Rep. Dina Titus denies she is aiming for ambassadorship, signals support for death penalty repeal

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) on Monday denied reports that she is interested in leaving her House seat to become an ambassador in the Biden administration, calling them "rumors" and saying she is focusing on serving the needs of her constituents.

Titus’ remarks came during a press conference after she addressed the Legislature in a virtual speech promoting President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan and touting several pending Carson City bills, including ones pushing for criminal justice reform and greater voting access. 

"I have the best district in the country. We've got the airport, the Strip, Downtown, it's ethnically diverse, racially diverse; we just want to be sure that we come back stronger than ever," Titus said. "So that's what I'm doing, not packing my bags."

Her statements come almost a week after progressive activist Amy Vilela announced plans to run against Titus in a primary election. Titus declined to comment on Vilela’s announcement and said that she is instead concentrating on the immediate needs of her constituents, not the 2022 election.

"I've walked this district many times and I will do it again. So right now it's a year and a half ‘til the next election," Titus said. "Bringing back health care, getting shots in arms, children in school, people in jobs, money in pockets — those are my priorities right now."

During the press conference, Titus also declined to take a position on a pending bill that would repeal the death penalty in Nevada. She expressed general support for abolishing capital punishment but said it is not her role to dictate the Legislature’s actions.

“I'm generally opposed to the death penalty because there have been too many accidents and it's more expensive to issue the death penalty than to keep somebody in for life,” Titus said. “But that's up to the Assembly and the governor to decide.”

Contrasting with Titus’ early support for Biden during the 2020 presidential primary, one of her likely primary opponents, Vilela, served as a state co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) presidential campaign. In 2018 Vilela ran for Nevada's 4th Congressional District, finishing third in the primary behind now-Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) and state Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas). Vilela centered her campaign on a push for Medicare for All — a quest inspired by the death of her 22-year-old daughter, who Vilela believes did not receive adequate care because a hospital did not think she was insured. 

The Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House'' featured Vilela's campaign alongside those of three other progressive women running for Congress, including current Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO).

"From Covid to climate change, politics-as-usual simply isn't working for regular people," Vilela said in a press release. "It's time to elect leadership that will fight like lives depend on it."

Nevada's 1st Congressional District covers the heart of the Las Vegas Valley, and is considered a safe Democratic seat given the overwhelming majority of registered Democrats relative to Republicans, though district boundaries are likely to change after the redistricting process later this year. 

Titus said that Nevada’s population is rapidly growing and that regardless of how lawmakers choose to draw boundaries in other districts, she hopes hers remains intact.

“You don't ever want to break up certain ethnic communities or geographical jurisdictions, but the Legislature will take all that into consideration,” Titus said.

Titus, who served more than 20 years in the Legislature and was the longtime state Senate minority leader, has represented the 1st Congressional District since 2012.

Cortez Masto, Lee top prior first-quarter fundraising tallies as congressional campaigns eye 2022 midterms

Congressional representatives across the state reported race-leading fundraising hauls this week, positioning each with an early money advantage more than a year in advance of next summer’s primary elections. 

Leading all fundraising was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV), who reported more than $2.3 million in fundraising ahead of what is expected to be a competitive re-election bid. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who is not up for reelection until 2024, reported $341,794.

In the House, District 3 Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) led the state’s delegation with $607,407 raised through the first quarter; District 4’s Steven Horsford (D-NV) followed with $363,210; District 2’s Mark Amodei (R-NV) reported $77,749; and District 1’s Dina Titus (D-NV) reported $48,080.

With so much time left before the formal filing deadline for congressional elections next spring, the field of challengers in each district remains relatively small. Even so, two Republican challengers in the state’s two swing districts reported six-figure fundraising hauls, including Sam Peters in District 4 ($135,000) and April Becker in District 3 ($143,000).

Below are some additional campaign finance numbers for each candidate, broken down by district from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 

Catherine Cortez Masto (D) — incumbent

Ahead of her first-ever bid for re-election as a U.S. senator and as Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin margin in the Senate, Cortez Masto reported $2.3 million in fundraising, boosting her cash on hand by roughly 55 percent to nearly $4.7 million. 

A vast majority of that money, about $1.8 million, came from individual donors, including roughly $1.35 million in itemized contributions and $460,000 in small-dollar unitemized donations. Cortez Masto also raised an even $349,000 from PACs, more than $51,000 from political party committees and nearly $86,500 from other fundraising committee transfers.  

With a fundraising total orders of magnitude larger than any other candidate in Nevada through the first quarter, Cortez Masto also has by far the most individual donors of the entire field with thousands of itemized contributions reported, including several dozen contributions of the legal maximum. 

By law, individuals can contribute up to $2,900 per candidate per election (i.e. for the primary and for the general) in federal elections, while PACs and other committees can contribute up to $5,000 per election. Major donors will often contribute that maximum twice, once for the primary and again for the general, up front, giving candidates between $5,800 and $10,000.

Among the many donors who maxed out their contribution to Cortez Masto were a handful of Nevada regulars, including businessman and major Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck ($2,900 in the first quarter, $5,800 overall) and MGM Resorts International ($5,000).

With nearly $663,000 spent this quarter, no Nevada politician came close to Cortez Masto in outlays. Most of that money, $382,206, went to nine firms involved in fundraising operations, including mailers ($213,406) and online ($168,800). 

Jacky Rosen (D) — incumbent

With more than three years before she’ll face voters again, Rosen reported a comparatively modest $341,794 in contributions last quarter, but her campaign has more than $1.85 million in cash on hand. 

Of that money, most ($226,165) came from individual contributions, with the rest flowing largely from PACs ($14,000) and authorized committee transfers ($97,600).

Among the several dozen donors giving Rosen the legal maximum were Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun ($5,800) and his wife, Myra Greenspun ($5,800); Niraj Shah, CEO of the furniture retailer Wayfair ($2,900); and a leadership PAC linked to former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the Seeking Justice PAC ($5,000).  

Most of the $137,000 spent by Rosen was for regular operating expenditures, though her campaign twice spent $5,000 for online advertising from New York-based firm Assemble the Agency. 

A district that covers much of the southern half of Clark County, including some of the Las Vegas metro’s wealthiest suburbs, District 3 has switched hands between the two major parties three times since its creation in 2002. 

For three cycles, that control has been maintained by Democrats, following a narrow win by Rosen in 2016, and subsequent victories by Lee in 2018 and 2020. Still, a narrow victory in the district by Donald Trump in 2016 and small voter registration gaps have marked District 3 as one of a few-dozen nationwide that may become key to deciding which party controls the House after the 2022 midterms.

Susie Lee (D) — incumbent

Frequently the top-fundraiser among Nevada’s House delegation, Susie Lee continued her streak last quarter with $607,407 in contributions. After Lee largely depleted her campaign reserves in a pricey bid to keep her seat last year, that first-quarter fundraising has left her campaign with just over $484,000 in cash on hand. 

Nearly all of that money — $493,070 — came from individual contributions, with the remaining $114,000 coming from big-money PAC contributions. 

Among those individual donors were several dozen contributing the $2,900 maximum. Those big money donors were largely local business leaders — including Cashman Equipment CEO MaryKaye Cashman, MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle and former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren — though the group also included television showrunner and producer Shonda Rhimes.

Among PACs that contributed the $5,000 maximum were a mix of business interests (including PACs related to Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International), and unions (including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and SMART, the sheet metal and transportation workers union, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.) 

Lee reported spending nearly $146,000 last quarter, an amount second only to Cortez Masto among the delegation members. Most of that money went to campaign consulting and staffing costs, with the single largest chunk — $32,000 spread over five payments — going to Washington, D.C.-based digital consulting firm Break Something. 

April Becker (R)

After her unsuccessful run for the Legislature in 2020, attorney April Becker is challenging Susie Lee (D) for her seat in Congress. In the first quarter of 2021, Becker raised $143,444 mostly from individual contributors. 

Becker received $2,000 from PACs, such as the Stronger Nevada PAC and (although not officially endorsed by) the campaigns for fellow Republican politicians, former Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei. 

Several of her big individual contributors included family members; donations from individuals with the last name Becker totaled $29,500, nearly a fifth of the total contributions. Local business owners also contributed to Becker, including some car dealership owners: $5,000 from Gary Ackerman of Gaudin Motor Company; Cliff Findlay and Donna Findlay of Findlay Automotive each donated the maximum of $2,900, totaling $5,800; and Donald Forman of United Nissan Vegas gave $5,800.  

Co-owners of the Innovative Pain Care Center, Melissa and Daniel Burkhead, each gave $5,800 totaling $11,600. Other contributors included several medical professionals, real estate investors and attorneys.

In the first quarter, Becker kept most of the money collected, $131,460, reporting spending only $11,983 on more fundraising efforts. 

Mark Robertson (R)

Also hoping to challenge Susie Lee, Army veteran Mark Robertson raised $61,631 in his first time running for a political seat. The sum includes $7,451 he loaned his campaign.  

Although he collected less than half than Becker in the first quarter, retirees were large contributors to his campaign, some nearly reaching the $5,800 maximum for both the primary and general elections. 

Several local architects, engineers and construction contractors were also among the contributors, including $5,000 combined from Kenneth and Michelle Alber of Penta Building Group, $3,000 from Brock Krahenbuhl, a contractor for GTI Landscape and $3,000 from Wayne Horlacher of Horrock Engineers. 

