Behind the Bar: Cannizzaro on opening the building, Question 1 redux, another effort to limit emergency governor powers, Senate GOP education plan

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

In this edition: Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on when the building will open and the back half of the session. Plus, Assemblywoman Annie Black takes the campaign to open the building to mayors, more details on the push to revive 2020’s Question 1, a breakdown of the Senate Republican education-focused bills, and Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus on her bill limiting gubernatorial powers.

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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.


Thursday will mark the halfway point (60th day) of the 81st regular legislative session.

It’s usually around this time that the anemic pace of the session finally picks up. Nowhere is this more apparent in both houses holding Friday floor sessions and even some committees meeting on Friday afternoon (a rarity for the first month or two of the session).

To get a sense of what to expect over the next 60 days, I sat down with Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday. Here are a few highlights from that conversation:

Opening the building: Cannizzaro said there’s been “some very good progress” made on the goal of vaccinating staff ahead of opening the Legislative Building to lobbyists and the public. Democratic legislative leaders said several weeks ago that the tentative goal was a mid-April opening — Cannizzaro said on Friday that an opening date was looking likely for early April, but didn’t give an exact date.

She said many of the logistics of opening the building were still being worked on, but could include a registration system for individuals to come into the building and potentially limiting the number of people inside the building, while still following all other COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“The last thing we want is to have a superspreader event, or some kind of outbreak in the building,” she said.

She also said it was likely that committee meetings would return to being in-person (rather than over videoconferencing) — something she said would make a “huge difference in our ability to ask questions and to be able to talk with one another.”

Deadline days: Both the Senate and Assembly suspended bill introduction deadlines over the last two weeks, with legislative leaders saying it was a necessary step to allow legal drafters enough time to turn pending bill draft requests into actual bills.

Cannizzaro said she didn’t anticipate delaying or suspending any additional deadlines for first committee passage (April 9) or first house passage (April 20), saying that any additional delays would probably make it too difficult to finish the session on time and complete the budget process.

“Extending them out makes it very difficult for us to finish our work in 120 days, so we're going to do our best to stay on track and I'm very hopeful we're going to do that,” she said.

Taxes: Cannizzaro refused to close the door on any of the three proposed constitutional amendments changing the mining tax rate that were passed during the 2020 special session. She said that a hearing on any of the three would likely come later in the session, but also refused to rule out the possibility that lawmakers could pass two or more of the resolutions to head to the 2022 ballot.

“I think we owe it to the people of Nevada to continue to have those conversations so all three resolutions are very much still here, still have been introduced, still are assigned to committees, and we're trying to do our best to make sure that we can vet those, and also look at any other solutions that may come up to ensure that we're properly funding things here in the state,” she said.

Cannizzaro also said she hasn’t consulted with Legislative Counsel Bureau attorneys on whether or not the Clark County Education Association can withdraw its initiatives raising the sales and gaming tax rates, but that the “understanding is that they’re going to the ballot.”

Federal aid: Lawmakers are still waiting for U.S. Treasury guidance as to how they can use the state and local aid dollars coming into the state from the recently passed federal $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Nevada is in line to receive roughly $4 billion from the legislation, but state lawmakers face a time crunch — budget closings start this week, and guidance on how to use the incoming federal dollars could come late in the session.

Cannizzaro said the likely priority was to immediately restore any of the cuts made during the 2020 special session, but that a special session might be necessary depending on when Treasury guidance is issued to the state.

“I think it's always a possibility because some of this does depend on timing,” she said. “So it's always a possibility.”

— Riley Snyder


Titus backs bill to limit governor’s power, give counties more say in public health emergencies

It’s been more than a year since Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a formal state of emergency declaration over the COVID-19 pandemic in Nevada.

But the state’s ongoing state of emergency and related COVID-19 safety protocols have irked legislative Republicans, many who say putting limits on gubernatorial power during emergencies is a top priority in the 2021 session.

The latest of those proposals is AB373 — a bill by Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus that would set a 15-day expiration limit on any governor-declared state of emergency, requiring explicit legislative approval to continue.

It would also authorize county commissions to “evaluate” emergency orders made by the governor related to public health, and to issue orders that are less stringent than those put forward by the governor. Several rural counties in late January passed resolutions opting to not follow state COVID guidelines.

Titus — who is a licensed physician and Lyon County public health officer — said she was “absolutely” supportive of the governor’s ability to declare an emergency in cases of natural disaster, and initial decision to shut down the state last March. But she said lawmakers should have had more of a say over the past year in Sisolak’s policy responses to the pandemic.

“I would submit to you that when you're operating on emergency conditions, it doesn't matter who's in power, it all matters what the process is,” she said. “And that's one of the things that I'm really pushing, is that it doesn't matter who the governor is or what party they belong to. I can tell you that the leadership in this building all support the governor, but they had all hoped that they would have been involved more.”

Even though Nevada has a part-time Legislature, Titus said she believed that lawmakers in a true emergency could “rally the troops pretty darn quick.” Asked when she thought the current “state of emergency” had ended, she said that it should have at least been re-assessed within 15 days after the initial declaration in March 2020 after officials had learned more about the virus itself.

“They've done good studies on kids exposed to germs,” she said. “They're actually healthier, right? In the long run, they build up their immunities, and so at some point, we need to build up some immunity to this stuff.”

— Riley Snyder


In SJR7, a second bite at the apple in bid to pull regents from the Constitution

Less than 5 months after Question 1 — a proposed amendment that would have removed the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution — failed at the ballot box, legislators have resurrected the idea once more with the introduction of SJR7

Identical to the 2017 measure that spawned Question 1, this new resolution — sponsored by Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and co-sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) — would seek to remove the Board of Regents, which governs higher education in Nevada, out of the Constitution in a bid to expand legislative accountability mechanisms over the board. 

Lawmakers have argued since the introduction of the original measure, AJR5, four years ago that such a change is necessary, in part because regents and system administrators have historically used their enshrinement in the Constitution as a legal shield for bad behavior

But critics of Question 1 — especially those on the Board of Regents — have argued that lawmakers already maintain accountability through the use of their budgeting authority, and that the measure may open the door to much broader changes, including the appointment, rather than election, of regents. 

Roberts told The Nevada Independent this month that he “felt it was important to give it another shot,” pointing to the narrowness of the loss in November — Question 1 failed by just 0.3 percentage points or about 3,800 votes — and a strong showing of support from Clark County voters.  

“I just think that people threw it out there, and folks didn’t quite understand exactly what it was doing,” Roberts said. “I think people believed that you were taking away the regents from the process, which you really weren’t, you’re just removing them from the Constitution.” 

Just after Question 1’s defeat, proponents of the measure blamed the loss largely on the complexity of the subject involved and the relative obscurity of the regents among elected bodies in Nevada, all coupled with unusually limited advertising budgets that had been stymied by the pandemic. 

