl, that’s the dilemma

Nevada landscape under blue skies

By Chris Giunchigliani

The future of the Mojave Desert and the people who live here are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably tied. By protecting one, we protect the other. 

Unfortunately, a legislative measure that is in the works will dramatically alter the future of the Southern Nevada community and environment for many years to come.

Clark County officials are asking federal lawmakers to introduce a proposal that will favor real estate developers and sprawl at the expense of our public lands, wildlife and climate. It will expand residential and commercial development all the way to the California border along I-15. By increasing how much Southern Nevadans drive, it will also increase dirty emissions and air pollution in a place that already doesn’t meet federal air quality standards. And it will make climate change worse in the fastest warming city in the United States.

This is not acceptable. 

Late in my term on the Clark County Commission, I voted to support a resolution that gave county officials the authority to start drafting this proposal. I was told tribal, conservation, and wildlife concerns could be worked out. If I could, I would reverse my vote now that it’s become clear how the legislation would dramatically shape the future of Las Vegas.  

Unless drastic steps are taken, we are squandering an opportunity to draft a measure that could benefit underserved communities, invest in mass transit, reverse historical inequity in housing and real estate, protect our treasured landscapes, and defend our wildlife and natural resources. Instead, we have a proposal that hands over public lands to private interests, sidesteps environmental laws and ignores the important climate realities facing our community.

The proposal, known as the Clark County lands bill, will double-down on patterns of unsustainable and inequitable development that have brought us to the brink of climate disaster, polluted our air, and marginalized certain communities. 

Why? Tearing up our public lands will decrease the ability for the desert to capture greenhouse gas emissions. Despite conservation policies in place, it will ensure more cars, homes, concrete and pavement consume places that are now occupied by wildlife, plant life and outdoor recreators. More homes invite more lawns, swimming pools and sprinklers drenching water-thirsty landscaping and grasses. (Maybe the latter is why the bill also includes provisions that will aid the Southern Nevada Water Authority in getting their long sought-after pipeline to take groundwater from Eastern Nevada. )

Finally, the bill as written will ensure that wealthy developers continue to build exclusive housing for the affluent in far flung locations while many Las Vegans struggle to make ends meet in a place with the lowest supply of affordable housing in the nation.

Prior to the recession, one of the biggest concerns in Southern Nevada was sprawl. This current bill draft makes me wonder: Are we suffering from amnesia? Did politicians not learn from past mistakes?

This proposed legislation allows developers to rip up public lands from Mesquite to Henderson and all the way to Primm and Laughlin. 

More than 50,000 acres of public lands would be handed over to developer interests. Get ready for more traffic, more construction, and more dirty emissions. What’s more: The bill facilitates endangered species permitting for another 300,000 acres to be bulldozed for sprawl. That would effectively double the size of Las Vegas, allowing it to spill out of our valley into the adjacent desert landscape.

While the bill makes one scant reference to attainable housing, it does nothing to allocate funding for those opportunities. There’s also no mention of light rail, electric buses or bicycle infrastructure that will support the 4 million people who will call Vegas home if this new measure passes. 

The proposal also asks Congress to gut the Endangered Species Act for Southern Nevada and exempts Clark County from a bevy of bedrock environmental laws that are anathema to big business. A bill of this kind has never been put forth in Congress. But rest assured, this will be a playbook for other communities if a precedent is set.   

Proponents of the bill will tell you that this measure will protect public lands. Indeed, a few select areas will earn Wilderness Designations. But at what cost?  

Our community is at a crossroads. Are we a community of the future or are we stuck in the ways of the past? Are we going to learn from old patterns of development that have left us with polluted air, a warming climate, and severe inequality in housing? Or are we going to chart a new path forward, to remedy the problems we’ve created for ourselves and set a course toward a more inclusive, more equitable, more environmentally sensitive future?

I have faith that Clark County will rethink this legislation and determine whether it’s even needed.  Adopting true regional smart growth policies, requiring developers to focus on and provide attainable housing, expand mass transit, and funding   education and workforce programs. These would truly benefit their constituents and our communities.

Chris Giunchigliani is a former Clark County Commissioner and former member of the Nevada State Assembly.

Indy 2020: Warren, Sanders and Biden return to Nevada to court the Culinary Union

Culinary Union members cheer

Your Nevada 2020 election newsletter. Please read, forward and subscribe.


Good morning, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. A reminder that email subscribers get early access to this newsletter, so be sure to subscribe and tell your friends. It’ll be peachy.

I know you’re probably tired of it, but I’m not. I’m not talking about the caucus. I’m talking about 2019’s greatest meme: Baby Yoda playing with the radio. I’m still not totally sold on “The Mandalorian.” I get the argument that it’s a classic Western set in space, and I can appreciate that. I just don’t know where the story is going yet and I really badly want to know. (Insert comment about impatient millennials here.)

However, what I am sold on is Baby Yoda — Baby Yoda listening to Queen. Baby Yoda going through an angsty Evanescence phase. Baby Yoda being SO READY for Christmas.

In other news, a programming note: A shorter Christmas Eve edition of this newsletter will come out on Dec. 24 and then we’ll be back after the New Year.

As always, a reminder to reach out to me with any tips, story ideas, comments, suggestions (and your favorite Baby Yoda radio meme) at megan@thenvindy.com.

Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.


TOP OF MIND

First in The Indy: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg will be back in Nevada on Dec. 20 and 21 after the Democratic presidential debate in California on Dec. 19. Details to come.