Robertson reported spending $25,148, including $5,250 on campaign consulting, $3,138 on office supplies and $3,270 on video and print advertising production services. After the expenditures, Robertson is left with $44,034 cash on hand. 

A geographically massive district — larger than some states — that encompasses parts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and much of the state’s central rural counties, District 4 has been held by Democrats for all but one cycle since its creation in 2011. That exception came in 2014, when Republican Cresent Hardy unseated then-freshman Democrat Steven Horsford in an upset. 

Horsford retook the seat in 2018, defeating Hardy in an open race after incumbent Democrat Ruben Kihuen declined to mount his own re-election bid amid a sexual harassment investigation. Horsford later won re-election in 2020, beating Republican Jim Marchant by 5 percentage points. 

Steven Horsford (D) — incumbent

With $363,209 in reported fundraising, Horsford boosted his campaign war chest by more than 50 percent last quarter, lifting his cash on hand to $757,142. 

That fundraising was driven mostly by $205,883 in individual contributions, though Horsford also brought in a much larger share of PAC contributions ($157,251) than his delegation counterparts.

Among Horsford’s single-largest contributors was Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra, who both contributed the $2,900 maximum for the primary and general elections, or $11,600 combined. 

Horsford’s biggest PAC contributions came from a mix of political committees linked to the Democratic Party, unions and corporations. That includes $10,000 from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC (of which Horsford is a member), $5,000 from the public employees union AFSCME and $5,000 from MGM Resorts International.   

A vast majority of the $102,000 spent by Horsford’s campaign last quarter went to operating costs, salaries and consultants, though — like his fellow incumbents — a sizable portion ($21,000) still flowed to a pair of fundraising and finance compliance consultants. 

Sam Peters (R)

After finishing second in last year’s Republican primary for District 4, veteran and local business owner Sam Peters led Republican fundraising efforts in the district this quarter. Peters’ campaign raised more than $135,000, which came entirely from individual contributions.

Those contributions were driven largely by retirees, as two-thirds of the 100 big-money contributions over $200 came from donors listing themselves as retired. Peters’ campaign was also boosted by a few maximum or near-maximum donations, including $5,800 from Frank Suryan Jr., CEO of Lyon Living, a residential development company based in Newport Beach, California, and $5,800 from Suryan’s spouse.

After spending a little more than $24,000, mostly on campaign consulting and fundraising services, Peters ended the quarter with nearly $115,000 in cash on hand, nearly double the amount he had at the end of the first quarter of 2021.

A district that includes Reno and much of rural Northern Nevada, District 2 has for two cycles been the only federal seat in Nevada still held by a Republican. The one-time seat of former Sen. Dean Heller and former Gov. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, the seat has been held by incumbent Republican Mark Amodei since 2011, when he defeated Democrat Kate Marshall in a special election to replace the outgoing Heller. 

Mark Amodei (R) — incumbent

After Amodei spent close to a thousand dollars more than he raised through the first three months of 2021, his campaign war chest sits at $323,347 entering the second quarter.

His fundraising of nearly $78,000 came largely from big-money contributions totaling more than $50,000, including roughly 30 donations between $1,000 and $2,000. But Amodei was also boosted by several maximum or near-maximum donations from Margaret Cavin, owner of plumbing company J&J Mechanical in Reno ($5,600), and Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research ($5,800).

Amodei’s fundraising was also boosted by a few large contributions from political committees, including $5,000 donations from PACs affiliated with MGM Resorts International and New York Life Insurance, $3,500 from a PAC affiliated with the aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation and $2,500 from Barrick Gold, a mining company.

Amodei’s spending was distributed across a wide range of categories, as he spent $7,625 on radio advertising, $4,000 on campaign consulting, nearly $20,000 on fundraising consulting, $12,750 on accounting services and more than $7,500 on meals and entertainment for contributor relations — including nearly $700 paid to cigar companies and more than $2,000 spent at Trattoria Alberto, an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Located in the urban center of Las Vegas, the deep blue District 1 has been held by incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus since 2012. Titus won the seat after losing a previous re-election bid in nearby District 3 in 2010, which she had held for one term after a win over Republican Rep. Joe Heck in 2008.

Dina Titus (D) — incumbent

With no clear challengers in the district, Titus finished the first quarter with the least money raised of any Nevada incumbent — she received $48,080, which was $1.85 less than she raised through the same period last year.

More than half of those funds were given by four PACs that contributed a combined $25,000. The American Institute of Architects’ PAC, a PAC associated with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC gave $5,000 each, a pro-Israel PAC called Desert Caucus donated $10,000.

Titus also received $14,280 from individuals, including a $1,000 contribution from former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin and a maximum contribution of $5,800 from Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research.

After spending $37,000 in the quarter, Titus brought her cash on hand total to almost $340,000.

Tracking traffic stop data, ‘bias indicators’ for officers lauded by criminal justice reform groups, but questioned by law enforcement unions

In 2003, Nevada lawmakers headed into session with their hands on a troubling new data analysis — Black and Hispanic drivers in Nevada were statistically more likely to be pulled over for traffic stops than white motorists.

The report — which analyzed nearly 400,000 traffic stops statewide — resulted in legislation from then-state Sen. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) to require police to attend racial sensitivity training and continue collecting data on traffic stops as an attempt to stem any ongoing racial bias issue in traffic stops. 

That legislation was opposed by police groups and ultimately failed to advance out of committee. But nearly two decades later, the issue hasn’t gone away.

Many of the same arguments from 2003 reappeared on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on SB236, a bill introduced by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would re-start data collection and analysis on traffic stops, and require police departments to implement a system of tracking “bias indicators” for individual officers.

Harris referenced the 2003 study in her testimony on the bill, saying it was important for lawmakers to follow up on the now-decades old report and take action if racial disparities in traffic stops still exist.

“It's imperative that the Legislature take another look at this in an aggregate sense and get some statistical analysis done on whether these biases exist in traffic stops or not, so that we can actually address if there's a problem, and if there is, figure out the best way to solve it,” she said.

SB236 has two primary functions. The first would require every law enforcement agency in the state to establish an early warning system for finding police officers who display “bias indicators” — including having a large number of citizen complaints, being involved in a large number of use of force incidents, making a large number of arrests for resisting an officer or arrests that don’t result in filed charges or having a “negative attitude” toward programs aimed at boosting community and police relations, according to the bill text.

If an officer is tagged for displaying bias indicators, SB236 would require the police agency to increase supervision of the officer and offer additional training or counseling. If that officer is “repeatedly identified” by the system, the agency “shall consider the consequences that should be imposed,” including transfers or discipline.

Harris compared the system to a Doppler weather radar, saying that like the weather forecast, bias indicators may not be an exact prediction, but can prepare law enforcement for the potential of a “catastrophic event.”

“We want to help leaders identify potential problems and to intervene so that these problems do not become catastrophic,” she said.

The second part of the bill would require the state’s Department of Public Safety to begin developing a standardized method for use by all police agencies in the state as to how to record traffic stop information, including the race, age, and gender of the person stopped and any police action taken — such as a warning, citation or search.

It would require that information be transmitted annually to the state starting in 2023, and “to the extent that money is available,” contract with a third party to conduct a statistical analysis of the data for the purpose of “identifying patterns or practices of profiling.” 

The original version of the bill would have required police officers to have at least an associate’s degree or two years of military service, and would have placed limits on qualified immunity — a legal provision protecting law enforcement from civil lawsuits unless officials “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Both of those provisions were removed under a conceptual amendment submitted by Harris ahead of the hearing.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) questioned how the bias indicator tracking system envisioned in the bill would work, saying that most examples of illegal driving came from young males regardless of racial background.

“When cops are pulling people over, and we're seeing that disproportionality among races and in gender, did anyone ever consider that it might be the fact that those people are the ones that are committing a disproportionate share of the crimes?” he said.

Harris pointed back to the 2001 survey, saying that the disparity between Black drivers and traffic stops had a strong statistical basis.

“Yes, we've considered it, and I do not believe there is any evidence that African Americans are more likely to speed in the same manner that there is evidence that males are more likely to speed, hence the higher insurance rate for males,” she said.

The bill was supported by a wide range of criminal justice reform advocates, from the ACLU of Nevada to libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity. Many shared stories of past examples of police violence; the niece of Byron Williams, a Black man killed in police custody in Las Vegas after saying “I can’t breathe” two dozen times, testified in favor of the bill.

“There's nothing radical nor unreasonable in this bill,” Mass Liberation Project lead organizer Leslie Turner said. “This is actually the bare minimum, data collection and transparency.”

The bill even attracted support from some police unions.

“It will require further dialogue with the law enforcement agencies to develop those policies,” Executive Director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers Rick McCann said. “You know, dialogue is not a bad thing. We need more of it, quite frankly. Statistical analysis is not a bad thing.”

But the Las Vegas Police Protective Association — the union representing Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department rank and file officers and the largest police union in the state — testified in opposition to the bill, saying many of the measure’s supporters were from anti-police groups that supported the abolition of police unions.

LVPPA representative John Abel said the union hadn’t been in contact with Harris about the bill, and could potentially be in support of the legislation if it was shown that officers did not have any “newly added paperwork or documentation” for the measure. He suggested that other support from other police unions, such as NAPSO, wasn’t reflective of how most police in the state felt about the issue.