Former Democratic Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, who helped author the original 2017 measure, said at the time that given more money for educational advertising, Question 1 could have just as easily been approved by voters. 

But critics of Question 1 have otherwise remained skeptical of the new push. That includes Regent Jason Geddes, who said that, though it remains within the Legislature’s purview to pursue a bill like SJR7, it still comes “too soon” after defeat at the hands of Nevada voters. 

“We just had a vote and the voters said no,” Geddes said. 

If passed by lawmakers this session, SJR7 would represent only the first step in the years-long amendment process. It would still need to be approved by legislators again in 2023 and by voters in 2024 before taking effect. 

Jacob Solis & Michelle Rindels


Outrage over police reform bill presentation

Republican lawmakers and law enforcement representatives expressed outrage over data presented in support of a Democratic police reform bill (SB212) — citing concerns during a Thursday hearing that the data was flawed and painted Nevada police in a negative light.

The main point of contention came from a statistic in the bill presentation that lists Reno, out of the 100 largest city police departments in the country, as the city with the highest rate of police killings of black men since 2013 — although Reno is one of the smallest cities in the top 100. Further data indicates that Reno police have killed three Black men in the past eight years, all of whom were gunshot victims.

That data came from Mapping Police Violence, an organization headed by activists DeRay McKesson and Samuel Sinyangwe with the stated goal of providing greater transparency and accountability to end police violence.

“This was an incredibly one-sided, loaded presentation,” Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said during the hearing. “And the fact that our law enforcement community is going to be limited to two minutes to rebut some of these charges, I think is outrageous.”

Eric Spratley, executive director of the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association, said the data presented uses a flawed methodology because it also includes killings by off-duty officers, while others in the meeting provided data that framed police violence through a different lens.

“Since 2016, we have had one officer-involved shooting, involving the Reno Police Department, in which a Black male has been killed,” said Calli Wilsey, a senior management analyst for the city of Reno. “The data presented today is a misleading representation of what is actually happening in our community.”

Wilsey only noted officer-involved shootings, which differs from the data from Mapping Police Violence that includes deaths “as a result of being shot, beaten, restrained, intentionally hit by a police vehicle, pepper sprayed, tasered, or otherwise harmed by police officers.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), said that the reform measures she is proposing — including limits on use of force and a requirement to use de-escalation techniques when safe — are not intended to be accusatory, but are about codifying best police practices into statute.

And though people on all sides of the bill said that the measure still needs more work, several law enforcement agencies, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, testified in support, noting that they already practice many of the policies in the bill, such as de-escalation tactics. Multiple police unions testified in opposition to the bill, including the Las Vegas and Reno Police Protective Associations.

— Sean Golonka


Black asks mayors for support in push to open legislative building

Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) is rallying local elected officials to push for a hearing on a resolution to terminate Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, according to an email and proposed letter obtained by The Nevada Independent.

In an email to local elected officials last week, Black circulated a proposed sign-on letter addressed to Assemblywoman Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections. The letter asks Miller to hold a hearing on ACR2. 

“While our signatures should not be construed as either favoring or opposing the action called for in the bill, we believe it proper for the Legislature to at least hold a discussion and debate on this important issue,” the proposed letter said. 

“The people of Nevada we represent, whose lives and livelihoods have been harmed by the imposition of Gov. Sisolak’s emergency directives, deserve to have their voices heard. A public hearing on ACR2 will give them that opportunity.”

Miller said the committee is waiting for bill introductions to see what they can schedule in committee. 

— Daniel Rothberg


Republican lawmakers introduce plan to complement Democratic education bill

Sens. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) are sponsoring four education-related bills — which they refer to collectively as the “Nevada Education Recovery Plan” — to help Nevada students recover from any learning loss experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Gansert presented the first bill in the plan, SB272, which would establish a corps of tutors to provide greater access to tutoring for public school students across the state. The corps would be composed of retired teachers, currently licensed teachers and college students with at least 30 credit hours and a special license to teach.

“We don't have enough teachers, we have learning losses, we were making some gains, but we're no longer making those gains. So what can we do about that?” Gansert said during the hearing. “So we came up with the Nevada Educator Corps.”

Gansert also said that her and Kieckhefer’s proposals would complement a bill (SB173) from Democratic lawmakers dubbed the “Back on Track Act” — a measure that would allocate federal funds towards creating learning loss prevention plans and setting up summer school programs.

The other bills in the plan include:

  • SB273 - A bill from Gansert aimed at protecting literacy programs in elementary schools by keeping Read by Grade 3 money in a separate account and requiring specific accountability for it. In 2019, Nevada fourth graders were approaching the national average for reading proficiency, and during the hearing, Gansert emphasized the importance of continuing to improve learning outcomes among Nevada students.
  • SB312 - This Kieckhefer bill would allocate federal COVID-19 relief funds towards the enrollment of at least 500 children in prekindergarten education programs in the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years.
  • SB316 - Kieckhefer’s second bill in the plan would address the other end of the education spectrum by allocating federal relief funds towards a pilot program for high school seniors who were unable to graduate in four years and need an additional year of school to complete their graduation requirements.

— Sean Golonka


Upcoming Bills of Note:

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

Monday, 8 a.m.: The Assembly Judiciary Committee will review AB400, a bill that removes “per se” limits on marijuana intoxication from state law. Critics say the state’s current way of determining a marijuana DUI, based on levels of metabolites in the blood, could ensnare people who consumed days ago but are no longer high. 

Monday, 1 p.m. : The Senate Judiciary Committee is discussing SB258, a bill from Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) that requires the Nevada Department of Corrections adopt standards for housing, security, medical and mental health care for transgender and non-binary inmates, and provide cultural competency training for correctional staff.

Monday, 3:30 p.m.: The Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee will vet SB387, a bill from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that requires the Public Utilities Commission to set rate caps on phone call services provided within jails and prisons.

Monday, 6 p.m.: Members of the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee have scheduled a hearing on AB221, a bill that would create a “right to repair” for digital equipment — such as a cell phone, tablet, computer, camera or gaming device — under $5,000. In general, it’d require the manufacturer of such a device to make documentation, part or tool needed to repair an electronic device available to the device owner or an independent repair provider.

Tuesday, 8 a.m.: Food delivery services such as DoorDash, Uber Eats or GrubHub would have to be more transparent on pricing and face limits on surcharges during the COVID-19 pandemic under SB320, a bill by Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) up for a hearing in the Senate Commerce and Labor committee. It’d also require those providers enter into written agreements with food establishments before agreeing to deliver their food.

Tuesday, 1 p.m.: Members of the Assembly Education Committee will hear AB255, which would transition elected school boards in Clark and Washoe counties to a partially appointed, partially elected system.

Wednesday, 1 p.m.: The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear details of SB236, a bill that would require law enforcement agencies in the state establish warning systems to identify officers that display “bias indicators,” would mandate most police officers to at least have at least an associate’s agree or two years of military service and would put limits on use of qualified immunity (a legal principle that shields police from civil lawsuits unless in cases where they violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.)