Warren kicks off latest series of Culinary town halls: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the latest candidate to visit the Culinary Union Monday night, addressing a crowd of a couple hundred workers at their union headquarters. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden will address the union this morning and on Wednesday morning, respectively.

The first question she was asked was about her health care plan. Warren lauded the union's health plan and health center — which she toured earlier in the day — but remained vague about whether the Culinary plan would continue to exist in the health care future she imagines. The crowd was enthusiastic at points — such as when she went after Station Casinos as an example of who “Washington is working great” for — but otherwise it was a relatively subdued audience for the Massachusetts senator, especially compared to the warm reception California Sen. Kamala Harris received when she was in town last month.

More on Warren's visit here.

Culinary endorsement before the caucus? D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary Union's parent union UNITE HERE, told me after the Warren town hall his hope is that the union will endorse — as a national union — before Nevada's Feb. 22 caucus. But he didn't say whether Medicare for all would be a litmus test. Those comments are also in the Warren story here.

Bernie in the north: Ahead of his Culinary Union visit, Sanders swung through Northern Nevada on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday, he held a rally at Elko High School, where he touched on a number of issues, including rural health care.

"So it may well be that an insurance company does not make a lot of profit in rural Nevada, you know? So what? The function of healthcare is to provide healthcare to people,” he said, according to CBS News’ Alex Tin.

He also came out against oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains, which tower over Elko, in a statement Monday morning. (My colleague Daniel Rothberg has reported extensively on the issue.)

“Nevadans have resoundingly opposed any attempts to open the Ruby Mountains for oil and gas drilling, which would lead to the destruction of our public lands,” Sanders said. “Scientists have also been clear that in order to solve the climate crisis, we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. When we are in the White House, we will immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands, including Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.”

Sanders also hosted rallies in Carson City and Reno on Monday. In Carson City, Sanders was thanked by a Navy veteran who had told the Vermont senator three months ago at the campaign rally that he wanted to kill himself because of his struggle with Huntington’s disease and overwhelming medical bills. My colleague Michelle Rindels has more of his story here.

Kamala drops out: Harris dropped out of the presidential race, citing financial constraints. I just interviewed her a couple of weeks ago for our podcast, during which she told me she was “very much in the game.” She ran a good race here, though, had a team that knew Nevada well and received several endorsements from lawmakers here. She stopped by her Las Vegas office to say goodbye to her staff last week.

Latino group seeks specific commitments from candidates: I met with Hector Sanchez Barba, Mi Familia Vota’s new executive director and CEO, in Las Vegas last week. One of the organization’s biggest focuses right now, he told me, is getting presidential hopefuls on the record on immigration, and pressing them to lay out a specific roadmap for how and when they plan to implement the policies they have laid out on the trail.

“President Obama was the perfect example of lack of commitment on the issue of immigration, even though he promised that he was going to get it done in the first one hundred days,” he said. “We never saw him spending the political capital that the issue requires. He's a very sophisticated politician that if he wanted to make this a priority, he would have gotten it done.”

(He did note, however, that there was at least a relationship between the Obama administration and the Latino community, and said that the administration involved Latino leaders in discussions on a host of different issues.)

Sanchez Barba recorded the first of the organization’s presidential conversations with billionaire and Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer in Las Vegas last week.

“I'm going to be very strong in getting specific answers from the candidates on how they're planning to get us to the finish line on the priorities that are so critical for our community,” he said.

The organization is planning on turning some of what is gleaned from these interviews into a voter guide. Sanchez Barba also told me that though the organization has stayed away from endorsing in the past, it is still an ongoing conversation he is having with leaders at the national level.

Steyer’s post-Thanksgiving trip: In addition to meeting with Sanchez Barba, Steyer participated in a town hall with Hispanics in Politics, co-hosted a discussion with the League of Women Voters, toured Veterans Village and made other campaign stops in Pahrump and Henderson while in town the weekend after Thanksgiving. 

In Henderson, he touched on the recently-approved homeless ordinance in Las Vegas, though he also said that “no one from California can come to Nevada and start lecturing people about homelessness and how to solve it, because I think we're the center of homelessness,” according to CBS News’ Alex Tin.


ON THE INDY

App-based early voting and caucusing: The Nevada State Democratic Party released additional details about how technology will be integrated into the early voting and Caucus Day process. Early voters will be able to use an app downloaded onto party-purchased tablets stationed at early voting sites to cast their presidential preferences, and then those early votes will flow into a separate app that will be used by precinct chairs to run the actual process on Caucus Day. More on that from me here.

NextGen investing $1 million in Nevada: The progressive advocacy group NextGen America will spend $1 million on registering and turning out young people in 2020 in an effort to keep Nevada blue. The group, which was founded by Steyer, said it will focus on voter turnout ahead of the caucus but not in support of any specific candidate. Details here.

Impeachment could boost voter turnout: My colleague Humberto Sanchez looked into what effect the impeachment proceedings could have on the election in Nevada. Rep. Dina Titus, who recently endorsed Biden, told him that she thinks more people are going to turn out because of the impeachment proceedings “because they’re more fired up by what they’re hearing and what they will be hearing.”

Republicans think so too.

“All it has done is motivate Nevada Republicans to turn out in force to re-elect President Trump and hold Democrats up and down the ballot accountable next year,” Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Will Sexauer said in a statement.