“These two groups should denounce this legislation as I know their members probably aren't supportive of their union,” he said.

Metro police lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the agency was opposed to the bill, but was working with Harris on amendments that move the state’s largest police force to the neutral position. Metro filed a fiscal note estimating an annual $22 million cost to implement the bill, but Harris said the agency would be able to use existing data collection systems and not require them to find new software.

Still, Callaway bristled at some of the comments made by bill supporters.

“In regards to some of the testimony that was made during the hearing, I kind of take a bit of offense to the term ‘police violence,’” he said. “Police officers are out doing a very difficult job on a daily basis, and they react to the actions of suspects and people that they encounter on calls and on stops during the course of their duties.”

Sen. Melanie Schieble (D-Las Vegas) said she understood why law enforcement may have an emotional response to suggestions of implicit bias — saying that she had in the past been accused of “pretty much racism” in online and real-world spheres, an experience she called “emotional and jarring.”

But she said the purpose of SB236 was not punitive, and in fact represented one of the lightest approaches possible to deal with implicit bias.

“You're not calling people out on Twitter, you're not putting them on the record in a court of law, you're not posting a list in their front lobby,” Scheible said. “You are privately talking to one officer with actual data to say ‘Hey, we noticed that over the last six months, these 10 things happened...and you might not know this, but that's not normal. I can't think of a lighter touch for an officer than that one on one conversation.”

Freshman Orientation: Assemblywoman Clara "Claire" Thomas

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring new state lawmakers. This is the thirteenth installment in the series. Check out our other profiles for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

  • Freshman Democrat who succeeds Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson (D-North Las Vegas), a four-term assemblyman and longtime education advocate who passed away while in office in 2019
  • Represents District 17, located in North Las Vegas
  • District 17 leaned heavily Democratic (48 percent Democratic, 21 percent Republican and 25 percent nonpartisan) in the 2020 election
  • Thomas ran unopposed in the 2020 Democratic primary and then defeated Republican Jack Polcyn in the general election with 66.2 percent of the vote.
  • She will sit on the Government Affairs, Health and Human Services and Legislative Operations and Elections committees.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Thomas came to Southern Nevada in 1982 while she was serving in the Air Force as an air traffic controller. After 20 years of service, she retired and decided to settle in Las Vegas. Thomas then pursued higher education, working two jobs to put herself through school and raise her two children. 

Thomas holds an associate's degree from the College of Southern Nevada and earned a bachelor's in psychology and then a master's in public administration from UNLV. In her free time, she enjoys babysitting and spoiling her grandchildren.

CAREER

An Air Force veteran, Thomas now works as a court clerk in the Clark County district attorney's office and is a member of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1107. 

Assembly members Cameron (C.H.) Miller, left, and Clara "Claire" Thomas on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

PROFILE

When Thunderbirds fly across the sky, jet streams trailing behind, Thomas said she feels a sense of pride, duty, excitement and hope.

A retired air traffic controller with the Air Force, Thomas said that the feeling of watching Thunderbird flyovers is how she describes the feeling of the start of the 81st legislative session as a first-time lawmaker. 

Thomas never intended to run for political office. She loved spending time with her grandchildren, working as a member of several Democratic Party groups and as a volunteer with various organizations, including the Rape Crisis Center of Southern Nevada.

But that all changed after Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson unexpectedly passed away during the 2019 legislative session.

Suddenly, a larger-than-life figure who supported legislation prioritizing education, homeless people and veterans was gone, leaving behind a gaping hole that needed to be filled, Thomas said.

"He was promoting all of these things, making us aware and bringing everything to the forefront, especially education … I was extremely concerned," she said.

Thomas said she hoped that someone would run to fill the empty seat, but after a few months of waiting and asking leadership whether someone had decided to run, the answer remained the same: no one was coming forward.

"I was like ... if no one steps up, I'd like to step up. And from that point, I threw my hat in the ring," Thomas said.

Though there are many areas that Thomas wants to focus on, she said she is prioritizing health care, education and veteran’s affairs.

"I'm a vet of 20 years, and I think that it's important for us to pay back our veterans," Thomas said. "I work around the courthouse and to see the homelessness and knowing that a lot of them are vets — breaks my heart."

With ongoing discrimination and educational disparities based on race or socioeconomic status, Thomas said she also wants to create a better future for her grandchildren and other young people and be part of a state that is setting a historic precedent.

"We're making a name for ourselves, this little state that people took for granted," Thomas said. "We elected the first Latina senator ... Cortez Masto. Jacky Rosen. It's Susie Lee, Dina Titus .... women that are going forward and making our country what it should be."

To create effective change, Thomas said she and other legislators are going to have to work together.

"I'm one of those believers that in order to get anything done, you actually have to have a cohesive group," Thomas said. "Everyone doesn't believe the same thing, but as far as our politics is concerned, we have different religions, we have different ways of raising a family, but collectively we come together for the betterment of a group.”

One of Thomas's favorite areas of study is history because it holds lessons for the present moment. She said that she is looking forward to bringing her expertise and knowledge to the table, learning from other more experienced legislators and making decisions to help the state.

"I'm just excited to be there and to work and to just forge ahead and make things better for people that are in dire need right now because we have a lot of people that are in dire need."

Assemblywomen Clara "Claire" Thomas, left and Daniele Monroe-Moreno during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

ON THE ISSUES

Early childhood education

One of Thomas's priorities is increasing access to early childhood and pre-kindergarten education. 

"I believe in early education. And my group of kids that I adore are from the ages of two and four, because they are like sponges and they tell you what's on their mind because they don't know any different, they only know truth," Thomas said. "And I love that."

Affluent families can afford to give their children early educational opportunities. Children from lower-income families often do not have access to that and are therefore disadvantaged before school even begins, Thomas said.

"Our children deserve no less [than early education]," Thomas said. "Every child in every state of the union deserves to be educated and be competitive because as time goes by, we need to be competitive with the rest of the world. Just that simple."

Criminal justice reform

Thomas said she remembers teaching her son what to do if a police officer approached him, warning him that if an officer ever told him to do a jumping jack, then he was going to do a jumping jack.

"Why am I telling my son that? Why am I feeling that my son, when he goes out, that he has to be more compliant to an officer … why is he different?" Thomas said.

Though she did not discuss any specific reform measures, Thomas said she is following legislation around criminal justice reform and looking for ways to increase equality.

Election reform

Thomas applauded the state's ability to increase access to voting and successfully carry out an election amid a pandemic.

"We had a record number of people voting in the state. That's something that's great," Thomas said. "We had young people, 18, voting, out there getting their family members to vote who never vote."

She said that claims of voter fraud have not been supported in court and using mail-in voting increased people's opportunities to participate.

"That's something that we should have been doing for years and being a military member, we voted that way … so why was that fraudulent? It wasn't," Thomas said. "I'm proud of the fact that Nevada's secretary of state, who's a Republican, just embraced that, our local leaders embraced it and we made it work."

Behind the Bar: Lawsuit to open building hits roadblock. Plus: tiny house regulations, opt-out organ donation, state ERA advances and tribal burial site changes

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Where the lawsuit seeking to open the Legislative building to the public stands after a 9th Circuit Court dismissal. Plus, details on a bill allowing tiny house development, an icy reception for the organ donation opt-out bill, advancing a state-based Equal Rights Amendment, and changes to tribal burial site laws. Carson City Restaurant Spotlight returns.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


The legal effort to open the halls of the Legislature to the public isn’t going so well.

On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by an attorney for the group of four conservative lobbyists who sued to open the building in mid-February.

The order was brief — just five lines — and echoed what defendants in the case have said all along: the appeal was inappropriate because it was focused on a non-appealable interlocutory order, which is legal jargon for the procedural order issued by the federal District Court judge in the case. 

The appeal in this case focused on Judge Miranda Du’s order setting a normal and non-emergency briefing schedule in the case — a decision made because the plaintiffs (the four lobbyists) didn’t check all of the boxes needed to qualify for an emergency briefing. 

A filing submitted by Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby to the 9th Circuit outlines where the initial lawsuit fell short in providing information typically required for an emergency, expedited briefing. It also seeks to have Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford — named defendants in the lawsuit — dismissed from the case, because, well, the executive and legislative are separate branches of government (the response helpfully links to a Schoolhouse Rock video in a footnote).

“Unlike other cases brought by Plaintiffs’ counsel, there is no emergency directive issued by the Governor mandating that the Legislature close (or open) the Legislative Building,” Newby wrote in a separate filing submitted to the district court. “The Governor understands the risks of COVID-19 spread in our community, resulting in difficult decisions he has had to make. Here however, the difficult decisions for keeping the Legislative Building open or closed lie with the Legislature, not him.”

I’m not an attorney, but I would guess that barring some kind of Hail Mary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case will fall back to the original District Court.

But even then, the lawsuit still has issues. 

In a filing submitted on Tuesday, Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers told the court that the plaintiffs had “ failed to serve the Legislative Defendants, or an agent designated by them to receive service of process, with the summons and complaint.”

“In the absence of such service, the Legislative Defendants have not officially become parties to this action, and this Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over the Legislative Defendants for any matters, including, without limitation, the emergency motion for preliminary injunction,” Powers wrote in the motion, which asked the court to pause all briefings in light of the then-pending appeal with the 9th Circuit Court.