Thursday, 3 p.m.: Members of Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee plan to hold a hearing on AB321, the bill from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson that would make the expanded mail ballot system used for the 2020 election a permanent feature.

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

What we’re reading

The latest in Megan Messerly’s “What Happened Here” series explores tensions over what level of government should take responsibility for the pandemic response.

The land where the University of Nevada, Reno now sits was part of the area that Washoe and Paiute peoples lived before white settlers arrived in Nevada. Now, Nevada lawmakers want to waive tuition charges for citizens of the state’s 27 tribes in an act Native activists say is a step toward righting a historic wrong, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reports.

Humberto Sanchez’s D.C. Download is always a must-read and looks at gun control, voting rights and immigration reform work in Washington.

About 12 percent of Nevada inmates are kept in solitary confinement at any one time. Lawmakers want to put more limits on the practice and are demanding more transparency, Michelle Rindels reports.

The pandemic drove a roughly 10 percent increase in the number of Nevada households homeschooling their children, Jackie Valley reports.

This sums up the response from landlords opposing Sen. Julia Ratti’s bill giving more rights to tenants, Michelle Rindels reports.

Protesters are out in front of the legislative building on weekends again. The group this weekend was there to oppose a “ghost gun” bill and the COVID vaccine, as well as cheer on Trump for 2024. Story and photos by the Sun’s Ricardo Torres-Cortez.

More on the bill to require single-stall bathrooms be gender neutral (Las Vegas Review Journal).

A touching piece on just how important multi-parent adoption can be (Las Vegas Sun).

The couple who owned the Nevada Appeal in the mid-1800s had a lengthy, witty courtship via letters before marrying and settling in Carson City. UNR needs volunteers to transcribe the handwritten dossier. Via Jessica Garcia.

World War Weed II? (Nevada Current)

Is this the year Nevada abolishes the death penalty? (Nevada Current)

In a totally “coincidental” step, the Clark County district attorney’s office is now seeking the death penalty against Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store 22 years ago. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Start closing budgets: 1 (Tuesday, March 30, 2021)

First Committee Passage: 11 (Friday, April 9, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 63 (May 31, 2021)

How a multi-year push to remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution failed at the ballot box

For nearly four years, a coalition of legislators, higher education advocates, faculty, students, business leaders, liberals and conservatives worked to propose and pass a measure that would become Question 1 — a statewide ballot measure that, if passed, would have removed the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution. 

It was the result of the long-simmering tension between lawmakers and leaders of the state’s higher education system, one fueled by decades of mutual distrust and resentment over isolated incidents as well as long-running disputes centered on issues of transparency, oversight and accountability. 

Though those within the higher education system, most notably regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly, chafed at the question as legislative overreach, no coordinated effort to defeat it was ever mounted and nearly $1 million was ultimately raised in its favor. Those involved — both for and against — generally expected Question 1 to pass.

It came as something of a shock, then, when early Election Day returns showed Question 1 failing, driven mostly by a near 2-to-1 ratio of “No” votes in the state’s rural counties and in Washoe County. Eventual returns from Clark County buoyed the “Yes” vote by early Wednesday morning, but they still left a roughly 31,000 vote mountain to climb in late-counted mail-in votes and provisional ballots. 

After 12 days of vote-counting, it was clear that Question 1 had failed. It ultimately was rejected by voters by just 3,877 votes. 

Backed by a substantial amount of campaign money, a diverse coalition and without organized opposition, why did it fail? 

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, those involved with campaigns for and against the measure and members of the state’s higher education system pointed to one factor above all others: Question 1 was confusing. 

A densely worded, deeply technical question on one of the state’s more archaic, little-known and little-understood boards, Question 1’s ultimate impact on the Constitution was not immediately clear to voters armed only with the language of the question and the voter guide description.

Internal polling and post-election metrics from the Yes on Question 1 campaign showed a measurable favorability difference between voters who mailed ballots or early-voted before Question 1’s advertising campaign began and those who voted after. 

Andrew Woods, who managed the Yes on Question 1 campaign, said that the question fared worst among those who returned their ballots earliest — a time when no or little advertising on the question had been on-air. 

But, he said, even in areas where the ballot question performed poorly, such as Washoe and the rural counties, the margin improved noticeably among late-deciders and provisional ballots. 

“Our message was good,” Woods said. “It's just we didn't get up early enough. We missed a lot of early votes in mail-in, which we saw was close to 50 percent, almost... a lot of people I think mailed ballots early, they made up their mind early, and all they had to go on was the voter guide.”

Another metric that suggests Question 1 was confusing: more voters chose to skip it than any other ballot question.

Such end-of-ballot dropoff is not unusual. Most election cycles will see the last item on the ballot — usually a ballot question — receive far fewer votes than the races at the top. And the 2020 ballot included dozens of state-level judicial elections that vastly expanded the physical size of the ballot, including up to two full pages in Clark County. 

Still, 10.6 percent of ballots did not record a vote on Question 1, compared to a 6.4 percent dropoff for Question 2, which codified same-sex marriage in the state Constitution. 

“So voters must have known enough about what was on the ballot to have made their way past those judicial races and still made it to, say, at least Question 2, and vote one way or the other on it,” Woods said. 

For Elliot Anderson, a former state Assemblyman who drafted the resolution that would become Question 1 during his time in the Legislature, the sheer strangeness of 2020 and the resulting effects on the campaign — a limitation on fundraising, a pause on campaigning, a delay on the airwaves and more — has made moot any “grand lesson” about Question 1 and the way voters may have reacted to it. 

“I would caution anyone into trying to take too many lessons from all this in terms of, was there this grand intent from the electorate? I don't think so,” Anderson said. “I think the electorate was probably just mostly confused about what this did.” 

Still, Anderson said it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to word Question 1 in a way that would have been less confusing for voters without any prior knowledge of the governance of the state’s higher education system.   

“You're talking about overlapping statutory and constitutional provisions; you're talking about 156 years of history; you're talking about decades and decades of different scandals and court cases,” Anderson said. “How can I say, ‘remove the regents out of the Constitution’ without saying remove the regents? It's not just saying, 'do you like solar power or do you like voting rights?'”

Regent Jason Geddes, a longtime regent and vocal critic of Question 1, agreed that voters “struggled to understand what the implications were,” but added that some voters may have been turned off by the possibility that Question 1 could have led to appointed, rather than elected, regents.  

“I think that Nevada citizens will— have always been resistant to taking away the right to vote for their representatives,” Geddes said.

Geddes’ argument was one often discussed in the context of Question 1 — but never in direct relation to the question itself, which did not deal with the election of the board. 