More on that here.


CAMPAIGN NUGGETS

Staffing changes and office openings

  • Warren will open her ninth campaign office in the state in Carson City on Saturday.
  • Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign has opened two additional offices in the state and hired Jenny Lehner as Nevada political director and Zachary Amos as Nevada field director. Lehner previously worked on Chris Giunchigliani’s gubernatorial campaign and Amos was the regional organizing director with Beto for America.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has hired Matthew DeFalco as his state director. DeFalco was previously Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s state director for his presidential campaign.
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign has onboarded new organizers in Clark and Washoe counties, bringing the campaign’s staff to more than 20 in Nevada.

New endorsements

  • Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan has endorsed Biden for president, as has civil rights leader Dr. Robert Green.
  • The Clark County Black Caucus has endorsed Booker, though it has picked Sanders as its second choice candidate. (Second place actually matters in Nevada because of the realignment process that happens during the caucus should a candidate at a given precinct not reach a certain threshold of support to be considered a “viable” candidate.)
  • Phillip Washington, senior pastor of Promised Land Community Church and co-founder of the Nevada Faith and Health Coalition, has endorsed Warren.
  • Joe Oddo, past president of the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, has endorsed Buttigieg.
  • For the latest on presidential endorsements, check out our tracker.

Upcoming candidate visits

  • Sanders and Biden will speak to Culinary Union members at town halls this morning and on Wednesday morning, respectively.
  • Sanders will attend a community meeting at St. Simeon Serbian Orthodox Church this afternoon.
  • Warren will hold a town hall at Truckee Meadows Community College this evening.
  • Yang will be back in Las Vegas on Sunday for a fundraiser at Mosaic Theater. There will be a cocktail reception followed by a high roller poker tournament with World Series Champions.
  • For the latest on presidential candidate visits, check out our visit tracker.

Surrogate stops

  • Delaware Sen. Chris Coons was in Nevada campaigning for Biden this weekend.
  • Michael Lighty, Sanders’ health care constituency director, hosted a Medicare-for-all tour over the weekend, which also included surrogates Jose La Luz and Brianna Westbrook, as well as Sanders Nevada Co-Chair Amy Vilela. Events on Saturday included canvass launches in Carson City, Reno and Henderson, a “Unidos con Bernie” conversation in Carson City, a Medicare-for-all forum at UNR and a LGBTQIA+ happy hour at Hamburger Mary’s in Las Vegas. On Sunday, the team also hosted another canvass launch in East Las Vegas, a LGBTQIA+ Medicare-for-all town hall at the Clark County Library, a “Salud y Trabajo” roundtable with Mi Familia Vota and SEIU 1107 in Las Vegas and a happy hour at Milo’s Cellar in Boulder City.
  • California Assemblywoman and California Legislative Latino Caucus Chair Lorena Gonzalez will campaign for Warren in Las Vegas on Sunday. She’ll attend a canvass kickoff at Warren’s East Las Vegas office and later headline a house party with Latinx activists, caucusgoers and community leaders.
  • John Bessler, husband of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, will be making his first surrogate visit to Las Vegas on Dec. 20 and 21.

Other election news

  • Three former Nevada State Democratic Party chairs who have endorsed Biden Roberta Lange, Sam Lieberman and Adriana Martinez — have cut a video touting their support for the former vice president.
  • Yang’s campaign started sending out rather elaborate mail pieces — there is a pocket and a “MATH” sticker — around Thanksgiving to Nevadans.
  • The Klobuchar campaign, which recently staffed up in Nevada, began hosting organizing events last week.
  • Steyer’s campaign held a community Healthlink fair in partnership with the Asian Community Resource Center on Friday, planted 10 fruit trees at the Vegas Roots Community Garden on Saturday and invited the community to a play of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at the Steyer headquarters on Sunday.
  • Booker’s millennial engagement director is coming into town for a few events this week, including a young leaders happy hour on Thursday. The campaign is also continuing to do volunteer caucus trainings in English and Spanish and will be officially launching its Spanish caucus program this week.
  • Buttigieg released a video last week calling on Station Casinos to negotiate with workers who have voted to join the Culinary Union.

DOWN BALLOT NEWS

Impeachment in CD3: A poll by a conservative nonprofit organization linked to House Republicans found that voters in the swingy 3rd Congressional District will be less likely to vote for freshman Democratic Rep. Susie Lee if she continues to back the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. My colleague Riley Snyder has the details.


OTHER REQUIRED READING

  • Harris Reid at a brokered convention? (The Atlantic)
  • Does Mayor Pete have a Latino problem? (Politico)
  • Candidates try to appeal to non-white voters in Nevada (Las Vegas Sun)

Betting on cannabis: Gaming heavyweights shape marijuana industry, even as regulators hold the two worlds apart

Planet 13 Cannabis Dispensary at night

When Anthony Marnell III initially sought to be majority owner of a Nevada medical marijuana company in 2014, he came with an impressive résumé — he was the CEO of the billion-dollar M Resort, his family had built and run the Rio for its illustrious first decade and his father’s construction company had a hand in some of the most iconic casinos on the Strip, including the Wynn, Bellagio and Mirage. 

But the Nevada Gaming Control Board put the kibosh on his plan on May 6, 2014, issuing an edict that gaming licensees must have no investment or involvement in the nascent cannabis industry. It was somewhat puzzling for executives in Nevada’s largest industry, who argued that they live and breathe compliance measures to retain the privilege of working in gaming — an industry that has overcome its unsavory past and moved to the respected mainstream in large part because of the rigor of state regulation. 