(It should probably be noted that the attorney for the plaintiffs, Sigal Chattah, is running for attorney general in 2022.)

If you made it through all that legalese and are still reading, 1) congratulations, 2) now you know what it’s like to live in my brain and 3) you’re probably wondering where exactly this leaves the lawsuit and potential of a judicial-ordered reopening of the legislative building.

Again, not a lawyer, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made that an expedited briefing is appropriate in this case — we’re already a third of the way into the 120-day legislative session.

But that ticking clock also works against the litigation — legislators and staff got their first COVID vaccine shot last month, and legislative leadership are still targeting mid-April for a tentative, limited reopening date. 

As that tentative date gets closer, I think it makes it less likely that a judge would feel inclined to issue an emergency injunction to open the building, especially if the limited reopening is just a few weeks away.

But I’ll continue to follow the court case regardless; if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that making predictions in this business should be left to the supremely confident or foolhardy

— Riley Snyder


More options for tiny houses in Nevada

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) is the latest supporter of a housing movement that began when Henry David Thoreau rejected society and moved into a 150-square foot cabin near Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Though Harris has not committed to a solitary existence in a small cabin near a pond, nor the modern-day option of applying for the popular television series Tiny House Nation, she did say that allowing more tiny homes to be built in Nevada could help address the state’s housing shortage.

"This is something I personally would choose to live in and maybe build as a permanent residence because of who I am and my own personal tastes," Harris said during a Senate Government Affairs committee hearing on the bill SB150 on Monday. "What I'm looking to do here is to allow those who like to build one ... or who would like to put it in their backyard, I would like to give them the option." 

Under Harris' proposed bill, municipalities in counties with more than 800,000 people would have to create zoning laws for tiny houses no more than 400 square feet in size that would: 

  • allow homeowners to build tiny houses as an addition to a property
  • recognize tiny homes as single-family dwelling units
  • set aside space for tiny house parks similar to mobile home parks. 

Counties with 100,000 residents or less would follow through with at least one of the three options, Harris said.

The bill addresses a need for specificity around zoning for tiny houses which are often a smaller square footage than what is normally permitted for single-family residences and sets up a regulatory structure for the housing type, supporters said.

But one skeptic of the bill, Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), worried tiny homes might depreciate housing values or exacerbate zoning disparities.

"I'm not a fan of tiny houses, mainly because I don't want it to go into poor areas. And I don't want it to go into poor areas that I want redevelopment to occur and actually have sustainable homes, good homes ... the American Dream home " she said.

Harris chalked up Neal's comments to a difference in philosophies. She said the legislation would provide an alternative for people who may not be able to find or afford a larger home and a way to increase density in more established communities.

"I also see [tiny homes] as a stepping stone to larger home ownership in that American Dream sense," Harris said.

— Tabitha Mueller


Proposed opt-out organ donation system gets icy reception

Critics of a new bill that would make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system are concerned that the new method would infringe on personal liberties and might even reduce the state’s donor pool.

The bill, SB134, would adjust the current opt-in system by making Nevadans who update or apply for a new driver's license or state ID card organ donors by default. If the bill is passed, someone filling out a DMV application would have to opt out of becoming an organ donor instead of opting in.

“I'm afraid that Nevada Donor Network has a very deep concern that an opt-out system is likely to have unintended negative consequences that would actually result in decreasing the availability of organs and tissues,” said lobbyist Dan Musgrove, a representative for the non-profit organ procurement organization, during a Monday hearing of the bill.

Musgrove explained that the opt-out system could create conflict with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which sets a regulatory framework for organ donation across different states. And he said the system could pose a problem by creating a group of people who decide to not be organ donors and remove themselves from the donor pool.

The main presenter of the bill, Ashley Biehl, a 30-year-old who had a heart transplant in 2017, pointed to the thousands of Americans who die each year waiting for a transplant, as well as Nevada’s “abysmal” rate of organ donor registration, which at 41 percent sits below the national average of 49 percent.

“Senate Bill 134 seeks to help alleviate that burden and reduce the number of unnecessary deaths by making more organs eligible for donation,” Biehl said.

Those who opposed the bill during the meeting, as well as some of the lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, expressed concerns that a change to the organ donation system could infringe on individual rights.

“The general consensus has been over the years that government can't make choices over our bodies, over our personal opinions. And yet, this would seem to do violence to that concept,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said during the hearing. 

Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) also said the change to an opt-out system could potentially confuse people. Hammond said that someone could miss the change to the system and become an organ donor, even though they do not actually want to be one.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), said during the meeting that he would continue to work with stakeholders to address concerns about the bill language.

“Certainly the intent of this bill is to make a bold statement that Nevada would be the first opt-out state in the nation,” Ohrenschall said. “There is no intent to replace anyone's conscious decision as to whether they want to participate or not.”

— Sean Golonka


Nevada Equal Rights Amendment moving on to the next round

The Nevada Equal Rights Amendment is one step closer to the 2022 ballot, after the resolution passed out of committee with a 4-1 vote on Tuesday. 

The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee passed the resolution, SJR8, that would amend the Nevada Constitution to include that rights shall not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.” It echoes language from the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which Nevada ratified (35 years after the fact) in 2017.

Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) was the sole vote opposing the resolution. She argued that the bill is “redundant” as it lays out equality and protection to multiple groups that the federal and state constitutions already protect. She also said the resolution’s list of specific groups of citizens is “bound to miss some.” 

“I believe in the rights of all people… I embrace those voices and the narratives behind those who have said ‘enough is enough,’ they are equal and I am equal with them,” Buck said. “I just cannot in good conscience support a bill that has the potential to harm, exclude or potentially forget a subgroup of people who were left off the list.” 

This is the proposed constitutional amendment’s second round of approval after being passed during the 2019 legislative session. If approved by the full Legislature, the resolution goes to a statewide vote in 2022. 

The committee vote comes after a setback for a national movement to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. A judge ruled last week that the effort could not advance, even though Nevada and two other states recently ratified the proposed amendment, because a 1982 deadline set by Congress has passed.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford said he is exploring further legal options, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) said she would continue the fight.

“There have been a long list of people who have been fighting for this, hoping for this, and praying for this,” said Spearman, who led the charge to have Nevada ratify the national amendment. “We are the hope. We are an answered prayer. We are the continuation of their work. We will not stop until the work is finished, and it will not be finished until the Equal Rights Amendment becomes the 28th amendment in our U.S. Constitution.” 

— Jannelle Calderon


Bill amends law that protects Native American burial sites

It’s illegal in Nevada to knowingly excavate an Indian burial site, which has been the case since 2017. 

But the current law exempts entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the purpose of the activity is exclusive from excavating a burial site. 

Nevada lawmakers are looking to clear up any ambiguities in the law through AB103, which seeks to clarify that the activity in question can only occur on the portion of the private land that does not contain the known burial site. 

“It got interpreted that there was an exemption,” said Marla McDade Williams of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony during the bill’s presentation in the Assembly Natural Resources committee on Monday. “So this legislation in front of you simply makes that clarification to say that as long as the activity occurs only on a portion of the private land that does not contain the known site, then they don't have to get the permit.” 

Although the bill doesn’t significantly change the scope of the existing law, it brought an important conversation to the Legislature regarding the presence of Native American peoples who lived, died and were buried throughout the state before other populations settled here. 

“The core theme of AB103 is to ensure protection of our ancestors' final resting place where they were originally buried, and to ensure Nevada tribes are part of the discussions and decisions made affecting the management, treatment and disposition of Native American ancestral human remains,” said Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program. 

Eben said that just as any other human remains are respected as they lay within cemeteries, so too do Native American remains throughout the state need to be respected and remain undisturbed. 

“Native American remains and sacred objects were desecrated by early pioneers and settlers, but what remains buried throughout the state is still important to contemporary Native society,” Eben said. 

While many areas are not necessarily marked as burial sites, the law holds that landowners who find remains (called “inadvertent findings”) must notify the State Historic Preservation Office, which then catalogs the findings into a database of known findings. The database is not publicly accessible. 

Eben also clarified that while the law currently protects Native American remains, it does not protect Native American cultural items or objects found across the state, adding that this is something “we’d like to change in the future.” 

— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez


Carson City Restaurant Spotlight: Antojitos la Jefa

I thought it was a pretty good sign when the woman answering the phone to take my order at Antojitos la Jefa did so in Spanish.

And it was another good sign (although a little nerve-wracking for this half-vaccinated restaurant critic) that this cozy joint on Carson Street was positively hopping on a Friday night.

Antojitos la Jefa is one of the newest restaurants in town, replacing what used to be a sushi joint sandwiched between the FISH thrift store and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Loosely translated, the name is “Snacks from the Girl Boss.”

I ordered a gordita with asada and all the fixins and a “pambazo” al pastor — an item I’d never heard of but that entailed a guajillo sauce-treated sandwich roll filled with all the tasty pork taco fixings you’d otherwise find on a tortilla. It was all quite delicious, particularly after watching the tortillas made by hand just behind the counter.

If you miss Tacos El Gordo in Vegas, this place can fill the void in your heart. And at less than $20 out the door for two entrees plus beans, rice and a few chips, it won’t leave much of a void in your wallet.

Antojitos la Jefa is located at 1701 North Carson Street. Open until 9 p.m. Order your takeout in English or Spanish at (775) 461-0771.