Anderson has been dismissive of any such concerns, though, having worked to quash a legislative effort that would have reduced the number of regents and created a mixed appointed-elected board. He says it is a “separate question,” and that there are those opposed to Question 1 — most notably former Chancellor Thom Reilly — who did favor a mixed appointed-elected board. 

What was not a likely driver of the result on Question 1 — despite county-by-county results that saw Clark County embrace the question and the rest of the state reject it — were any lingering regional splits on the issue of overseeing higher education. Nevada has long been characterized by a North-South divide, and the history of its higher education system — where the “rebels” of UNLV only secured autonomy from UNR in 1968 — is no exception. 

But those involved with the Question 1 campaigns say they saw no regional split in and among the groups or people involved with its drafting, whether legislators who voted for it or faculty, students, administrators or politicians who ultimately sided one way or the other. 

“We didn't have a partisan problem, when people got our message,” Anderson said. “And we didn't have a regional problem in Washoe, when people got our message. If you look at the way that the late breaking votes went, including in Washoe County, for your same-day registrants, you know, people who got more exposure to our message, we wouldn't have seen a regional problem.” 

What happens next

The failure of Question 1 will mean little in the short term, with the status quo — a Board of Regents enshrined in the Nevada Constitution — preserved until another constitutional amendment can be proposed. 

But the failure comes at a key crossroads for both the state’s higher education system and the Legislature, which will meet early next year to make hard choices about the state’s financial future. 

After the pandemic-driven shutdowns of the spring crushed state revenues, lawmakers cut more than $1.2 billion from the state’s budget during a special session this summer, including more than $135 million from the Nevada System of Higher Education’s budget. 

Now, as the pandemic drags on and complicates Nevada’s economic recovery, the outlook for the next fiscal biennium is no less bleak than it was over the summer. Gov. Steve Sisolak asked state agencies this month to prepare for budget reductions of 12 percent for 2021-2023, and regents have already begun exploring possibilities for additional operational cuts.

For Anderson, the lack of any meaningful oversight mechanism outside the power of the purse has left the Legislature in a “vacuum” that lacks the legal and legislative tools that have kept other state agencies in check. 

“I think that there really isn't any good, clean, elegant way for the Legislature to hold the Board of Regents accountable,” Anderson said. “And so it's essentially voters-or-bust right now.”

Still, Anderson, who left the Legislature following the 2017 session, said he hopes the tight margin on Question 1 “puts them on better behavior.”

“Although we lost, there were a substantial amount of people who also voted for this as well. This wasn't like a 70-30 result, it was a very close result,” Anderson said. “So if I were the Board of Regents, I would be uncharacteristically accountable.”

Geddes, speaking from his own experience as a regent, countered that the board has asked what more the Legislature wants, and has received few clear answers in return. 

“The question that we posed last two sessions was, what more do you want? What does accountability mean to you? What specific things do you want as an outcome? And really, in the conversations, it was, ‘we'll wait for Q1 to pass and then we'll have a discussion as to what that means,’” Geddes said. “So I'm hoping, I mean, I know it failed, but I'm hoping that we can have the discussion as to what that means.”

Chancellor Melody Rose — a longtime Oregon educator and administrator who stepped into the system’s top job this summer — said in a statement to The Nevada Independent that she is “dedicated to building relationships with all stakeholders.”

“While the ballot measure narrowly failed, some of the concerns driving the measure remain. Already I am meeting with Question 1 sponsors to listen to their concerns and suggestions. I am also meeting with legislators in an effort to improve NSHE’s transparency and accountability,” Rose said. “NSHE continues to make progress in this regard, but our work is never done as we strive to meet the higher education needs of all Nevadans.”

The Indy Explains: Question 1, a measure that would strike the Board of Regents from the Constitution

The Nevada Legislature building

Question 1: The Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment

Formal name: Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 (79th Session)

Type of measure: Legislatively referred constitutional amendment

Groups organized: Yes on 1 for Higher Education

Other groups in favor: Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Nevada AFL-CIO

Summary of what it does: Question 1 would remove language including the Board of Regents from Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, instead requiring the Legislature to provide by law for the “governance, control, and management and the reasonable protection of individual academic freedom.” The amendment would also clarify certain legal provisions related to money provided by federal land grant funds provided as part of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, in part by updating the state’s legal language to match congressional amendments made in the time since and by removing references to the Board of Regents.  

What other states have done: Governance structures for higher education systems vary widely from state to state, but Nevada is among 29 states that utilize a single administrative board tasked with overseeing all higher education institutions across the state. Among those states, Nevada is the only one that elects all its regents through a general election. Most others, in part or in full, rely on appointments by their respective governors or legislatures. 

Arguments for passing Question 1: Proponents of Question 1 — a broad coalition of ex-legislators, business interests and some students and faculty — have claimed the measure is a necessary reform that will provide greater legislative oversight, and therefore greater accountability, over the Board of Regents. 

Formally citing legal cases from 1948 and 1981 and informally pointing to incidents such as a funding formula controversy under former Chancellor Dan Klaich, those in favor of Question 1 charge that past regents or chancellors too often use their “antiquated” constitutional status as a legal shield for bad behavior. 

“The regents have not made their case of why they think they’re better at holding themselves accountable than the rest of us,” Elliot Anderson, a former assemblyman and the author of AJR5, said. “Because in the rest of American government, no one gets this special protection from accountability — only the regents do.”

In testifying for the measure in 2019, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse told lawmakers that the change was a direct response to “events of the past several years,” including efforts by NSHE to “control, alter or misrepresent” information presented to the Legislature. 

Though not explicit, Woodhouse’s testimony is a likely reference to an incident in 2012 in which Klaich and other higher education officials allegedly drafted a letter to legislators under a consultant’s letterhead, an act that lawmakers both then and now say was a deliberate attempt to mislead and obfuscate the high-stakes process of revamping the system’s byzantine funding formula.

Originally revealed through a public records request by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016, Klaich later denied any wrongdoing and said emails construed by the RJ as malicious were intended as jokes. In a written statement later delivered to regents before his resignation, Klaich said that, though he was involved in drafting the letter, the final language was still approved by consultants before being sent to the legislative committee in question.

Anderson also stressed that the measure would not put the Legislature “in control,” of higher education — something implied by some regents during a board meeting in July. He said that, under a regulatory scheme created through Question 1, Regents would still handle regular administration of the higher education system, while the Legislature instead ensures the board remains subject to the “checks and balances and the law just like every other agency.”

“You know, the Legislature is imperfect and the Board of Regents is imperfect,” Anderson said. “And the whole idea is that imperfect, by the government, is supposed to be able to hold each other accountable and check and balance each other.” 

Also criticizing the elected nature of the Board of Regents and a lack of nimbleness and adaptability, the Yes on 1 campaign has claimed that the amendment will modernize the higher education system and “help us save taxpayer dollars from waste,” specifically taking aim at a $26 million administrative budget and a six-figure salary for new Chancellor Melody Rose. 