Casinos must ensure minors and card cheats stay out and report any suspected money laundering to the federal government. Prospective licensees go through a vetting process that might best be described as invasive — it includes online and in-person background checks, meetings with gaming regulators in other jurisdictions and a review of all investments, bankruptcies, real estate and even flight logs.

“There is nobody that I can think of that is more qualified to operate what I see as a very highly regulated industry other than a gaming licensee,” Marnell told the Nevada Gaming Commission in 2014. “We are the most investigated, vetted people in the state of Nevada. I have held several security clearances at the federal level … and none of them were as strenuous or as difficult or as thorough as the Nevada Gaming Control Board's process.”

In the end, Marnell withdrew his marijuana plans to stay in gaming, and regulators have not budged on their bright line. But the casino sector has still left its mark on the cannabis industry — its veterans are filling out the leadership teams of marijuana companies, and its regulatory regime is the model that the state hopes to emulate for cannabis.

State records released this spring through SB32 show several former casino executives, casino developers and restaurateurs with a presence inside of casinos as marijuana company owners and board members, along with some who appear to be currently employed by gaming companies. It speaks to the cash and business acumen required to succeed in the marijuana world, where the lack of traditional banking infrastructure has limited access into the industry, and the appeal of a new industry to entrepreneurs and risk-takers who want to get in on the ground floor.

“It has all kinds of upward possibilities. Gaming has become very white shoe,” said Tisha Black, an attorney and president of the Nevada Dispensary Association whose father, developer and former casino executive Randy Black, took over at the Clear River marijuana company when Marnell stepped back. 

But the presence of gaming-affiliated players is also indicative of their success in staying on the good side of a strict regulatory structure.

In 2014, when Gov. Steve Sisolak was making zoning and licensing decisions as then-chair of the Clark County Commission, he said he “put a silver star on every one of the people applying for medical marijuana license who have a Nevada gaming license because they have been vetted.”

Relative to out-of-state applicants, he said, those in the Nevada gaming business are less likely to be fly-by-night characters or flight risks should trouble arise. Black agrees. 

“Where you see those guys that were pillars of the community — in my mind it makes sense that they were some of the original licenses, because they’re a known commodity, they have roots here,” she said.

Veterans of gaming are also attractive additions to ownership teams because of their experience in a more mature industry. 

“You see the people who used to be in gaming bring their influence, and pretty much when they say this is how you do it in gaming, everyone listens,” said Riana Durrett, executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “If they were previously in gaming or they had gaming clients, that’s very influential.”

Early morning photo of the I-15 near the Las Vegas Strip

The Las Vegas Strip as seen Monday, April 10, 2017 while traffic travels near Interstate 15 and Russell Road. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The great divide

Since the 2014 edict, there have been little more than baby steps in allowing overlap between gaming interests and pot.

Early on, regulators cracked down on people who straddle both industries, blocking slot route operator Nevada Gaming Partners from serving a restaurant in 2014 because the wife of the owner had a minority stake in a medical marijuana company GB Sciences. Regulators said that even if the couple’s businesses were separate enough to satisfy legal requirements, it wasn’t enough to satisfy "the spirit of the notice."

“When the notice was sent out to the industry in 2014 that said you can’t play in both sandboxes, most everyone took that to heart,” said Jennifer Roberts, former associate director of UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation and a lawyer for Nevada Gaming Partners at the time. 

Other gaming licensees acknowledged that they needed to choose between one industry or the other. 

  • Troy Herbst had a 10 percent stake in The Clinic, a marijuana company, and was also a partner in slot route operator JETT gaming. The slot route was a gaming venture for Jerry Herbst, who had already grown the gas station empire Terrible Herbst. Troy’s brother, Tim Herbst, told gaming regulators in 2014 that he would divest from gaming if he won a license, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We’re not going to do anything to disappoint this commission,” Tim Herbst said. Troy Herbst does not have a stake in the industry as of August 2019.
  • Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, gave up his interests in Greenspun Gaming LLC and G.C. Investments — which are partial owners of casinos — to family members as he took an ownership role in Integral Associates, the parent company of Essence dispensaries. He has also recently withdrawn from the marijuana industry and is no longer listed as an owner.

The bright line between the two industries was reinforced through the work of the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee, a group that included then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The panel’s 2017 workshop on the topic outlined myriad reasons why casinos can’t be landlords for cannabis businesses, accept marijuana money, or in any way be affiliated with the substance.

Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, even basic actions by a financial institution — a category that includes casinos — can run afoul of federal law. Potential crimes include possessing any kind of equipment needed to produce or sell marijuana, using a phone or email to facilitate any operation of a marijuana business, leasing or otherwise controlling the property where marijuana is cultivated or sold; reinvesting the proceeds of a marijuana business into any other business, and any financial transaction at all that involves more than $10,000 in proceeds from a marijuana business.

Interacting with an illegal industry could mean steep fines, asset forfeiture and prison sentences. Those risks have kept casinos out of cannabis, and regulators holding a line. 

“I think that gaming, because they’re now big corporate companies — they can’t. It’s brackish water for them,” Black said. “I understand the state’s concerns and its desires to protect gaming because that’s billions of dollars for the state, not only in jobs but in taxes.”