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at michelle@thenvindy.com. FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.

A soon to be devoured gordita and “pambazo” al pastor from Antojitos la Jefa in Carson City on March 5, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

Daniel Rothberg and Joey Lovato’s must-read interview with Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a 36,000-person, self-governing, blockchain-run “Innovation Zone.” (Berns: “I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money.”)

The Guinn Center does its best Dina Titus impression and finds that Nevada is still on the bottom of the good list of states that receive the most federal grants.

Jannelle Calderon reports on the bill from Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) to ban racially discriminatory language or imagery in school “identifiers.”

A state of play on where state worker collective bargaining contracts stand.

We also report on Sen. Chris Brook’s big energy policy plans for the 2021 session; $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations, potentially moving the state to a wholesale electric market, expanding renewable energy tax credits, calling for more transmission infrastructure build-out, and prison sentences for Hummer owners after 2025 (one of those may not be true).

Unions and labor groups contributed more than $1 million to legislative candidates in the 2020 election cycle, Jacob Solis reports

A provision in the recently-passed federal defense bill could shine more light on company transparency — and possibly affect the millions of dollars in registration fees that Nevada makes on being a haven for “shell” companies. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Another look at the opt-out organ donation bill. (Nevada Current)

A bipartisan group of 17 female lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to focus the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee to focus on “disparities among persons of color, geographic region and age.” (Nevada Current)

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the state’s judicial commission of conspiring to ruin her reputation after she criticized officials including Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. (Nevada Current)

A lawsuit over MGM Resort’s use of resort fees. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Sisolak lays down the marker and tells the AP that Nevada will be “the safest place to have a convention or to come and visit.” (Associated Press)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 1 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 4 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 81 (May 31, 2021)

Behind the Bar: Just how slow is the start of session? NV GOP alleges election fraud (again), unemployment updates and bills to watch for this week

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Has this session started slower than others? Plus, the Nevada Republican Party turns in election complaints, unemployment updates and related GOP indignation, plus a look at upcoming major bill hearings.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


It’s around this time of every legislative session, pandemic or no pandemic, that the whispers start.

“What’s taking drafting so long? Why are they going so slow? How are they going to meet the deadline?”

While there might not be lobbyists in the building just yet, I’ve started to hear the same whisperings this session.

The day this newsletter publishes, March 8, is the 36th day of the 120-day legislative session. The deadline for lawmaker bill introductions is a week away (March 15), and the deadline for most other remaining bill introductions is two weeks away (March 22).

Rather than just rely on a general sense that things are moving slowly this session, I wanted to take a look and compare this session’s quote-unquote productivity with recent sessions.

So far in 2021 (as of Friday, March 5), there have been 401 bill or resolution introductions, along with 349 committee actions (hearings, amendments, or bills mentioned) and 881 floor actions — which includes bill introductions, amendments, votes or generally any other action taken on the Senate or Assembly floor.

That’s behind the pace of the 2019 legislative session, which at this point had 539 bills or resolutions introduced, 432 committee actions and 1,103 floor actions. 

It’s even further behind the pace of the 2017 session — 574 bill or resolution introductions, 559 committee actions and 1,579 floor actions at this point.

So by those metrics, the pace so far is slower than the last two sessions. Some caveats: let me be the latest reporter to tell you that we’re in a pandemic; many of the normal practices and courses of the legislative session have been thrown off by COVID-related disruptions and delays.

And going by raw numbers of bills isn’t the best measure of productivity — not all bills are created equal, and many are destined for the legislative graveyard (see Richard McArthur’s bill eliminating scheduled minimum wage increases or any of the other red-meat Republican Party priorities).

That said, there isn’t too much of a public sense of urgency with nearly a third of the session completed. There’s only been one Friday floor session to date (last week in the Assembly) and many committees are still canceling meetings scheduled for Thursday evening or Friday, save for the budget committees. 

Circling back to the original point, I don’t think this is some unique failure of current legislative leadership — there’s always been a slow start to the session, with a frantic rush at the end to wrap everything up before Sine Die arrives.

If you think slow legislative starts are by any means a new phenomenon, check out this neat compilation of legislative history on the constitutional amendment that set the strict 120-day time limit for legislative sessions (passed in 1998, debated in 1995 and 1997. A special hat tip to lobbyist Lea Case for forwarding it). 

It’s a fun read — the back and forth between former Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio and then-Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus is feisty, and a certain large Las Vegas newspaper supported the change in an op-ed because “lawmakers operating under a hard-and-fast deadline will become more focused and less prone to mischief.” 

And in a weird twist, former Democratic Sen. Mike Schneider in a floor speech in 1997 appears to have sort of eerily predicted the future virtual session, warning that: “Maybe legislators, 50 years from now, will be with their lap top computers and be called from Carson City and hearings will be held instantaneously around the state.”

“Each session has different priorities and each session probably takes a different number of days to complete,” said Schneider, the only “no” vote against the resolution in 1997. “We do not know how long it will take to complete a session because of the types of bills that come in.”

— Riley Snyder


NV GOP’s voter fraud crusade continues

A full 121 days after Election Day 2020, Nevada Republican Party leadership and a crowd of about 40 supporters gathered on the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday to turn in boxes filled with what they said were more than 122,000 reports of election irregularities in the previous election.

Despite assurances from the Nevada secretary of state and election officials in major counties and state court decisions rejecting the notion that widespread voter fraud had occurred in the 2020 election, Republican Party leadership nonetheless continued to echo the unsupported rhetoric that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

The complaints submitted Thursday largely include instances of alleged fraud previously identified by the Trump campaign and state Republican Party in court — deceased voters (1,506), non-citizen voters (3,987) commercial or non-existent addresses (8,842 and 8,111) and alleged duplicate voters (42,284). 

Many of those categories were mentioned in data reports submitted as part of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit against the state, but were initially filed under seal (some later released on the party’s website) and did not publicly name which individuals it had accused of cheating the system.

On Thursday, speakers sought to walk a careful line between relitigating 2020 and various claims of fraud, while looking ahead to future elections and potential legislative changes to the state’s election process.

“We don’t agree on much these days, but at the end of the day, we have to come together and unite to fix this broken abortion of a bill,” state party Chairman Michael McDonald said in reference to AB4 of the 2020 special session, at one point adding that “this isn’t about the past election...if we do not have fair and open elections, this state is dead.”

Others, such as former Republican congressional candidate Jim Marchant, remained focused on 2020.

“I believe the race was stolen from me,” said Marchant, who lost by more than 16,000 votes in his bid against incumbent Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford. “I believe the race was stolen from Donald Trump.”

Marchant said he was “very passionate” about voter fraud issues and planned to run for Secretary of State in 2022.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state confirmed that the office had received the complaints and will “review them and investigate when warranted.”

— Riley Snyder


DETR by the numbers

The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) presented its projected unemployment insurance budget for the upcoming two-year budget cycle to a joint budget committee on Thursday.  Here are some figures that stood out:

82,847: The number of unemployment insurance (UI) and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) claims that DETR still has pending. Those are initial claims that the department still must process and administer funds for. UI and PUA claims each make up about half of the total pending claims.

306,632: The number of UI and PUA claims suspected to be fraudulent that are pending identity verification. More than 250,000 of those are PUA claims. Jeff Frischmann, an administrator at DETR, said that many of those claims came from a spike of around 100,000 claims filed in early January following the passage of the federal stimulus bill.

4: The projected number of years it will take DETR to modernize its UI computer system. A January report from the DETR Rapid Response Strike Force recommended that the department modernize its UI system, with upgrades projected to cost between $30 and $50 million. During the budget presentation, Marylin Delmont, the department’s IT administrator, said that it would take at least three and a half to four years to implement a new system after receiving a federal award for the upgrades. However, the funding request process can take as long as a year, and DETR has not yet identified a source for federal funding for system modernization.

$178 million: The state’s unemployment trust fund debt. That number, which continues to climb, represents nearly $200 million in loans that Nevada has received from the federal government in order to maintain the state’s unemployment trust fund. Those loans remain interest free through the middle of March, though the interest moratorium could potentially be extended by the next federal stimulus bill. 

155: The number of intermittent full-time employees that DETR hopes to maintain in the upcoming biennium to handle the increased number of pandemic-related claims. The 155 employees are a part of a proposed amendment to the department’s budget and have not yet been approved. Those employees would cover a variety of different roles, including 92 positions for call center support and 36 for fraud support. The estimated cost of the proposed amendment is a little more than $12 million for each fiscal year of the biennium.

— Sean Golonka


Republicans call DETR situation “shocking”

Republicans took to social media after the DETR budget presentation described in the previous item to call the numbers of claims held up over ID issues “shocking,” with Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) adding “it’s time for us to ask the tough questions of our unemployment compensation system.”

Dickman has requested a BDR that would take the following steps:

  • Allocate $48.5 million for the modernization of DETR’s system
  • Begin updating the system immediately upon allocation
  • Have the legislative auditor examine DETR’s processes for ensuring accurate data about claims during the pandemic, and evaluate the agency’s processes for detecting and preventing fraud. A report would be due at the end of 2022.

It’s also worth noting that Republican senators including Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) recently met with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants to try to develop an intervention into DETR problems.