However, that budget figure is likely misleading, according to NSHE administrators, as it includes nearly $19 million budgeted for the so-called “system computing center,” which covers human resources, accounting and other software used by all NSHE institutions. 

There is also the issue — or in the view of some Yes-on-1 proponents, the non-issue — of what comes next should voters ultimately approve the amendment. 

The ballot question proposes no policy changes outside pulling the board from the Constitution. But Chet Burton, former NSHE CFO and former president of Western Nevada College, argued the lack of specificity provided flexibility on those specifics later down the line, adding that a vote against Question 1 was “approving the status quo.” 

“A lot of people don't know what the final product will look like,” Burton said. “But I think that at least it gives us the opportunity to put together a working group and bring the best minds together and look at how other states handle it.”

Arguments against passing Question 1: Though there are no formal or organized opponents to Question 1, several regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly vocally opposed the measure as it worked its way through the Legislature. In public testimony and in interviews with The Nevada Independent, these critics say Question 1 does little in the way of furthering educational outcomes for students or otherwise improving higher education governance in the state. 

“How will this make the system better for students?” Reilly asked The Nevada Independent. “How will that advance our graduation rates and retention rates in our research portfolio in our workforce force output? No one has been able to answer that. So if we're going to do a pretty significant change in governance, there should be a better articulation about how that's going to advance the system.”

Reilly also cast doubt on the prospect that placing higher education in the realm of any other state agency would make it more efficient or “nimble,” calling it instead “extremely bureaucratic and onerous.” Pointing specifically to the “multiple levels of bureaucracy” required by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee for state agencies, he said specifically that the direct distribution of coronavirus relief dollars earlier this year by NSHE “can never happen in the state” if the system operated like an agency.

Regent Trevor Hayes, likewise, called the measure a “classic example of a solution in search of a problem” and Regent Laura Perkins raised doubts about the lack of any clear definition for policies that could result from Question 1’s passage. 

“I see it as trying to build the plane while you’re flying it,” Perkins said. “There’s no numbers or positive proof that the system that may or may not come out of this is better than the system that we have now.”

Opponents have also claimed that Question 1 represents a legal backdoor that would allow the Legislature to do away — either in part or in full — with elected regents.  

Regent Jason Geddes, among the longest-serving regents on the board, pointed to SB354 — a failed 2019 bill that would have reduced the number of regents to nine, including four gubernatorial appointees — as evidence of a broader legislative end-game.

In his view, Geddes said that the elected nature of regents under the current constitutional structure — one that he believes is ultimately responsive to constituents — could not be recreated under the framework laid out by SB354, or theoretically allowed by Question 1.

“Right now there's 13 of us, we represent just shy of 300,000 people,” Geddes said. “And we drop it down to nine, and we actually would only have five representing the entire populace of the state — it's pretty much a congressional district for a part time, $80-a-[meeting] job. It just gets difficult to represent that many people kind of over the years.”

Though SB354 was passed in the Senate by a 15-6 margin, the measure was controversial and found little support in the Assembly, where it died in committee. 

Even now, not all proponents of Question 1 agree on the question of an appointed board. That includes Anderson, who worked to quash that bill and called the issue a “separate question” and a “kind of a fiction that is presented for the benefit of the public.”

Though no faculty group has as-yet taken a formal position on Question 1, some Nevada faculty have vocalized past concerns that the amendment may not adequately protect academic freedom.

In a letter sent to lawmakers during deliberations on AJR5 in 2019, the Nevada Faculty Alliance listed at least eight instances in which political pressure was used to influence the nature of appointed higher education governing bodies, including a 2016 move by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to oust trustees and the president at the University of Louisville.

But some faculty proponents have otherwise downplayed the issue, countering that Question 1 would, to the contrary, expand protections for academic freedom through placing such protections directly into the state Constitution. 

How did Question 1 qualify for the ballot? As a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, Question 1 was overwhelmingly — though not unanimously — approved by two successive legislative sessions as Assembly Joint Resolution 5. First introduced in 2017, AJR5 was passed 38-4 in the Assembly and 18-2 in the Senate. In its second run through the Legislature in 2019, the measure was approved by margins of 36-5 in the Assembly and 20-0 in the Senate. 

Primary funders: A PAC formed in support of Question 1, Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, reported raising $115,500 through the second quarter of 2020. Nearly all of that money, $105,000, came in two contributions from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit helmed by Maureen Schafer, the former chief of staff for the UNLV Medical School. First formed in 2006, the Council for a Better Nevada in part funded a 2014 effort to create a Nevada Court of Appeals and the 2016 gun background checks initiative

The remainder of the PAC’s fundraising came from a $10,000 contribution from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and $500 from Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign committee. 

Through the second quarter, the PAC reported spending $87,500, of which nearly half — $40,000 — went to the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster with a long history of polling Nevada races. (The firm has also done polling for The Nevada Independent.) The PAC also spent another $30,000 on California-based firm Winner and Mandabach, which advertises itself as a specialist in the realm of ballot-measure campaigns.  

Financial impact: Cannot be determined. Because Question 1 would likely lead to legislative changes to NSHE and its administrative structure, an analysis by the state could not determine a financial impact of the measure without knowing what, precisely, those changes would entail. 

Status: The measure was approved by legislators in both the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, leaving November’s vote as the only hurdle remaining before the amendment would take effect. 

For more breakdowns of ballot measures, laws or other complex topics, check out other Indy explainers here.

Correction, 9/7/20 at 11:59 a.m. — A quote from Regent Jason Geddes originally misstated the compensation for regents as "$80-a-day." Regents actually receive $80 per meeting, with four quarterly meetings scheduled per year.

Updated, 9/9/20 at 10:32 a.m. — This story was updated to include an endorsement of Question 1 by the Nevada AFL-CIO announced on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

Follow the Money: Campaign finance reports show GOP edges in key Assembly races, tight contests in State Senate

Front of the Nevada Legislature building at night

A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.

Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.

Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020. 

Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.

Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.

Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.

And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.

Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).

On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session. 

Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:

Major state Senate races

Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.

A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.

Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.

But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.

Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).

Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.

Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.

But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.

Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.

Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.

Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.

In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.

Primary battles

One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.

Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.

But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each). 

Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.

Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.

Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.

He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc. 

Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.

Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.

Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.

Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.

Key Assembly races

Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).

But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.

In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.

But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.

A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.

Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.

But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.

Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.

Legislative leaders

Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).

Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.

Sisolak

Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees. 

Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.

The Indy Explains: The 2020 ballot measure that wants to strike the Board of Regents from the state Constitution

The Nevada Legislature building

For more than 155 years, Nevada’s elected Board of Regents have been enshrined as part of the state Constitution, core to the exercise of authority over the state’s higher education system. 

But for the next year, those constitutional privileges will hang in the balance, hinging on just what Nevada voters decide to do with a measure called the Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment, more often referred to by its shorthand: AJR5

AJR5, simply put, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents — which governs the state’s higher education system alongside the system’s chancellor — from Article 11 of the state Constitution, also called the “Education Article”. 