Gaming provides about three quarters of a billion dollars in tax revenue to Nevada’s general fund each year, about ten times the amount that cannabis does. The tourism industry overall — including direct, indirect and induced jobs — is responsible for about 450,000 jobs in the state.

Multinational casinos must get national and international funding that runs through the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Black said, so dabbling in the marijuana world “could put me in direct opposition with the regulators who regulate me and the institutions that capitalize me.” 

Regulators have made some efforts to clear up ambiguities. In 2018, they moved to allow the development of a tavern on property owned by a landlord who also had contracts with players in the marijuana industry. In 2017, they approved plans for an applicant who is a card-carrying medical marijuana user to expand a gaming business, and members have called for a “balanced approach” as new areas of conflict emerge.

“A regulatory framework that balances the myriad interests by carefully examining whether and to what degree gaming regulatory policy objectives are actually implicated would inure to the benefit of all involved,” Gaming Control Board member Terry Johnson wrote last fall in Nevada Gaming Lawyer magazine. “And protecting the crucial role of gaming to the Nevada economy while respecting the expressed will of Nevada voters need not be mutually exclusive.”

But gray areas persist. A review of state records by The Nevada Independent shows at least four people newly listed as owners and board members of marijuana companies as of August who appear to be current employees of gaming companies or married to licensees, but the Gaming Control Board declined to comment on whether those people are running afoul of the bright line.

“As Nevada statutes and circumstances regarding marijuana change and evolve, the Board often engages in discussions with licensees to identify solutions that will ensure they are in compliance with our gaming laws and regulations and those would be confidential under NRS 463.120,” the board said in a statement. 

Another argument regulators made against mixing gaming and cannabis is that it would reflect discredit on the industry. But even five years ago, lawyers were calling that idea outdated, pointing to polls that showed a vast swath of the public in favor of at least medical marijuana if not recreational (that number is now 91 percent, according to the Pew Research Center).

“All of what we are seeing now is the public opinion is pretty clearly in favor of medical marijuana,” Reno attorney Matthew Woodhead, who was listed as a minority owner on Clear River’s original medical marijuana application, told regulators in 2014. “So the concept of reflecting discredit, to the extent it does involve public opinion, seems public opinion is on our side.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Hundreds of people line up to purchase recreational marijuana in Nevada at Reef Dispensaries on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Physical divide

In spite of growing public support for marijuana, Nevada is arguably becoming even more conservative in separating marijuana and gaming. This legislative session, lawmakers passed a law banning marijuana dispensaries within 1,500 feet of a gaming establishment — a buffer larger than the one voters approved between schools and dispensaries.

It was an outgrowth of a dispensary ban the Las Vegas Strip resort corridor already had, and the number mirrors the distance that Clark County escort and outcall entertainment services must be from homes, schools and places of worship. The distance also reflects the separation that pawn shops must have from the resort corridor. 

In testimony to lawmakers this May, casino companies with locations in outlying areas separate from the Las Vegas Strip argued for the same buffer on the basis that it “would level the playing field, and would protect Nevada's largest industry.”

“It exacerbates guest and employee issues that we have,” Erin McMullen, a lobbyist for Boyd Gaming, said about dispensaries and casinos being in close proximity. “We have children at a number of our properties. A lot of our properties have movie theaters, bowling alleys, and we host many student sporting events.” 

It had the support of the Nevada Resort Association, the influential lobbying group representing many of the largest casinos.

“We supported the 1,500 foot buffer because it separates an incompatible land use to nonrestricted [gaming licensees],” said Virginia Valentine, head of the association. “It gives us the protection we need to comply with the federal law.”

The advent of the policy has forced at least one marijuana company — Essence, coincidentally owned by former casino executives — to stand down, scrap plans to build on a lot they had already purchased across from the Peppermill casino in Reno and look for property elsewhere.

Although the approval of the buffer seemed to suggest that the marijuana industry got pushed around by its older brother gaming, Durrett notes that her association wasn’t fighting the measure, and nor were schools or other classes of buildings fighting for a larger buffer than they already had. 

“We had no position on it because it impacted members differently,” she said.

The measure potentially foiled the plans of those who wanted to move closer to casinos or sell their license to a company that did, but those who were grandfathered into the zone or would be unable to move may have been happy to keep the competition out of that zone. 

“I don’t think there should be a mass migration anywhere, whether it’s the gaming corridor or not," Durrett said.

But questions remain about the rationale for the buffer. Longtime Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani , who served on Sisolak’s advisory panel for the future Cannabis Compliance Board, contended there hasn’t been enough explanation for it.

“There may be some very legitimate reasons,” she said. “Let’s have that discussion out in the open. What was it tied to?”

She suspects that future business considerations are at play. If federal prohibitions on marijuana go away, casinos could eventually house dispensaries, and it would be problematic to have competition too close.

“In politics, for people that say they’re free enterprise individual, it’s always about how to stop your competition,” she said. “I’ve never found an ordinance or regulation or state law that hasn’t been advanced in order to accomplish that.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Customers play baccarat at the Lucky Dragon hotel-casino on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The 203-room, Asian-themed property opened last November. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The future

The marijuana industry is continuing to take cues from the gaming industry, which faced the same specter of a federal crackdown decades ago before building what it calls the “gold standard” of gaming regulation.

“We were under threat of federal government basically raiding our casinos and shutting them down because of organized crimes. We had to take regulation to prevent that,” Roberts said.