Bill language has yet to come out, and with this expenditure not included in the governor’s budget, Republicans who have been vociferous about the unemployment problems under a Democratic administration still need to identify where the money for an immediate modernization would come from. Another big question: would any of these big-picture plans address the immediate pain of claimants who are stuck in the system right now, or are less-flashy tweaks the answer?

We’ll be watching this week for more specifics about these proposals, what happens when DETR’s capstone bill SB75 comes up for a work session on Monday, and how the COVID relief bill that’s on the brink of passage may change the entire calculus.

— Michelle Rindels


Upcoming Bills of Note

Requiring courthouses to have lactation rooms for members of the public, preventing schools from having racially insensitive mascots or logos, and creating an all-payer claims database related to health services are just some of the top issues scheduled for hearings this week.

Below, we’ve listed out the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Sunday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.

Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:

Monday, 9 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary reviewing AB64, a bill that increases penalties and makes other changes to laws on prostitution. It’s sponsored by the attorney general’s office.

Monday, 10 a.m. - Assembly Government Affairs reviews AB196, which generally requires courthouses in the state to provide a lactation room for a member of the public.

Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Growth and Infrastructure plans to review SB196, a bill by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) that would make an “anatomical gift” (organ or other body part donation after death) an opt-out, rather than opt-in system.

Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Assembly Government Affairs reviews AB99, which would raise the prevailing wage minimum threshold for public works or construction projects undertaken by the Nevada System of Higher Education. It’s sponsored by Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko).

Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. - Assembly Education to review AB88, a bill by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) prohibiting schools from using an “identifier” such as a name, logo, mascot, song or other identifier that is racially discriminatory or is associated with a person “with a racially discriminatory history.” It’d also authorize higher education governing bodies to adopt similar provisions, but require the state Board on Geographic Names to change any similar racially discriminatory names of places or geographic features. 

Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Health and Human Services to review SB40, a bill by the state Patient Protection Commission that would create an all-payer claims database of information relating to health insurance claims resulting from medical, dental or pharmacy benefits provided in the state.

Wednesday, 8 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary to hear AB42, a bill that implements the Nevada Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Anderson v. Nevada requiring any person convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime that would prohibit them from owning firearms have the right to a jury trial

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Senate Judiciary will review SB140, a bill by Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) that would require inmates working for the state to be paid the minimum wage.

Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Growth and Infrastructure to hear SB162, which would allow drivers of low emission and energy-efficient vehicles to use the HOV or carpool lane regardless of the number of passengers.

What we’re reading

The first installment of Megan Messerly’s ‘What Happened Here’ COVID retrospective.

Tabitha Mueller takes a deep dive into issues of affordable housing and housing supply that could come up this session. Didn’t realize it, but the highly-touted $10 million in tax credits for affordable housing hasn’t really been used at all in the last two years. 

A 54 percent increase in contract buyouts among Nevada colleges and universities, via Jacob Solis.

Jannelle Calderon reports on fallout from a federal court loss for backers of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Has COVID killed off the famous Las Vegas buffets? (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Legislation aims to end racial disparities in youth possession of weed (Nevada Current).

“In a letter read into testimony, one inmate said because of the deductions, his mother ‘has to send $17.50 for me to buy a $2.50 deodorant’” (Nevada Current).

Assemblywoman makes case for treating pretrial house arrest as time served. (Nevada Current)

Attorney Sigal Chattah takes a break from suing the state to announce a run for attorney general (Associated Press).

The understaffed Department of Corrections wants a staffing study, but Assemblywoman Brittney Miller asks why we need a study for a problem we’ve already identified (Nevada Appeal).

In proceedings slightly less dramatic than the 1917 October Revolution, Judith Whitmer defeated Tick Segerblom to become the new head of the Nevada State Democratic Party (Las Vegas Review-Journal).

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 4 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 7 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 84 (May 31, 2021)

Updated at 10:20 a.m. on Monday, March 8 to correct the number of filed bills or resolutions for the 2021, 2019, and 2017 session. The previous totals did not include the number of pre-filed bills.

How changing suburbs are defining the race for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District

If any single category of voter has come to define the chaotic race for 2020, it is the American suburbanite. 

An increasingly diverse group that makes up more than half of the electorate, suburban voters largely split down the middle in 2016, falling 47 percent to 45 percent between then-candidate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, respectively.

Then that calculus inverted in 2018. Democratic congressional candidates dominated the suburbs, winning overall by 7 points as they flipped 41 Republican-held seats in the process. 

In 2020, the race for the suburbs has only intensified. As polls have shown increased support for former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden among these same suburban voters, President Trump sought to pressure the issue of the suburbs themselves and even directly appealed to “suburban housewives.” 

In Congressional District 3, this dynamic has unfolded in miniature. As an incumbent Democrat, Rep. Susie Lee has mounted a campaign focused on her bipartisan credentials and moderate approach to two years on Capitol Hill. Touting work on education and later the pandemic response, Lee has received support from across the political spectrum, even courting both union support and the endorsement of the pro-business — and historically pro-Republican — U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Running opposite Lee is Republican Dan Rodimer. A former wrestler who has staked his campaign in part on that ringside persona, “Big Dan” has run as an unabashed pro-Trump conservative who’s promised at rallies and in ads to “take a folding chair to the establishment.”

For decades, the suburban voters of District 3 reliably chose Republicans, voting for the GOP candidate in six out of seven elections between 2002 and 2014. Still, Republicans haven’t managed to win an election there since, even when Trump carried the district in 2016. 

Those trends leave a question: Have the suburbs so central to District 3’s electorate created a new Democratic edge in what was once the state’s most competitive swing district? 

What is a suburb, anyway? 

Defining the suburbs is sometimes easier said than done, at least when those definitions become specific.  

Though the classic image of an American suburb is easy enough to conjure up — white picket fences, single family living, etc. — UNLV public policy professor and Executive Director of Brookings Mountain West Robert Lang said analyzing shifts and trends in the political leanings and voting behavior of suburbanites requires more precision than that classic image provides. 

“If you're willing to give gradations in the suburbs — some are urbanized suburbs, some are mature suburbs, some are emerging others, some are exurbs — if you are willing to make those delineations, then you've got something because you can show differences between those types, urbanized suburbs and cities all together,” Lang said.

Take, for example, the City of Henderson. Largely sprawling into the mountains southwest of Las Vegas proper, it maintains a population larger than either Reno or Sparks — though not both, combined — but it lacks the kind of urban center typical of large urban metros. 

What matters in defining a place like Henderson, Lang said, is just how much business it generates, a metric the census ultimately uses to define cities within so-called Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).

“When you see the technical names for Metropolitan Statistical Area, people are shocked like, ‘what did they do, throw in the kitchen sink?’” Lang said. “Well, North Las Vegas didn't qualify — doesn't have enough business. But Henderson did, so, technically, Henderson is considered by the census to be the same city as Reno, because it's a principal city.”

What, then, is a suburb? With no formal census definition, what political scientists, pollsters, demographers and others parsing the data home in on is everyone left in the so-called “non-principal city metro population” — a group that makes up more than half the country, at roughly 175 million people.

But, Lang said, the suburb pie can be — and, if being analyzed, should be — sliced even further. 

If one were to assume Henderson is a suburb — as is often mistakenly the case, Lang said —  the dividing line of the I-215 beltway provides a simple comparison between north and south. In those areas of Henderson north of the freeway, a more “mature” suburban area relative to the rest of the Sunbelt suggests Democratic advantages, especially in terms of “rapid” diversification.” 

“That's different than Anthem, at the fringe,” Lang said of the wealthy master planned neighborhood near Black Mountain. “And Anthem is far more conservative. South of the 215, Henderson is Republican; north of the 215, it's either democratic or contested, and you see that in a lot of places.”

Susie Lee at a podium wearing a blue shirt
Susie Lee, who won the race for Nevada's 3rd Congressional District, gives her victory speech during the Nevada Democratic Party election night event at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The geography of partisanship

Ultimately, District 3 remains largely suburban. Though it contains parts of Las Vegas and all of Henderson, it also contains a handful of Clark County’s wealthiest suburbs, from Summerlin in the west to Anthem or Seven Hills in the south. 

And, as the two major parties have become more polarized over time, some research suggests that polarization may surface even when solely examining the places people choose to live. 

“There's a lot of evidence that says that things that people who are more liberal look for in a place to live are similar, where they want walkability, access to amenities — and that matches their political leanings,” Christina Ladam, a political scientist at UNR, said. “And whereas more conservative voters might seek out more land or space or larger houses."

Ladam cautioned that much of this question is still “up for debate in the literature,” and some research does suggest that the way that voters “sort” themselves is likely not the result of a purposeful choice to find politically similar neighbors. 

Still, demographically speaking, District 3 is far whiter, wealthier and more highly educated than the state’s other three districts — all factors that, in theory, should benefit the GOP. 

And for a decade, those factors did benefit Republicans, who won all but one election in District 3 between when it was created in 2002 and the redrawing of the district’s boundaries in 2012. But in the time after 2012, increasing diversity among a handful of key demographics have driven, at least in part, Democratic success through the late 2010s, according to Dan Lee, an assistant professor of political science studying congress and congressional elections at UNLV (and who bears no relation to Rep. Susie Lee’s husband, also named Dan Lee, the CEO of Full House Resorts). 

“The demographic shift started in the early 2000s, maybe even just before then, but [Nevada’s] become a more diverse state,” Lee said. “That's a big part of it. The growing Latino population especially, has contributed to the growth of the Democratic Party.”