Instead, the regents would be placed under the purview of the Legislature through state statute, theoretically allowing legislators to reform and reshape the board in any way they deem fit.  

Lawmakers have argued that the measure would create additional means of supervision for the regents — sometimes characterized as the “fourth branch of government” — with the bill text explicitly calling out past attempts by regents to operate with “unchecked autonomy from legislative oversight.”

But critics, including the Board of Regents and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly, have charged that the proposal is a thinly veiled attempt at introducing non-elected regents to the board that will do little in the way of implementing more substantial reforms. 

As a constitutional amendment, AJR5 must pass through a five-year-long political gauntlet, requiring passage by two consecutive legislative sessions followed by approval by a vote of the people before taking effect.  

It cleared that first hurdle easily, passing through the Legislature with just six votes against across both the Assembly and the Senate. Things went similarly smoothly in 2019, when the lawmakers OK’d the bill with just five votes against in the Assembly and none in the Senate. 

The argument in favor

Testifying before the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee in February, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — one of two sponsors of AJR5, alongside former Democratic Assemblyman Elliot Anderson — told lawmakers the amendment was a direct response to “events of the past several years,” complaining that NSHE had sought to “control, alter or misrepresent” information presented to lawmakers before and during past legislative sessions. 

“[AJR 5] allows the Legislature to exercise unimpeded oversight of the Nevada System of Higher Education and allows more flexibility in considering reform proposals,” Woodhouse said in her testimony. “Constitutional governance serves as an antiquated way to oversee higher education, and Nevada is the only state with its entire system governed by a single elected board with constitutional status.”

And though Woodhouse also commended the regents and chancellor on steps made in the interim to address some legislator complaints, she added that policy makers ought to be concerned with “building systems of governance” over the “individual personalities” running the system. 

Another argument, this time made to the committee by Anderson, was that the framers of the Constitution only folded the regents into the document as a means to access federal resources from the Morrill Acts, which created more than 70 land-grant universities across the country, among them the University of Nevada, Reno. 

In the wake of the regents’ inclusion into constitutional language, Anderson told legislators the board has “regularly” sought to interpret that provision to mean it is “a fourth branch of government.” 

“We believe that constitutional status has created an insular culture, one that sometimes acts as though it cannot be touched,” Anderson said. “In its own legal briefs, the Board of Regents has argued that is has ‘virtual immunity’ from legislative acts.” 

Those legal briefs appear in the heart of the bill text, buried in references to two court cases which, per the quotes presented in the amendment, show a board of regents that has leaned on its constitutional authority as a means to eschew attempts at oversight by other branches of government. 

The first is the 1981 case Board of Regents v. Oakley, in which an ousted university professor, Chauncey W. Oakley, sued the regents for firing him under a newly-adopted policy that mandated tenured faculty retire at age 65. 

Even as Oakley contended that state law prohibited such a firing, the Board of Regents claimed that enforcement of the state law in question would violate its protections as a constitutionally distinct body and that its enshrinement in Article 11 provided “virtual autonomy and thus immunity.”

Though the Nevada Supreme Court rejected that argument, it did move to limit legislative control of the regents in the 1948 case King v. Board of Regents, also quoted in AJR5. There, arguments centered around the constitutionality of a legislatively created “Advisory Board of Regents,” or an all-appointed board meant to serve with “all the rights and privileges” of the regularly elected board but that would not have a “determining” vote for itself. 

In a lengthy, complex ruling, the high court ruled that the law ultimately circumvented the intent of the Framers to place power over higher education in the hands of elected regents, saying in particular that the Legislature was prevented from implementing any law that “interferes with the Board’s essential management and control of the University.”

The argument against

Since its inception in 2017, the measure has been staunchly opposed by NSHE, the Board of Regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly, who all have complained that proponents have not adequately explained how a removal of the regents from the Constitution would address problems within the state’s higher education system in a way normal legislation would not. 

“At the end of the day, when people come to us they're getting their degree, which I think is a central purpose of higher education,” Reilly said. “So, you look at AJR 5, I'm not sure how it advances that. For good, bad or indifferent, the founders of the state of Nevada expressly intended that higher education in Nevada be governed by a board of regents that is separate in the state Constitution.”

In particular, Reilly took issue with the Legislature’s use of the decades-old Oakley and King cases — more than 38 and 71 years old, respectively — as justifications for additional oversight, especially in light of the legislature’s existing power over higher education budgets. 

“They have the ultimate control, because they approve our budgets, they control our purse strings,” Reilly said. “We have to go to the Legislature in order to deal with our entire budget cycle. So I'm not sure, at the end of the day, does it help us increase the number of students who access our education? Does it help us ensuring when individuals come to us they actually graduate? I'm not sure.”

Instead of oversight, critics — including Reilly — charge that AJR5 clearly points to the start of a process by which at least some members of the board are appointed rather than elected. 

For Board Chairman Jason Geddes, the “only thing” AJR5 looks set to do is pull the regents from the Constitution “so [the Legislature] can change the composition of the board.”

“The board is responsible to the electorate, we oversee education and we go out and we have to stand up for election and reelection in our respective districts and I think it's worked,” Geddes said of the elected board. “We have two R-1 universities, we have the Desert Research Institute, and I think we've been serving the needs of higher education in Nevada. So I'm not sure what's broken about it.”

During her legislative testimony, Woodhouse stressed that the measure does nothing to adjust or alter the actual functions of the board, but rather puts the body “on par with every other governing board and state agency created pursuant to statute.”

In the same breath, Woodhouse also pointed to the function of Chapter 396 of the Nevada Revised Statutes, or the collection of laws which govern the state’s higher education system, as a preservation board’s existing structure — including mandated elections. 

Woodhouse also sponsored another bill, SB354, which would reduce the board from 13 members down to nine should AJR5 receive the voters’ stamp of approval. And among those nine regents, just five would be elected, with the remaining four being appointed by the governor. 

Though that bill was passed out of the Senate by a 15-6 vote, it found little support in the Assembly and died quickly in committee — casting doubt on the possible success of such efforts in the future. 

The lay of the land

In the meantime, about one year remains before AJR5 hits the ballot. 

NSHE will move through at least the early part of the 2020 calendar year with a persistent vacuum among the system’s top jobs. UNLV has been without a permanent university president since 2018, following the sudden resignation of then-President Len Jessup amid tensions with Reilly and the Board of Regents; UNR’s President Marc Johnson announced earlier this year he would be stepping down at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year; and Reilly will bow out of the chancellor’s office when his contract expires next August. 

Reilly said all those jobs will be filled by next summer, with the search for a new UNR president looking to start soon and the hunt for a UNLV president and new chancellor already underway. 