The state is specifically modeling its forthcoming Cannabis Compliance Board off the Gaming Control Board. Dispensaries also hope to implement some of gaming's best practices.

One of the things cannabis companies want to emulate is a policy called “minimum internal control standards.” That’s an effort to standardize certain staffing levels for accountants, recordkeeping software and other procedures to make it easier for auditors and inspectors to spot deficiencies. 

“I think from the beginning it was always viewed as an aspirational goal,” Durrett said. “Not everything is analogous and comparable between the industry so some things you can’t follow the gaming model, but anywhere you can … It’s the best way to avoid federal interference.”

In spite of the divides on the books, observers say it’s also time to be honest about the fact that with marijuana use legal in Nevada, there's undoubtedly overlap such as tourists partaking in casinos. Giunchigliani said that for the safety of consumers, and to prepare for the future, there should be open conversation about how the two industries should coexist.

“I think everybody is playing a big game if they think that people are not smoking in their hotel rooms,” she said. “It’s legal, it’s not going away, they’re not going away, so how do you make it work for the customer as well as for their concerns in regard to the feds.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Pedestrians pass Essence Cannabis Dispensary on Las Vegas Blvd. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

The players

The list of owners and board members in Nevada’s marijuana industry is checkered with the names of former casino executives and others in the hospitality and entertainment sector, including strip club owners and restaurateurs. Below are some of the most notable.

Armen Yemenidjian is the co-owner of Integral Associates, widely known as Essence Cannabis Dispensary. He gave up his gaming license and roles as a former executive at the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas when he decided to transition into the cannabis market. 

Beyond the three open dispensaries it has in Nevada, Essence had the highest-scoring application in all eight of the competitive jurisdictions to which it applied in 2018, winning eight additional dispensary licenses. The company’s sale to multistate operator Green Thumb Industries for $290 million closed this year.

Arguably one of the most successful players in the Nevada cannabis industry, Armen was joined by his father Alejandro “Alex” Yemenidjian, who served as president of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 1999, CEO of the company from 1999 to 2005, and CEO of the Tropicana from 2009 to 2015. He joined the Green Thumb Industries board this summer. 

Tony Marnell II owns the Marnell Companies that did construction on some of the biggest resort properties in Las Vegas, and he also served as CEO of the Rio casino for its first few years. He and his son, Tony Marnell III, initially appeared on medical marijuana license applications in 2014 as owners but then dropped off.

Strip club owners have a presence in the form of Jamal Keshmiri, whose Reno-area strip club empire included the flagship Wild Orchid Gentleman’s Club that’s been a target for the city. Keshmiri also owns Ben’s Fine Wine and Spirits, which has six liquor store locations in Reno and Carson City, and is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC and High Sierra Holistics LLC. He has coached track at Reno High School and was a former track star himself.

In Southern Nevada, Peter Feinstein, a partner at Sapphire Las Vegas strip club, was a board member at Nevada Group Wellness for purposes of an unsuccessful license application. Feinstein said he thinks he was sought out to be on the board because, as holder of a privileged license for the strip club and alcohol permits, “I have a long history of being in a regulated industry.” 

Several members of the bar and culinary industry are marijuana company owners. Howard Starr, an owner at Las Vegas Natural Caregivers LLC, is has been a co-owner of the Numb bar and frozen cocktail lounges at Caesars Palace and Harrah’s casino, as well as Chil’m at the Tropicana casino. He said he has since left the industry.

Michael Frey is an owner with BBMC LLC and Naturex LLC, but has owned cigar venues including Casa Fuente at The Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, the Montecristo Cigar Bar and a kiosk store at New York New York casino. He is the stepson of Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky.

His brother, Robert Frey, is an owner at Caliente Development Company, BBMC LLC, and Naturex. He was CEO and co-founder or Pure Management Group, which at one time owned a large portfolio of nightclubs including the famous but since-closed Pure and the Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesars Palace, as well as Coyote Ugly in New York-New York. Earlier this year, the Frey brothers sued their partners in the marijuana business for $125 million, alleging they filed applications for dispensary licenses without them and ended up winning 11 licenses — more than any other applicant.

Restaurateurs Michael Morton and Jenna Morton is an owner with Acres cannabis, but is also the co-founder of Morton Group, which operates La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas, CRUSH inside MGM Grand and La Comida in Downtown Las Vegas. 

Robert “Randy” Black, the real estate developer and owner of Black Gaming, is an owner with Clear River LLC. He divested his gaming interests, which included three resorts in Mesquite, after they were hard-hit by the recession. His daughter, Tisha Black, is the president of the Nevada Dispensary Association.

Steven Nightingale, an owner at WSCC Inc., is a former operator of the Cal-Nevada Club in Reno and also an author and philanthropist. He told the Reno Gazette-Journal he went into the marijuana business because his late friend Joe Crowley, former president of UNR, was so persuasive.

Gary Primm is an owner at Deep Roots Medical but made his fortune from the Prima Donna Resorts, which was sold to MGM Grand Inc. in 1998 for $612 million. His stepbrother Roger Primm is also involved in the same marijuana company, which has at least one dispensary open in Nevada already and won five additional licenses in 2018.

Former president of Grand Sierra Resort Steven Rosen is an owner at THC Nevada LLC and THC Productions LLC. 

“I was a casino executive for over thirty-five years, which is a highly regulated industry,” he told members of the Nevada Tax Commission in January 2018. “I appreciate regulations and I understand they are there to protect the industry.”