And while such demographic shifts have been decades in the making, the district’s flip from red to blue was a sudden one. Incumbent Republican Rep. Joe Heck had won re-election in 2012 by nearly 8 points, and he won his seat again in 2014 by a 24-point landslide amid historically low voter turnout and a statewide red wave.

Even so, when Heck left the seat open to mount his run for the Senate, political newcomer and Democrat Jacky Rosen eked out a 1-point win over perennial Republican challenger Danny Tarkanian, marking the first Democratic victory in District 3 since 2008. 

Two years later, the Democratic margin widened when Lee rode that year’s blue wave to a roughly 9 point victory, also against Tarkanian. It was a margin not seen since Democratic Rep. Dina Titus won the seat off the coattails of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 run, but it also prompted a new question: How large was this apparently new Democratic base in District 3?

One major factor in assessing these shifts is a simple increase in diversity across Southern Nevada’s suburbs. Driven in part by immigration from California and aforementioned immigration from Latin America pre-Recession, Lee noted that these suburbs have simultaneously become less white, younger and more educated over time. 

Another factor is the nature of the parties themselves, especially in the post-Trump era. Lang said that as Trump reshaped the very foundation of the Republican establishment in the wake of 2016, so too did the president trigger a shift among once-Republican voters. 

“It's one of the key shifters in this election, if you believe the polling, and the polling is not just the presidential polling, it's by House district to House district,” Lang said. “White, college educated, especially women — that's a very common thing to be white and to have a bachelor's degree and to live in District 3 — and that population is nowhere near as Republican-voting as it historically has been.”

But, he cautioned, these structural forces did not shift the district in a vacuum, especially as the district was drawn in 2012 by a non-partisan commission seeking to avoid the pitfalls of partisan gerrymandering.

“Nobody created this [map] and thought, ‘Well, Susie Lee could run for this and she'll be there for the next 20 years or until they cycle the maps out,’” Lang said. “She won because she just won a competitive district, and [Democrats] could have put somebody out and they didn't [win], and some of that's recruitment. It's the candidate plus the structure, it's not either-or.”

Republican Congressional Candidate Dan Rodimer speaks during a rally for Vice President Mike Pence in Boulder City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Are shifts in the suburbs really turning District 3 blue? 

Not quite, or at least not yet, according to the political scientists interviewed by The Nevada Independent. 

Lang said that, while Nevada’s third and fourth districts will likely favor Democrats in 2020, the conditions of the electorate still resemble the swingy Sun Belt states far more than a state like Virginia, which flipped from Republican-leaning swing state to Democratic stronghold in just a handful of election cycles, or a western metro like Denver, Colorado. 

“[Nevada’s] diverse, but less affluent, and especially less educated than Denver and Virginia,” Lang said. “The combination of the affluence, with the high education attainment and diversity — that's a real driver of Democratic politics. If you've got a place that’s wealthier, not super wealthy, but upper middle class, bachelor's degree or above and densely built, maybe served by transit, even, and then diverse? You’ve got a pretty blue place.”

Though Republicans still hold a slight edge in historic voter turnout trends and voter registration numbers in the district show the two major parties separated by less than 3 percentage points, public polling — at least what little of it has been conducted in Nevada — continues to show a Democratic advantage. 

A poll conducted by the New York Times and Siena College in early October showed voters in Clark County — but not in either Las Vegas or North Las Vegas — widely favored Biden, 52 percent to Trump’s 39 percent. And though the poll’s crosstabs do not break down respondents by both region and education, they did show that white Nevadans with at least a bachelor’s degree also favored Biden, 53 percent to 41 percent. 

It’s a stark contrast to the often-discussed non-college white population, which in Nevada favored Trump by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent. 

Still, a key caveat to any of these demographic trends, according to Lee, is that even after several decades, there is no reason to believe these shifts have finished. 

“That's the thing, we're still in the midst of that change,” Lee said. “And this is a gradual change, where now I wouldn't say we're a blue state yet. It's one thing to say that we're blue, because [Nevada] has consistently been voting Democrat. That's true. But it's not like these Democrats are winning an overwhelming majority, either.”

Third quarter fundraising race tightens in competitive congressional districts as election day nears

Incumbent Democrats no longer universally led the money race in Nevada’s most competitive congressional districts, marking the first quarter this election cycle that a Republican — District 3’s Dan Rodimer — led all fundraising among the state’s congressional hopefuls. 

With no statewide race at the top of the ticket, much of the attention — and therefore campaign dollars — has gone to the state’s two potentially competitive House elections in Southern Nevada. Rodimer topped fundraising efforts among Nevada’s House candidates with more than $1.4 million raised, while District 3 incumbent Susie Lee trailed with roughly $1 million raised.

In District 4, seen as marginally less competitive than District 3 because of voter registration figures favoring Democrats, incumbent Democrat Steven Horsford maintained a comfortable lead in the money race as he brought in roughly $680,000 to Republican Jim Marchant’s $492,000. 

Below is a breakdown of campaign fundraising and expenditure reports in each of Nevada’s four congressional districts, with districts ordered from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 


DISTRICT 3

Susie Lee - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $1,005,787
  • Q3 spending: $2,501,619
  • Cash on hand: $924,353

Locked in likely the most competitive race in Nevada this election cycle, Lee dipped deep into her campaign warchest this quarter in spending more than $2.5 million over just the last three months — roughly $363,000 more than she spent in the same time period in 2018. 

A vast majority of that spending went to advertising, including three payments totaling more than $2 million to Virginia-based Screen Strategies Media. Two of those payments, one of $500,000 and another of $1.16 million, came on Sept. 11, not long before Lee launched a major ad campaign targeting Rodimer on his run-ins with police. 

Lee’s contributions, meanwhile, came primarily from individual donors ($623,173), with the rest coming from a number of PACs ($201,427) and committee transfers ($176,471). Most contributions were below federal maximum contribution limits, though Lee did see maximum $5,000 PAC donations from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s PAC, All for Our Country Leadership, the American Resort Development Association, Barrick Gold, Cox Communications and Culinary Union-parent UNITE Here, among others. 

Dan Rodimer - Republican

  • Q3 receipts: $1,412,578
  • Q3 spending: $946,308
  • Cash on hand: $719,485

Rodimer’s campaign reported a massive gain in campaign contributions last quarter, raising roughly seven times as much as it did in the second quarter during the heat of District 3’s Republican primary. Rodimer’s $1.4 million in banked contributions also puts it among the largest single-quarter hauls in the district’s history, topping the $1.38 million Lee managed to raise during the third quarter of her well-financed bid in 2018. 

Still, with less cash on hand entering the quarter, Rodimer’s campaign lagged Lee in spending and enters the final weeks of the campaign with a roughly $200,000 cash on hand deficit. 

Like Lee, most of Rodimer’s largest expenditures went to advertising, including two payments totaling $157,000 to the Maryland firm OnMessage Inc. Rodimer also spent big on campaign consulting, including $432,000 on ads and fundraising consulting services from Las Vegas-based Top AD Consulting LLC. 

A large majority of Rodimer’s fundraising ($1.23 million) came in the form of individual contributions, including $699,000 in itemized contributions and $532,000 in unitemized contributions. An additional $76,800 in PAC contributions and $103,000 in committee pushed Rodimer’s total fundraising on the quarter to more than $1.4 million.

Like Lee, many of Rodimer’s individual contributions came through online fundraising, this time through the Republican platform WinRed. He also saw maximum $5,000 PAC contributions from groups linked to current and former GOP elected officials, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Rodimer also saw a $68,000 windfall from a joint-fundraising transfer from the Cruz 20 for 20 Victory Fund, a group linked to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.  

DISTRICT 4

Steven Horsford - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $692,759
  • Q3 spending: $704,709
  • Cash on hand: $1,557,543

Running for a second consecutive term and third overall term for District 4, Horsford dipped slightly into his campaign reserves last quarter with about $12,000 more spent than earned. 

Horsford’s single largest expense, like most candidates, came in the form of advertising. The Horsford campaign spent $406,214 on just one advertising firm, Sage Media Planning & Placement, including a $333,000 payment made one day before launching a TV ad campaign touting his work on pandemic relief. 

Horsford’s fundraising was roughly evenly split between individual and PAC contributions, with $329,000 raised from individuals and $304,000 from PACs. It marks the first quarter this cycle in which a majority of Horsford’s fundraising came through individuals, though he still saw maximum $5,000 PAC donations from groups linked to Sen. Cortez Masto, the American Resort Development Association, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Communications Workers of America and Cox Communications, among others.

Jim Marchant - Republican

  • Q3 receipts: $492,641
  • Q3 spending: $406,559
  • Cash on hand: $228,018

Though he lagged behind Horsford’s fundraising for another quarter, former one-term Assemblyman Marchant still more than doubled contributions from the second quarter, when he raised just $187,000. 

With $382,000 in individual contributions, $35,000 from PACs and $74,000 from committee transfers, Marchant’s biggest single contributions came largely through current and former Republican politicians, including a $62,250 joint committee transfer from the Cruz 20 for 20 Victory Fund. 

Marchant also received maximum PAC contributions from the Gun Owners of America (and an additional $1,000 from the National Rifle Association) and the Conservative Leadership PAC, a group that bills itself as targeting “the millennial generation for conservative candidates.”