Even so, the intervening discussion on AJR5 has created an air of uncertainty around the state’s higher education system, in some ways casting a shadow on the ongoing searches to fill the system’s top jobs. 

According to Geddes, however, such problems are hardly unique to Nevada. 

Every state has issues,” Geddes said. “Our issues aren't nearly as bad as Alaska or New Mexico. So I think it's a matter of what the candidates think is manageable or not manageable.”

For now, the limbo will continue until Nov. 3, 2020. 

Public careers, private lives: Part-time lawmakers must navigate inevitable conflicts

Every two years for four months, 63 lawmakers travel from all corners of Nevada where they meet as members of a part-time, citizen Legislature.

Most leave behind spouses, children, and careers, but bring a rich diversity of experiences — and, sometimes, conflicts — from back home.

Nevada’s lawmakers are tasked with squeezing two years’ worth of legislative business — including approving an $8.9 billion budget — into 120 days. Nevada is one of only four states with a Legislature that meets every other year; the other 46 have annual sessions.

The benefit of a citizen legislature, at least in theory, is that lawmakers bring a variety of career and life experiences to the lawmaking process; unlike career politicians, they must live with the laws they create when they return. The reality is more complicated.

“I think that’s the ideal, but unfortunately I think what has become of the citizen Legislature … [is] only people who have the ability to actually serve, versus maybe the most qualified people to serve,” said Democratic former Assemblyman Justin Watkins, adding that the peculiarity of Nevada’s system “results in people that have an idea towards a career in politics, not a career that they then apply into politics.”

And then there are conflicts of interest. Doctors, for example, may bring a wealth of real-world knowledge to the table when it comes to crafting health-care policy, but also create laws that could directly benefit them in their line of work.

The short session, coupled with the facts that lawmakers are relatively inexperienced compared to those in decades past and have limited staff, pushes off a significant amount of power to Nevada’s full-time governor and lobbyists who roam the halls of the Legislature.

Although they understand the ideal of laypeople making up the Legislature, some former lawmakers say they’d prefer the role was full-time so they could give it their all.

“It would be easier honestly if it was a job,” said former independent state Sen. Patricia Farley, “so if you went and did it, it was your profession.”

Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray with her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Careers and conflicts

In Nevada, the Legislature is often an entry-level job. Politicians typically get their start in the Legislature and later run for the Las Vegas City Council or the Clark County Commission, positions that represent a larger number of constituents than does a state Assembly or Senate seat.

“In most any other state you would leave, say, the City Council and run for the Legislature,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department.

Although the part-time model is attractive because it doesn’t involve full-time professional politicians, the reality is not always so rosy. Lawmakers’ day jobs mean the Legislature is rife with conflicts of interest. While lawmakers typically disclose obvious conflicts of interest on legislation, they only sometimes abstain from voting.

This session, Democratic Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and another employee of Southern Nevada’s most powerful prosecutor, Democrat Melanie Scheible, will sit on it. The committee will deal with issues that their boss, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, has expressed clear positions on: the death penalty and Marsy’s Law, for example.

Two Republican doctors, Sen. Joe Hardy and Assemblywoman Robin Titus, will again join legislative health committees and deal with bills that will affect their day-to-day operations — such as ones regulating opioid prescriptions.

And two Democratic educators, Brittney Miller and Selena Torres, will be members of the Assembly Education Committee. They’ll bring with them a wealth of subject-specific knowledge, but also potential conflicts as they vote on bills that will directly affect their day jobs — including a budget that gives them raises.

There will also be less obvious potential conflicts. For instance, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is director of client relations for the lobbying firm McDonald Carano, which is already slated to represent dozens of clients this session ranging from a water authority to two medicine boards.

Some lawmakers will also continue to hold jobs in state and local government as they serve in the Legislature, something that has been a legal point of contention over the years. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has been outspoken on the topic, argues that all public employees are members of the executive branch and that also serving in the Legislature violates the separation of powers principle.

“The nice thing about a citizen legislature is you have people who really have to live under the rules they are then creating. You don’t have an elitist class that then gets to impose rules and exempt themselves,” NPRI spokesman Michael Schaus said. “Of course that benefit kind of goes out of the door when you do have people who are part of the government.”

NPRI filed a lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Heidi Gansert last session for working as the University of Nevada, Reno’s executive director of external relations. Schaus said that the plaintiff in the case — a man who said that he believed he would be able to fill Gansert’s position were she not occupying it — decided not to go through with an appeal after a lower court dismissed the case.

This session, more than a dozen lawmakers will work for state or local agencies or are retired public employees drawing government pensions. That group includes state Sen. Dallas Harris, an administrative attorney with the Public Utilities Commission; Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, a Reno firefighter; and state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a retired public educator.

Though NPRI takes particular exception to public employees serving in the Legislature because of the power that executive branch wields, others argue that it’s no different than the conflicts created by those in private business.

“You do have government workers who get conservatives all upset,” Herzik said. “Meanwhile, they have no problem with the head of the builders association down south, or Mark Amodei, who was in the Senate and [president] of the mining association.”

Children at the Nevada Legislature on March 9, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The citizen legislature

The challenges posed by a citizen, part-time Legislature today weren’t as apparent when Nevada’s Constitution was drafted in 1864. By 1870, the population was only a little more than 42,000 — most of it in Northern Nevada — and state government was a more limited affair.

“Certainly it was the intention of the Nevada founders to have a really limited legislative body, and, for easily 100 years, it wasn’t an issue,” Herzik said. “Nevada had an incredibly small population. Prior to World War II, it was overwhelmingly concentrated in the northern part of the state. Government didn’t do much anyway.”

That changed over the decades as Southern Nevada’s population surpassed Northern Nevada’s. Today, nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s lawmakers hail from the Las Vegas Valley and make the trek to Carson City every other year for the legislative session.

Those from Elko and Pahrump face similar travel difficulties, and even the 30-minute drive from Reno or Sparks can take its toll on Northern Nevada legislators, especially after long days or in bad weather.

Some lawmakers choose to move their families up with them for the legislative session. After much research into schools and housing, Watkins brought up his wife and two daughters — then in 2nd grade and preschool — for the 2017 session.

The family approached it as an adventure, taking advantage of the weekends to visit historic Virginia City and San Francisco and learn to ski. But with his girls getting older and school demands growing, he realized the toll that all the moving would take on their academic performance.

“In a nutshell, that’s the reason that I didn’t run for re-election,” he said. “Whatever challenges we faced with my daughter in 2nd grade, we thought that they were only going to be amplified for a 3rd and 1st grader.”

Other lawmakers shell out hundreds of dollars each weekend on flights home to Las Vegas, though doing so becomes increasingly difficult as the session progresses with committee hearings that stretch into the weekends. For lawmakers with kids at home, that may mean missing important milestones.

“There was a legislator who missed his daughter’s prom because — think about when proms are — they’re closing out the budget and whatnot. He couldn’t get the flight home,” Herzik said. “There’s a terrific burden on these people.”