October 1 emotions drive debate on bill to ban bump stock devices, give local governments more power

Six days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a county music concert in Las Vegas, Sandra Jauregui wrote a letter.

It was addressed to friends and family, written on advice of a counselor who told the Democratic Assemblywoman that it could help her process the trauma of having survived the mass shooting on October 1, 2017. On Monday, she read that letter publicly for the first time; detailing how her husband Truman covered her body to protect her from bullets, how she hid under bleachers, ran into gunfire to jump a fence and escape — and how she grappled with the guilt of survival.

“I feel lucky, but I also feel bad that we made it out okay. I don’t feel like I can be happy or that I should be. I know that for every bullet that didn’t hit us it hit somebody else,” she said, reading from the letter. “I feel bad that if I could have taken care of myself, maybe Truman could have done more to help other people. It was so hard seeing people who were hurt and shot and knowing I couldn’t do anything. And just seeing them and knowing it could have been us.”

Those painful memories of the nation’s worst mass shooting in recent history — which left 58 people dead and hundreds injured — took center stage during a hearing on AB291, a bill sponsored by Jauregui that would ban firearm modifications such as bump stocks, the devices used by the shooter to mimic the fire of automatic weapons and expend 1,049 rounds in just 11 minutes.

The measure also would reverse a 2015 state law giving the Legislature preeminent authority to regulate and oversee gun laws and decrease the blood alcohol content limit for firearm possession from 0.1 to 0.08.

Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald speaks outside the state Legislature on Monday, April 1, 2019 (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The hearing drew impassioned testimony from supporters who implored lawmakers to ban the devices and give local governments flexibility on gun laws not afforded to the state’s part-time Legislature, and opponents who said the bill’s language was overly broad and would inadvertently make anyone with a minor firearm modification — not just a bump stock — an instant felon.

The hearing marked the second high-profile measure related to firearm regulation heard by lawmakers this session; Democratic lawmakers in February introduced and quickly passed a measure designed to implement a stalled 2016 ballot initiative requiring background checks on most private party gun sales or transfers.

Despite the emotional testimony, the bill is also likely to overlap with federal regulations. In December, the Department of Justice announced a long-anticipated administrative ban on “bump-stock” devices, which went into effect last month. Owners of the devices — estimates are around 500,000 such devices have been sold — have 90 days to turn in or destroy the devices, or otherwise face criminal penalties.

During the hearing, Republican lawmakers peppered Jauregui and bill presenters with questions on the bill, mostly regarding language they said was broader than similar federal restrictions on the same bump stock devices and could result in unexpected consequences. Republican Sen. Keith Pickard said participants in shooting competitions often trade out trigger systems for easier or more rapid-firing modifications and that his interpretation of the bill meant that those types of modifications would be illegal.

“It in no way approximates the rate of an automatic weapon, but as I read this, this bill would make possession of those weapons illegal,” he said. “So they’d become criminals as of the day of adoption.”

Chelsea Parsons, an attorney with the left-leaning Center for American Progress who helped present the bill, acknowledged that the measure was designed to be broader than federal regulations on bump stocks as a way to “anticipate future innovation by the gun industry.”

Jauregui said she would be willing to amend the bill to make it better reflect her intent, which was to ban any device that made a semi-automatic weapon fire like a fully automatic weapon, and not to make all weapon modifications illegal.

“We wanted to make sure that we were covering our tracks, so in a year or two if we just banned bump stocks, that somebody wasn’t going to create new technology or innovate new technology that essentially is a bump stock but call it something different,” she said in a follow-up interview.

The Democratic assemblywoman also presented a conceptual amendment to the bill clarifying that local governments have “limited authority” to create or adopt ordinances more stringent than state law on firearms, accessories or ammunition. It comes as the bill repeals a section of law approved in 2015 as part of a slew of wide-ranging firearms bills that expanded the definition of justifiable homicide, limited the ability of a person with a restraining order related to domestic violence to own a firearm and gave the Legislature preeminent authority over state gun laws.

Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Commissioner Justin Jones both testified that the preemption laws had frustrated the county’s ability to quickly enact policies such as banning bump stocks or limiting public carry of firearms during high-density events like New Year’s Eve on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Local gun regulation is not and never will be a perfect solution to gun violence,” Giunchigliani said. “Nor is it a substitute for federal or state reform. But local governments are better positioned to deal with matters like public carrying. Commissioners know there’s no one-size-fits all solution that covers crowded urban cities and sparsely populated rural areas.”

Much of the testimony from supporters veered to the emotional. Heather Sallan, who also attended and survived the concert shooting, told lawmakers that she was wearing the same boots she had worn to the concert as a reminder of the damage caused by the shooting.

“No one attending a concert or an event of any kind should be able to explain the whistle sounds of a bullet so close to their left ear that their hair moves. But I can,” she said. “What a bump stock was made for was not relevant. What a bump stock was used for changed my life forever.”

Dan Reid, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bill’s removal of the preemption laws could likely open the door to local governments introducing drastic gun control measures, such as bans on magazine size or certain types of ammunition.

“This is incredibly problematic, to expect someone to know every single jurisdiction, because the way I’m reading the preemption statute with it being completely repealed, it’s open season on anyone to pass any sort of ordinance,” he said.

Nevada Firearms Coalition lobbyist Randi Thompson asked Democratic lawmakers — who have made criminal justice reform a top priority this session — if they were comfortable adding penalties that could result in more Nevadans going to jail.