Marchant’s biggest expense was the nearly $241,000 spent on media placement through the consulting firm McShane LLC, which received more than $308,000 from Marchant during the quarter — about two-thirds of the candidate’s spending. 

DISTRICT 2

Mark Amodei - Republican (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $297,676
  • Q3 spending: $168,173
  • Cash on hand: $395,808

Amodei’s contributions include several donations from Nevada casino owners, including a combined $11,200 from four members of the Stations Casino-owning Fertitta family, and $2,800 from South Point owner Michael Gaughan. The congressman also banked $79,300 from a number of PACs, including $5,000 each from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Barrick Gold and NV Energy.

Much of Amodei’s spending in the third quarter fell to a handful of advertising campaigns. Of note, the campaign paid nearly $43,000 to Reno-based Lamar Advertising Company, with roughly another $32,000 spent on a radio advertising campaign from Carson City-based Wyman & Associates. 

Patricia Ackerman - Democrat

  • Q3 receipts: $238,304
  • Q3 spending: $172,507
  • Cash on hand: $101,391

Mounting a longshot bid to unseat Amodei in deep-red District 2, Ackerman has raised an uncharacteristically high amount for a Democratic bid in the mostly-rural district through the third quarter. 

With nearly $240,000 raised last quarter alone and more than $101,000 left in the warchest through the final weeks of the election, Ackerman’s cumulative fundraising of more than $338,000 more than doubles the roughly-$162,000 raised by Democrat Clint Koble during his District 2 challenge in 2018

Nearly all of Ackerman’s fundraising came through small-dollar individual contributions made through the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, though she also received $2,500 from Reno-area Assemblywoman Sarah Peters and $1,000 from a PAC linked to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

Much of Ackerman’s spending went to consulting and advertising costs. That includes nearly $49,000 spent on advertising through California-based Pantograph Labs, which bills itself in part as a “boutique progressive digital firm.” 

DISTRICT 1

Dina Titus - Democrat (incumbent)

  • Q3 receipts: $121,928
  • Q3 spending: $53,716
  • Cash on hand: $394,646

Running for a fifth term in the bluest congressional district in the state, incumbent Democrat Dina Titus reported raising roughly $122,000 in the third quarter, roughly tripling the $42,000 she raised through the quarter prior.

A majority of that money, $72,325, came through PAC contributions, while the remaining $49,603 came through individual donations. Titus’ largest donors included the Coeur Mining company, the national REALTORS PAC, the Service Employees International Union, the Transportation Workers Union and the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, all of which gave the maximum $5,000.  

Running against a little-known Republican challenger, Joyce Bentley, in a rematch of 2018, Titus reported spending just under $54,000. Of that, the single largest payments went to consulting, including more than $12,000 to Maryland-based Kalik & Associates and another $4,500 to Washington, D.C.-based Next Level Partners. 

Joyce Bentley - Republican

As of Friday morning, Bentley had not filed a contributions and expenditures report with the FEC or such a report was not yet available through the FEC website.

This story will be updated as those documents become available.

Indy Environment: With Navy pushing to expand onto public land, Cortez Masto introduces an alternative — and reactions are mixed

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For many, the preferred option was no expansion at all. 

That’s the position the Legislature took last year when it passed a bipartisan resolution opposing the U.S. Navy’s proposal to expand the Fallon Range Training Complex on about 600,000 acres of private and federal land across five counties. At a public meeting in Fallon this year, speaker after speaker registered the same opposition: The Navy was asking them to give up too much.

But the Navy remained undeterred in its goal: It wanted to expand its Nevada base. Its current training range of 228,508 acres was not large enough to accommodate modern warfare testing.

To expand its Fallon operation, the Navy must get congressional approval. In June, Congress declined to include the proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that sets expenditures for the military. Then in July, the Trump Administration threatened to veto the bill over several issues. The White House “strongly urge[d] Congress” to pass the Fallon expansion.

When it became clear that the Navy proposal could be added to the final legislation, Nevada’s congressional delegation began looking for an alternative. Last week, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto unveiled draft legislation showing what such a compromise might look like. 

Cortez Masto’s draft legislation would transfer about 382,000 acres of federal public land to the military and allow the Navy limited access to train on an additional 247,762 acres of public land. 

To balance the training range expansion, Cortez Masto’s bill draft would add 156,000 acres of conservation areas and designate more than 331,000 acres of wilderness. It also incorporates an earlier proposal, offered by the senator last year, to ban oil and gas in the Ruby Mountains. 

The legislation also includes specific requests made by tribes and rural counties. But provisions in the draft legislation have been met with mixed reactions.

The draft bill requires the Navy to hire three full-time tribal liaisons. It also includes language to preserve about 79,000 acres of federally-managed land for “the protection of traditional cultural and religious sites” for the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. It requests that roughly 11,000 acres be held in trust for the tribe, land that includes the tribe’s origin site within the Stillwater Range. 

Fallon Paiute Shoshone Chairman Len George told the Sierra Nevada Ally that the tribe was informed of the proposal at the last minute and remains opposed to any expansion. He told the Ally that the tribe has “been against the expansion from day one.” 

Under the proposed legislation, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which has faced widespread historic contamination from ordinance activities, would receive a $20 million upfront payment from the Navy. The bill would also convey about 9,000 acres of public land to the tribe.

In an opinion piece for Indian Country News, Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres wrote “while this alternative isn’t perfect, it does represent a solution that gives us a voice at the table.”

“The Walker River Paiute Tribe has always believed in the importance of collaboration and the strength of finding a path towards healing,” Torres added. “Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for protections for our cultural and natural resources and sacred sites.”

The bill also directs federal land managers to convey thousands of acres of public land to rural counties, potentially opening up more development. It could also open up more than 100,000 acres of land, currently managed as wilderness, to increased natural resources development. But those provisions, in addition to the base expansion, are a major red flag for some environmentalists.

Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called provisions in the bill “far-right, anti-public lands stuff” and said they could have consequences beyond the state. His organization plans to oppose the draft legislation and continue pushing Congress for no expansion. 

"This bill either bombs, changes control of, sells, conveys or strips protections from literally one  million acres of public land,” Donnelly said “It's worse than we even could have imagined.”

“We think public lands need to be managed for the preservation of ecosystems,” he added. “And that is compelling and the American people would get behind that.”

Other conservation groups said the bill struck a balance and was an improvement from the Navy's proposal.

In a joint-statement, Jocelyn Torres, an organizer with the Conservation Lands Foundation, and Shaaron Netherton with Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said the senator “has struck the delicate balance among the competing priorities of protecting public lands for important wildlife habitat and cultural values, addressing some Tribal interests and making progress towards remedying historical injustices, and the vital training needs of America’s servicemen and women.”

The legislation also received support from Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who introduced his own alternative earlier this year. He described the legislation as taking a “consensus” approach. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said in a statement that he appreciated Cortez Masto and Amodei’s congressional efforts “to make sure Nevada's constituents are heard.” 

“My administration has worked closely with the Navy and local stakeholders and I look forward to a resolution that balances the nation's military preparedness needs with fair treatment of the Nevadans harmed by this expansion,” the governor said.

But the fight is far from over, and the legislative language is not set in stone. 

Because the Senate and House have passed the National Defense Authorization Act, any changes must now go before a congressional conference committee, charged with reconciling the differences in the bill. That committee will decide whether or not to include the Navy expansion — and the alternative — before a final vote. But a lot can happen before Congress’ current term ends in January.


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

The Air Force expansion: Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford, Susie Lee and Dina Titus spoke with environmentalists Wednesday on fighting an Air Force proposal to expand a training range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the contiguous U.S. Earlier this year, Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop attempted to attach language to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have given the military control over much of the refuge. While the Bishop language was struck from the bill, it could still re-emerge in the same conference committee considering the Navy expansion.

Many questions here: My colleague Riley Snyder reported on the state writing off nearly $12 million loans for clean energy projects that were never completed. Read this story. David Bobzien, the state’s current director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, who came to the job long after the loans were issued, said there’s “no evidence that anything was ever actually done with the money.” This raises many questions. What kind of oversight was there? And where did the money go?

‘It’s very distinctive:’ Amy Alonzo with the Reno Gazette Journal wrote an excellent piece on the third largest Joshua tree found in southern Nevada. It is estimated to be about 700 to 800 years old. The Joshua tree could be protected as part of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. 

Sagebrush recovery: Relevant study here. What happens when sagebrush burns in a wildfire? What’s the best way to restore habitat for the wildlife (like Greater sage grouse) that rely on it? A team of researchers tried to answer that question by comparing seeded and planted sagebrush.

When a drought starts over the Pacific Ocean: “Droughts usually evoke visions of cracked earth, withered crops, dried-up rivers and dust storms. But droughts can also form over oceans, and when they then move ashore they are often more intense and longer-lasting than purely land-born dry spells.” Bob Berwyn with InsideClimateNews has more on a new study.

Conservation for climate change: “Restoring natural landscapes damaged by human exploitation can be one of the most effective and cheapest ways to combat the climate crisis while also boosting dwindling wildlife populations, a scientific study finds,” via The Guardian.

Update: This story was updated at 4:02 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15 to correct a section related to changes in protections for land currently managed as wilderness. An original version of the story said the proposed bill would affect grazing. It would not.