Watkins said he wouldn’t have considered serving in the first place if he had to live apart from his family — having them with him helped strike a healthier work-life balance.

“I don’t fault anybody who does and I think in all honesty you may be a more effective legislator if you don’t relocate with your family. But just who I am as a person, I just can’t,” said Watkins, who has no plans to return to the Legislature. “If my family had stayed in Vegas, I think that the amount of time I offer to each of those aspects of my life would have been unequal in a way that would have been harmful either to my business or to my relationship with my kids.”

Watkins said his situation was easier because he owns his own law firm. It’s more complicated for people who have to seek permission from an employer and might forgo career advancement for years as they invest in their legislative work.

“Imagine going into an employer and saying, ‘Hey, I really want this job I’m passionate about it but I’m going to leave for four months every two years,” said Elliot Anderson, a former Democratic lawmaker who did not run for re-election and instead is focusing on his legal career, with plans to clerk for a Nevada Supreme Court justice in the fall. “It’s not a recipe for success.”

Farley said it was a struggle to balance her legislative duties with her responsibilities as both a single mom and a construction business owner. As she raced out of drawn-out afternoon committee hearings to pick up her daughters from school or fretted whether the babysitter could keep watching the girls when floor sessions dragged past midnight, she also had to make payroll.

"For me, every decision I make, I have 60 families that could pay ... the ultimate price for that," she said. "I was not only doing legislative [work], but after that I had to look at receivables and payrolls and paychecks, or somebody hit somebody with a trailer. And my business wasn’t benefitting me from being there."

Assemblywoman Amber Joiner and her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmaker pay

Lawmakers are paid $150 for each of the first 60 days of the 120-day session, plus a $140 per diem allowance meant to cover housing, food and other living expenses. In all, that’s just short of $17,000 over a four-month session.

The financial arrangement is what has deterred former congressional candidate John Anzalone from seeking election to the Legislature. The pay doesn’t match what Anzalone makes as a high school principal in Las Vegas, which he said would put a burden on his young family. He would need to take an unpaid leave of absence from the school district to serve as a state lawmaker.

There are also calendar-related challenges. The session runs through early June, meaning Anzalone would miss a critical chunk of the academic year that includes springtime testing and high school graduation. Anzalone said he’s not sure how parents would feel about an absentee principal.

“Yes, in a way you’re working for a greater good, but on the other hand, people want to speak to the principal,” he said.

Nevada’s Legislature is technically part time, but with interim committees meeting throughout the off-season, political observers note that the lawmakers who treat it as a full-time job typically wield the most power.

“Instead of being a more democratic institution, you often have power concentrated in one or two leading legislators because they treat it as a full-time job,” Herzik said.

That’s why the Legislature has a high concentration of lawmakers with more flexible schedules, including retirees, small business owners and lawyers, whose firms are sometimes more than happy to boast that they have a legislator on staff. Others try but find that being a member of the Legislature just isn’t feasible.

“You’ve seen folks like Elliot [Anderson] and Amber [Joiner] and [Justin] Watkins and those folks who you’d think, ‘These are people I’d like to be legislators,’” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “It just wasn’t workable for them. People, they try. But it really affects who can do it.”

Money committee chairs Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, left, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse on May 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Turnover in the Legislature

The difficulties associated with being a lawmaker contribute to the high turnover in the Legislature, a problem exacerbated when voters approved term limits in 1998. Since the limits kicked into effect in 2010 and capped service at 12 years in each house, Nevada has had between 15 to 21 freshman lawmakers join each session. This year, there are 17 out of 63, or 27 percent.

On the flip side, term limits have helped boost diversity within the Legislature. Nevada became the first state last year to have a female-majority Legislature and more than a third of lawmakers are people of color.

“We know that term limits obviously bring in new people, and I don’t think you can dispute how that’s transformed the Legislature in terms of the increased number of women and minorities,” Damore said. “That wouldn’t have happened with term limits.”

But turnover has also decreased the institutional knowledge within the Legislature. Democratic state Sen. David Parks, who is beginning his 12th legislative session, is term-limited and cannot run for re-election to the Senate in 2020. Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who heads the budget committee, is on her 11th session — she ran for her current office after being term-limited in the Senate but will be term-limited in the Assembly after the 2020 election.

Although 17 lawmakers are just beginning their first terms, another 16 are only on their second. That lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers gives veteran lobbyists and the executive branch an upper hand. Lawmakers typically rely on a single staff member, known as an attaché, for day-to-day help, and lean on their caucus’ staff for additional support.

“The governor controls all the data and all the agencies. It really strengthens the governor,” Herzik said. “What we do know in political science is the Nevada governor is not that strong on paper, but in practice he really is.”

Will it ever change?

Proponents of more frequent legislative sessions say it would raise the profile of the Legislature, giving the “people’s branch” more power instead of ceding it to the executive or judicial branches that can act year-round. Opponents say the biennial format keeps costs down, serves as a check on hasty decision-making and allows breathing room between sessions in which to study issues.

“[The Legislative Counsel Bureau] ramps up, like they’re ramping up now, hiring temporary administrative assistants, hiring more analysts and their people are earning overtime like no other,” Herzik said. “But if you went to a more professional yearly legislature, those positions would become permanent and that’s an increased cost and that’s real hard to sell in Nevada.”

A more palatable solution than an annual session might be changing the session to include 120 working days, rather than calendar days, and splitting it into one 90-day session and a shorter 30-day session in the off year — as a proposed constitutional amendment recommended last year. Another suggestion is tying legislator pay to the median income for Nevadans in an effort to help recruit and maintain a diverse pool of lawmakers.

Anderson would like to see the state paying lawmakers a base, year-round salary —  at least $60,000 a year — and health benefits, then prohibiting them from holding outside employment. That would allow lawmakers to delve more deeply into the issues they’ll work on during the session, and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Watkins said he’s not bothered by the pay arrangement, but he wishes the legislative session corresponded more with the school year to ease the burden on parents. His proposal is having a 60-day session in Las Vegas one year, and a 60- or 90-day session the next year in Carson City, where summer weather is far more bearable than in Southern Nevada.

But with any major changes in the legislative structure far off at best, today’s politicians will continue to make the tough decision between pursuing what could be meaningful and impactful public service in the Legislature, and their goals for their personal and professional lives.

"It was difficult to choose between something that sometimes was the most fulfilling part of your life," Anderson said, but "when you realize it’s affecting your ability to save up for retirement, when it affects your ability to have health insurance, when it affects your ability to have a family … you really have to focus on the numbers and sense.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

Elliot Anderson

INDY FAST FACTS
Elliot Anderson

Job: Assemblyman, District 15 
Party: Democratic
In current office: 2010-present
Birth year: 1982
Education:
University of Nevada, Las Vegas (B.A.)
University of Nevada, Las Vegas (J.D.)