“Once the governor signs this bill as presented today, thousands of Nevadans will instantly become felons,” she said. “This does not seem like the kind of reform you’re advocating for this session.”

But state government officials don’t expect the measure to result in more incarceration or a large fiscal impact. A fiscal note from the state Department of Corrections estimated the bill would cost less than $10,000 in future budget cycles, estimating that it would result in about four additional inmates per year.

In addition to the federal administrative rule, at least 11 states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — and some cities have banned bump stocks, primarily since the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

It’s still unclear and increasingly unlikely that lawmakers will take up a call made by Gov. Steve Sisolak on the 2018 campaign trail to ban “assault” weapons. Jauregui declined to say in an interview if she would support such as a ban, saying she thought that decision should be kept on the local level.

“I really think we need to empower the local governments,” she said in an interview. “Because we might not need to ban, maybe in just some sensitive areas. So I think we eliminate this top-down approach and leave it to local governments.”

'Red for Ed' rallies draw attention to school funding as lawmakers weigh changes

Teacher Brian Rippet waved a chemistry book in the air Monday morning.

The nearly 20-year-old textbook is older than most students at Whittell High School in Douglas County, where Rippet teaches. It doesn’t contain 10 percent of the world’s known chemical elements, he said, because scientists have discovered new ones in the last two decades. The acknowledgment drew gasps from the crowd gathered outside the Grant Sawyer building in downtown Las Vegas.

“When kids understand that science is a dynamic process and something that we discover and is ever-changing, they are inspired to succeed,” said Rippet, who is vice president of the Nevada State Education Association. “So we are demanding that our legislators step up and fund our schools.”

About 100 people attended the "Red for Ed" rally at Grant Sawyer State Building on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Rippet’s plea isn’t necessarily new or unique. Educators have been lamenting Nevada’s K-12 funding system for years, pointing to aging textbooks, outdated technology and large class sizes as evidence of underfunded schools. They ramped up that message again on President’s Day with simultaneous “Red for Ed” rallies in Las Vegas and Carson City — continuing a national movement that has seen educators and community members don red in other cities as they lobby for public education.

Dozens of teachers, parents and education advocates braved chilly weather Monday to call for a new funding formula that would replace the 1967 version. The request has been at the forefront of education policy discussions the last few legislative cycles, but a revamped formula hasn’t fully emerged. The question now: Will a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor heed their calls this year?

“I’m asking as a parent for them to do that now,” said Rebecca Garcia, a mother of three students in the Clark County School District. “We don’t need another study. We don’t need to ask whether or not we have enough money. We know the answer to that question.”

Education Week’s Quality Counts 2018 report issued Nevada a D- for school finance after assessing indicators for spending and equity. In January, the publication released the first installment of its 2019 report, which looks at students’ chances for success in each state based on factors such as pre-kindergarten enrollment and postsecondary education attainment. Nevada received a C- in that index and placed 50th among states and the District of Columbia.

Jennifer Steele, a fourth-grade teacher at Doris French Elementary School in Las Vegas, described the reality of those lackluster education rankings. Her class has 28 students, many of whom are transient and enter school under grade level. A first-grade class in her school, though, has 26 students — 10 more than the targeted student-to-teacher ratio for that grade level.

Her school also lost money this year after its star rating increased.

Teachers Alexis Salt, left, and Jennifer Steele during the "Red For Ed" rally at Grant Sawyer State Building on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“We’re just shifting from one place to another,” she said. “The whole district needs to be financially provided for.”

Her friend and fellow teacher, Alexis Salt, nodded in agreement. Salt teaches at Indian Springs High School, but on Monday, she dressed in red as a parent. Her sixth-grade daughter attends Leavitt Middle School in northwest Las Vegas, where her science class has nearly 40 students.

Salt worries what will happen next year now that Leavitt Middle School is one of 55 buildings losing Title I funding.

“What is that going to look like?” she said. “How many more kids can we cram in there?”

A handful of lawmakers — some sporting red shirts and ties — joined the rally in Carson City outside the Legislature. Seven-some hours south, former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani attended a rally in Las Vegas, as did U.S. Rep. Susie Lee.

The congresswoman, who sits on the House Committee on Education and Labor, said she ran for political office to help improve Nevada’s public schools. Lee served as the founding director of After School All-Stars, which provides youth programming in at-risk neighborhoods, and has been a board member for Communities in Schools of Nevada.

She urged educators to keep up the hard work.

Congresswoman Susie Lee, (D-Nev.), speaks during the "Red For Ed" rally at Grant Sawyer State Building on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“This is not easy work. It’s not, and it’s tiring and it’s frustrating and sometimes, quite honestly, it’s discouraging,” she said. “But you cannot give up because these young people — our children — are our future and they deserve every fight we can give them.”

As the legislative session progresses, Rippet said he hopes education advocates and lawmakers make changes that benefit all Nevada students — not just those in particular regions or districts. His Northern Nevada school has 100 students, who he said deserve the same academic opportunities as teens in larger schools.

“We need to all work together and stay on the same page and not allow ourselves to be divided,” he said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposed budget would boost state K-12 funding by $156 million in the next biennium. That includes an increase to the basic per-pupil funding from $5,897 to $6,052 in the first year of the biennium and $6,116 in the second. But those dollar figures still fall short of what some studies have suggested the per-pupil amount should be in Nevada.